Communicating Constructively

In a Nutshell
        Constructive communication preserves a positive relationship between communicators while addressing problems.  When coaching or counseling an employee who has a negative attitude, a personality conflict with a coworker or hasn't performed up to expectations, the risk of putting the employee on the defensive is very high.  In response, many managers decide not to bother worrying about feelings, and just take a "hard-nosed" approach.  Many other managers avoid confronting problems entirely.  A better approach to these situations is addressing the issue while using the attributes of constructive communication.
        Constructive communication makes managers more effective at coaching and counseling by reducing defensiveness.  Subordinates often react defensively if they feel they are being punished or threatened by the communication.  When subordinates react defensively, they devote attention to identifying counterarguments rather than listening.  Therefore, communication is more productive when it is done constructively.

In This Issue

The Eight Attributes of Constructive Communication
        The photo above is of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Woody Williams, center, talking with pitching coach Dave Duncan, left, and catcher Mike Matheny.  The Cardinals were losing at the time.  Constructive communication is very helpful when coaching or counseling a member of your staff.  A poorly handled discussion of a staff member's performance can easily lead to defensiveness and even outright rejection of any suggestions for improvement.
        Problem oriented, not person oriented.  Problem-oriented communication focuses on a problem that can be solved rather than the person who is responsible for the problem.  An example of problem-oriented communication is if a coach were to tell a pitcher, "The best way to get ahead in the count is by throwing a first-pitch fastball."  On the other hand, an example of person-oriented communication would be, "You've been throwing too many first-pitch breaking balls."  Person-oriented communication puts the listener on the defensive and focuses the attention on blame rather than on avoiding or solving future problems.
        Congruent, not incongruent.  Congruent communication conveys what the speaker is thinking and feeling.  There are definitely situations where discretion is a more appropriate choice than full disclosure of what we think and feel.  However, in most communication situations, we communicate more effectively when we're candid.  If we aren't honest, listeners won't trust what we say.  A common example of incongruent communication is saying that "it's no big deal" or "I don't mind" when you are in fact discussing an important issue.  We're constructive when we use congruent communication because we're giving the other party the truth rather than misleading them.
        Descriptive, not evaluative.  Evaluative communication expresses judgment of the listener, or his or her actions.  To be an effective constructive communicator, we should objectively describe problems rather than speak in an evaluative manner.  An example of a blatantly evaluative statement would be, "It's stupid to throw so many first pitch breaking balls."  Evaluative communication puts the listener on the defensive.  It's more descriptive and therefore more constructive to say, "You'll have more success if you consistently get your first pitch over for a strike."
        Validating, not invalidating.  Validating communication helps people feel understood, valued, and accepted.  In contrast, invalidating communication treats people as if they are ignored, worthless, or alienated.  Invalidating communication is superiority-oriented, rigid, impervious and/or indifferent.  For instance, consider the following examples of possible invalidating responses to the catcher's statement, "I thought it would be a good idea to call a lot of breaking balls today because they had trouble hitting them last night."

        Validating communication avoids treating the listener like a lesser person or being inflexible, impervious or indifferent.  Validating communication shows respect for the other party's thoughts and feelings, even when there's disagreement.  One of the most effective ways of doing that is by finding a point of agreement.  For instance, the coach could have said, "Yes, it definitely does make sense to throw breaking balls today.  But, the breaking balls will be even more effective if you get ahead in the count first."
        Specific, not global.  There are two key drawbacks to global statements of problems; they're often too large to be resolved and they tend to oversimplify and misrepresent problems.  For instance, if the coach were to say to the catcher, "You're calling all the wrong pitches," the comment is too general to be accurate and helpful.  First, even if the catcher is having a bad game, some of the pitches must be right, even if that's just by coincidence.  So, that global statement is wrong, and that kind of inaccuracy adds fuel to the defensiveness.  Second, it doesn't tell the catcher what he should do to improve.  Maybe he can figure it out, but a more specific statement would explain what the coach expects in the future.  A more specific statement would be, "In order to get ahead in the count, we need to have our pitchers throw more first pitch fastballs."
        Conjunctive, not disjunctive.  Disjunctive communication takes at least three forms; not letting the other party speak, long pauses, and switching topics.  Disjunctive communication can result in the other party thinking that their input is not being considered.
        Owned, not disowned.  When we "own" our communication, we take responsibility for our statements and acknowledge that we are the source of the ideas conveyed and not someone else.  We "disown" communication when we search for third parties to attribute our comments to.  For instance, if the coach would have said, "The manager wants you to call more first pitch fastballs," he would have disowned the communication.  We have more respect for a person who will be accountable for the requests they make.
        Listening, not one-way message delivery.  As last week's newsletter explains, effective listening is actively absorbing the information given to you by a speaker, showing that you are listening and interested, and providing feedback to the speaker so that he or she knows the message was received.  Effective listening is often taken for granted, but it's a valuable managerial tool.

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Practicing This Management Skill
        Since this topic is so similar to last week's, listening effectively, the steps for practicing communicating constructively are very similar.  To practice communicating constructively, plan to use the attribute of constructive communication that you think you need to improve the most (e.g., descriptive, not evaluative).  Then, after you have a conversation, evaluate how effective you were at applying the attributes of constructive communication.  Identify what went well and where the opportunities for improvement are.  Think about what the challenges to communicating constructively were and how you can deal with those challenges more effectively next time.
        Making a tape recording of a conversation can help you evaluate your performance.  With a tape of a conversation, you can examine each attribute of constructive communication in detail, without relying on your memory.

        Whetten, D. A., & Cameron, K. S.  (2002).  Developing management skills, (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

About the Photo
        AP Photo/Al Behrman: e-mailed to me from Yahoo! News;

About the Newsletter and Subscriptions
        LeaderLetter is written by Dr. Scott Williams, Department of Management, Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.  It is a supplement to my MBA 751 - Managing People in Organizations class.  It is intended to reinforce the course concepts and maintain communication among my former MBA 751 students, but anyone is welcome to subscribe.  In addition, subscribers are welcome to forward this newsletter to anyone who they believe would have an interest in it.  To subscribe, simply send an e-mail message to me requesting subscription.  Of course, subscriptions to the newsletter are free.  To unsubscribe, e-mail a reply indicating that you would like to unsubscribe.

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E-mail Your Comments
        Whether you are one of my former students or not, I invite you to share any insights or concerns you have regarding the topic of this newsletter or any other topic relating to management skills.  Please e-mail them to me.  Our interactions have been invaluable.  Every week, I learn something new from LeaderLetter subscribers!  Let's keep the conversation going.

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