Clarity Break™ Thoughts for Entrepreneurial Leaders

Are You a Great Communicator with Your Direct Reports?

The objective of this Clarity Break is to help you greatly improve your communication skills as a leader and manager. As you may know, I’ve just released a new book, How To Be A Great Boss, with co-author René Boer. I’m excited to say that it was a #1 new release on Amazon. The purpose and inspiration behind the book is that there is a desperate need for a simple, practical guide to help the leaders and managers of small businesses master their craft. And, many leadership and management books twist people into knots getting them to believe they have to be 100 different things to be great, and that’s just not true. In our new book we share The Five Leadership Practices and The Five Management Practices of great bosses. 

In this Clarity Break the focus is on Management Practice number 2, which is Communicating Well. And, I’m going to give you a few methods for being a great communicator. 

Good communication with your direct report is vital. It’s also a two-way street. Unfortunately, many bosses often assume they’re communicating well with their direct reports because their people don’t openly challenge or disagree with them. 

A great litmus test to determine if you are communicating well is that you and your direct report always know what is on each other’s mind. There are no assumptions in the relationship. You should never assume what people are thinking. Just ask! Too many managers are just afraid to ask. They see a curious look on someone’s face and they fail to ask, “What’s up?” They make assumptions rather than trying to understand what that look truly means. When you think about it, many of the conversations you hear around the office are assumptions. Here are four methods that have helped great bosses eliminate assumptions and greatly improve their communication:  

1. Question-to-Statement Ratio 

A great communication discipline is to monitor your question-to-statement ratio when having a conversation with your direct reports. If you’re like most managers, you do most of the talking. Frankly, this one-way-street behavior needsto change. Your job is to ensure that the dialogue is 80/20, where your direct report is doing 80 percent of the talking and you’re doing 20 percent. The only way to make that happen is to ask questions instead of making statements. 

Ask “who, what, where, why and when” questions. The typical manager, when presented with a problem or a question, makes statements such as, “You should have done this…” or “Don’t do that…” You’ll be amazed what happens when an issue or question is brought to you, and instead of making a “You should have…” statement, you ask the person a question along the lines of, “Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently next time? Or, “What would you do?” Get them to answer the question or solve their own problem. They’ll become more independent. The more they talk, the more they will convince themselves they can handle their own issues. You’ll have fewer issues to deal with and you’ll get more done.

2. Echoing

Another way to help you become a great communicator is “echoing.” Here’s how it works. When you’re in a situation where you’ve told your direct report something and you’re not entirely certain that they understood you, ask the following question: “Just to make sure that I am communicating well, could you please tell me what I just told you?” Or, if you’re not sure you understood something they just told you, ask, “Here’s what I just heard you say. Did I hear you correctly?” Don’t be surprised or frustrated by the response when you echo, because most of the time the message is not clearly received the first time. It then becomes a great opportunity for both of you to restate your message until you’ve eliminated any miscommunication and have gotten yourselves in sync.


One of our clients calls miscommunication between two people “thump-thump.” He coined this term after I shared a study conducted by Stanford University psychology graduate student Elizabeth Newton, in which pairs of students faced each other. One student had a list of well-known songs such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Happy Birthday,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and so on. That student would tap out a song on the table while the other student tried to guess the song. Of 120 songs tapped out, the listeners guessed only three correctly, a success rate of just 2.5 percent. The lesson here is that when a person is tapping a song on a table, they hear the song perfectly in their head, but that’s not what the listener is hearing. They are hearing monotone thumps on a table. 

When we share a verbal message with direct reports, the same thing often happens. We assume that we’re doing a great job communicating—it’s pitch-perfect in our heads. But the reality is that the other person is hearing monotone thumps—hence, “thump-thump.” Each time there is a miscommunication in his company, the client who coined the term simply says, “I think we have a case of ‘thump-thump’ here.” It creates great awareness for everyone in the organization and improves communication. 

4. Two Emotions

Another discipline that will help you avoid making assumptions about how someone is feeling is called “two emotions.” I learned this from my dad. Here’s how it works. When you’re unsure what someone is thinking, ask, “If you could share two emotions about how you are feeling right now, one positive and one negative, what would they be? You share your two emotions and I’ll share mine.” This is an excellent way to open a dialogue and find out exactly what’s going on with them. You are encouraging them to share their range of emotions from the highest to the lowest so that you have a clear perspective on what’s going on with them. 

After listening to your direct report, it’s now time for you to share your two emotions. The power of each of you sharing one positive emotion and one negative emotion is that it helps you understand the range of how you both feel. And because this conversation requires both of you to be completely open and honest, it will help you build a stronger relationship. 

The objective when using any of the above four methods is to help you become a great communicator and avoid making assumptions. Use one or all and you will definitely improve the effectiveness of your communication. 

To put your toe in the water and get started, I urge you to echo with one of your direct reports in the next 24 hours. 

To learn and master all 10 Leadership and Management Practices, order How to Be a Great Boss here

I also want to say thanks. Traction has sold its 200,000th copy this month, and we now have over 30,000 companies using the EOS tools. It couldn’t have happened without your support. We are incredibly grateful! 

Let us know if we can help.

Stay focused,

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