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Tough Conversations & Trigger Words


Effective Interpersonal Communication

I love Friday night football. Friday nights during the fall afford me the opportunity to watch my oldest son play a sport he loves with his best friends inside a stadium filled by spirited fans. And, his high school team is really good! I don’t really understand the strategy of the game nor do I comprehend the signals of the referees or when it is appropriate for those little yellow flags to be thrown. I obviously enjoy watching my own child “perform,” but I have recently become fascinated with the communication styles and patterns on the sideline between the players and the coaches. As an HR professional, I am a student of human behavior and I have discovered some valuable lessons from the football coaches that can apply to any manager, supervisor or organizational leader.

In order to perform at your highest level, ongoing feedback is necessary. As a coach, you can’t wait until the end of football season to discuss the strengths and weaknesses a player demonstrates on Friday night! Good coaches provide immediate feedback and encourage tweaks each week as his/her team faces a new opponent. The team watches film of their own play and they receive a weekly “grade” based on their individual weekly performance. In most of our workplaces, we have annual performance evaluation processes, but we fail to have the informal coaching sessions throughout the year that enable our direct reports to achieve the highest level of performance by making interim adjustments. I am certainly not suggesting or recommending that any workplace needs to film employees in action, but I am advising you to find a way to collect data, observe behavior and give regular feedback.

This football season I’ve observed a coaching staff that uses a firm and direct approach when mistakes are made, but they avoid the cliché style of coaching by screaming. My son is a linebacker and I do know that this position is a part of the defense and he plays behind the line of scrimmage. This year, he has a new linebacker coach and this young man talks to him after every single defensive possession. At first I thought it was because of repeated errors, but my son quickly explained that this coach understands the game so well that he sees more than they can possibly understand so he just wants to share his knowledge. He uses a whiteboard to draw out plays, if necessary, and he affirms the successes on the field and explains how he might shift an approach if defensive coverage wasn’t quite right. My son makes mistakes, but he is not humiliated by the rants of a crazy coach. Employees shouldn’t ever fear feedback. They should trust that the conversation will be handled in a respectful manner, with a collaborative and problem solving approach. And good managers should want to share their knowledge with the folks they supervise in order to make them more successful. Speaking of problem solving, some companies want to improve this amongst their staff, so they will events like escape room vegas for the team, in the hopes of working together so they can complete the tasks in the room. This can be very beneficial to overall staff productivity and morale.

Great football coaches adjust their approach based on the needs of the individual player. There are some athletes that are highly motivated by loud and forceful messages delivered while holding their facemask but most need to understand the “why” of the play call decision before they can execute the plan. Isn’t that the same in the workplace? Great leaders practice situational leadership and they adjust the approach to fit the employee.

Successful football coaches are not afraid to tell players when they have made a mistake, yet they choose their words carefully to avoid emotionally charged trigger words. You know what those are, right? Those are the words that cause our defenses to kick into overdrive and they build up resentment while they stifle problem solving. My son would shut down if his coach questioned him with, “Are you stupid? “ rather than asking him to explain how he read the situation and why he decided to react in a particular way. The latter approach emphasizes learning while the use of the word “stupid” would immediately create an inability to process information in my athlete. Have you ever been dismayed to learn that the words you have spoken were not interpreted in the manner in which you intended them? Perhaps you inadvertently used an emotionally charged word. Here are some of the most common negative language/phrasing that should be avoided in your workplace coaching:

Expressions that suggest carelessness
You neglected to…
You failed to…

Expressions that imply dishonesty
You claim that…
You state that…

Expression that may be interpreted as sarcastic or patronizing
I would have thought you….
There is no doubt…

Expressions that imply lack of intelligence
We cannot see how you….
We are at a loss to understand how…

Global terms such as always and never should be replaced with sometimes, occasionally or consistently. And, you should try to eliminate the word problem from your feedback discussion and use situation, issue, or concern instead.

Effective interpersonal communication requires intentional preparation and a level of self-awareness, which is why even for staff such as library leaders, looking into something like USC Marshall to help improve their leaderships skills is just as important as any world leader or standing up in front of a group of people to give a presentation. We all need these skills, as they will come in handy soon enough. Managers must not only choose their words carefully to avoid emotional triggers, but they should also monitor their style of delivery and frequency/timing of the coaching or counseling. The conservations can be tough and uncomfortable, but the rewards are worth the effort! Just as my son’s football coaches have created a system and culture of communication that breed exceptional performance on the field, you can drive organizational performance with improved employee feedback.

Tracy Lindow is a seasoned Human Resource Professional with extensive experience as a generalist. The Centre Group helps clients achieve success by “Leveraging the Human Spirit” within their organizations.


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