Welles: Communicating at work

You should ask for help on a challenging project and not say ‘can do’ if you can’t see it through.

It’s the start of a new fiscal year. You are focusing on your priorities when your boss tells you to finish one project sooner than planned. You hear yourself saying, “Yes, I’ll get right on it,” even though with other priorities, you probably can’t keep that promise.

So why say yes when you really want to say no? According to communications expert John Buffini, people in the workplace have a hard time saying no. They are trying to fit in and avoid conflict. They are trying to keep relationships smooth and be part of the team. But in trying to get along, someone who says yes without meaning it might do more harm than good.

Under pressure, people often try to “nice” their way through communication. But accepting more work when you are already overloaded can cause you to ignore a project or do it poorly when there might be good reasons to raise it higher on the priority list.

“Many times people feel they can’t stand up to the boss or vice versa,” said Anne Kelley, director of the Treasury Department’s Federal Consulting Group, a franchise that provides executive coaching and consulting on performance management. “It depends on the environment a manager has created to make sure people feel they will be heard.”

“The No. 1 step of communication is to tell the workforce what you are planning to do and give an opportunity for feedback,” Kelley said.

Saying no is not always the answer. Some managers will resort to “urgentspeak” for one project even though they might have already made many other requests. Some situations require productive clarification, Buffini said. That means asking questions to clarify what a manager is requsting and what is expected, particularly when multiple priorities demand employees’ attention.

Buffini said employees have more power than they realize. Whether you are a boss talking to your employees or an employee talking to your boss, make an effort to overcome communication challenges in the workplace.

For example, an employee could respond to a boss’s request like this: “Fred, I know you want quick results on that project. Because of that, I have a question to clarify how to do that.” You can then explore expectations and discuss the priorities of other projects.

Managers also should be asking questions to make sure they understand what their employees are saying. A manager might ask how an employee expects to implement a project when its schedules and deadlines change.

The secret to effective communication in the workplace is learning to focus on what people really mean, not just on what they say. That means understanding someone’s motivation for asking a question. And that requires a manager who wants and uses feedback and an organization that places value on speaking the truth.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.