In 2017 the former CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, sent out a company-wide email to his employees on the topic of corporate bureaucracy titled “Communication within Tesla.” Musk, who is as much admired as he is criticized in the tech world for his visionary ideas, eccentricity and bold business style, went on to explain why communication hierarchy creates a toxic environment and impedes creativity. “Instead of a problem getting solved quickly, where a person in one department talks to a person in another department and makes the right thing happen, people are forced to talk to their manager who talks to their manager who talks to the manager in the other department who talks to someone on his team. Then the info has to flow back the other way again. This is incredibly dumb. Any manager who allows this to happen, let alone encourages it, will soon find themselves working at another company. No kidding.” I admire Musk’s innovative style and his desire to create a new approach to achieving an equitable corporate culture. I’m not sure how successful this was at Tesla, but I do have my suspicions that implementing such a radical communication practice was not as seamless as he had envisioned. For one, it is an assumption that an employee would feel free to go to a supervisor about a problem. In fact, most people are avoidant of any uncomfortable conversation or conflict, not to mention the fear of reprisal from management or colleagues for complaining. In closing his letter, Musk acknowledged that better communication could bridge a divide between employees and management. “One final point is that managers should work hard to ensure that they are not creating silos within the company that create an 'us vs. them' mentality or impede communication in any way. This is unfortunately a natural tendency and needs to be actively fought.” This same communication problem is often mimicked in our personal relationships as well: We have something we need to express but fear the reaction of the other. When we can’t communicate without fear, we tend to separate ourselves and create emotional or physical barriers. As in most things in life, change takes courage and determination but being “seen and heard” is ultimately vital to our happiness and sense of fulfillment. Aggressive, Passive or Assertive? No one person communicates the same way in every circumstance, but there are three types of communication styles that we will utilize based on the popular Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator: aggressive, passive and assertive. For the sake of this article, I will focus on the characteristics of assertive communication, as it is what we should strive for, but it is important to remember that life sometimes gives us situations where we need to adjust. Aggressive communication is unproductive as it largely ignores the needs of the listener, but there are times when it may be essential to use a more aggressive tactic: when there is a time-sensitive decision, an emergency, or when a fact is crucial to the conversation. On the same token being passive while communicating also has its benefits when applied to correct situation such as: when emotions are running high and returning to a place of calm will help regain perspective or when an issue is minor and/or impossible to change. Another key to understanding when and where to use passive communication is in situations where your power is considerably higher or lower than the person you are communicating with. Assertiveness: The Key to Communicating with Intent Being Being an assertive communicator starts with some basic beliefs such as accepting that our input is as valuable as others and that we don’t always have to win a situation to be right, but rather handle it effectively. Setting boundaries is essential when being an assertive communicator –setting some initial limits and expectations can prevent a conversation from getting derailed. Setting parameters is also helpful if the person you are communicating with tries to move on from an important point or change the subject without acknowledging what you have said. Instead of becoming upset or frustrated, acknowledge that the person might be uncomfortable. After you check in with their feelings, don’t be afraid to bring up the original issue again to ask for more clarity before moving on. “Express yourself completely - then be quiet.” - Dao de Jing Being an assertive communicator only works well if we choose our words with intention, and then once we have made our point, we stop talking. When we speak with some measure and avoid excessive explaining about what we want or need, we have a better chance of keeping the listener engaged. Communicating is a delicate process for most of us because it is a way of giving, receiving, and building trust between two people. If we want people to trust us, we must do our best to be nonjudgmental. When faced with a conflict or problem that doesn’t seem to have an immediate solution, an assertive person negotiates or makes compromises and uses language such as, “What are my options here?” giving others a chance to provide more options. Assertiveness in communication also means being proactive about not allowing negative feelings to build up. When we hide our upset feelings and let them later come up in some unexpected way, we are usually too sensitized and volatile to handle it gracefully. Don’t wait for the hard conversation to become unbearable – take steps now to pave the way for better relationships. The most authentic conversation you can have is with your heart. So then ask your heart, “what is it that you want to say?” Then, listen as if your whole life’s happiness depended on it, because actually, it does.
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