If it is clear to me, it must be clear to everyone else. Right?
So far from the truth, Doreen, so far from the truth. Let’s get clear on clarity.
I was hosting a friend of mine last week while he was touring Atlanta as one of his upcoming move considerations. Wanting to be a “hostess with the mostest,” I had a fridge full of food that he could grab at his leisure. One such morsel was a carton of hard-boiled eggs: easy to make and a simple breakfast on-the-go.
Upon his return home, a text message exchanged ensued. I should mention that this friend is former Special Ops – which comes into play in my ah-ha moment at the end of the story.
Him: “How did you make those hard-boiled eggs? They were perfect.”
d: “Hard boil them for 12-15 minutes. Then I immediately put them in a colander and rinse them with cold water. Then I let them dry at room temperature on the counter. Once they are cooled down to room temperature, I put them in the fridge and good to go. They peel beautifully.”
Crystal clear, right? I was about to get my head back into work… <ding>
Him: “Error on the side of 12 or 15? And how long do you rinse them?”
d: <internal thought process> Um, I have no idea? I just do it without thinking. What to say… what to say? “I always like to cook them a little extra, so maybe 13-14-15 somewhere in there is fine in case you are of doing something else. I always set my alarm to remind me. I rinse them for maybe 1 to 2 minutes in steady cold water.”
Ok…now I am ready to turn back to work … <ding>
Him: “Do you use ‘high’ on the stove and not put them in ‘til it is rolling?”
d: “Yes, and good question! High heat …when it start is boiling, I then put them in.”
Him: “Awesome, thank you!”
The moment the text exchanged ended, a phrase that Brene Brown has made popular again came to mind in flashing lights:
Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.
Who knew that hard-boiled eggs would be a moment of self-awareness of how accidentally “unkind” I could be?
When we are unclear, we inadvertently invite confusion, frustration, misalignment, setbacks, and unproductive work streams into our relationships. Those results are what is “unkind” to the people we work with – again, unintentionally. Alternatively, when we lead with clarity, we create efficiency, productivity, and paths to success. Those results are most definitely “kind” to our co-workers.
I thought my egg-making instructions were “clear enough” but “clearly” not. If he didn’t end up seeking the clarity he needed, no telling how his eggs would have turned out. I would have wasted his money on buying the eggs, as well as his time on cooking them. That would have been “unkind.”
No doubt that one of the reasons why my friend was so successful in Special Ops was his passion for giving and receiving clarity. Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind. Clarity helps him or others succeed. Lack of clarity contributes to setbacks or can even prevent success.
Clarity is vital to a successful operation …whether making hard-boiled eggs, defending our country, or leading in and outside our organization.
As a leader, my job is to bring clarity to my team and the customers I serve.
When I create a ‘vague sense of clarity’, I leave room for people to fill in the blanks with details that could waste their time, tee them up for a setback, or lead us down the wrong path. The results can be frustration, confusion, fear, or even lack of trust.
So how do I communicate with clarity?
Never Make Assumptions
I assumed that when I said, “hard boil for x minutes,” – that everyone would know to put the stove on high. Well, you know that they say about assume… (if you don’t, message me and I’ll fill you in!).
We cannot assume that just because we understand or have clarity in what we want or hope for, it is clear to everyone else.
Before we finalize our communications, we must pause and ask questions like:
- Who is my audience?
- What is their experience with this subject matter?
- Is there any context or backstory that would be helpful?
A simple business example: we assume that the entire world knows how to use virtual meeting apps at this point. So, we send a link to our meeting invite to a new customer. Unbeknownst to us, this customer has never used our company’s preferred platform before and doesn’t understand that you have to download the app before using it. As a result, they are trying to get the technology to work as a meeting should be starting, and they show up frustrated and stressed or worse – blow us off.
Instead of assuming that our potential customers will understand the technology, we can make it a practice to confirm their experience or comfort level with the technology ahead of time or put a step-by-step instruction in all of our meeting invites.
Don’t just “dump and go.“ Do as I say, not as I do on this one for sure! “Dump and go” is a terrible habit that I’m continuing to work on. I use it because I’m in a hurry to get things done or excited to move on to “the next thing.”
The hard-boiled egg text exchange took longer than I expected (and I was not as productive on the work I was trying to complete) because I had to keep going back to answer clarifying questions.
If I had slowed down on the front end before the final “hand-off,” I could have validated understanding. I could have made sure he felt equipped and handled any additional clarifying questions upfront – then, while he was off to the races, I was then off to my races. Both of us being productive!
Before we finalize the hand-off, we must pause and confirm clarity:
- Would additional information be helpful for you to know?
- What did you hear success was, or the ask was?
- How do you think you’ll get started or approach this task/ project?
A simple business example: asking for help in putting together some competitive intelligence. A week later, you receive a gorgeous slide deck with all the features – benefit comparisons of your product versus your top two competitors. As incredible as it is, the deck completely missed the mark. You needed information on how to handle the chief objections that competitor-loyal customers have against your product. Your helper is now feeling frustrated like they wasted their time, and probably won’t volunteer to help you again. You are feeling overwhelmed and stressed that you are ill-equipped for your upcoming customer meeting.
Instead of “dump and go,” make it a practice to validate understanding by having someone paraphrase back what they heard you say, provide an example of what the output could look like, or tell a story about what success would look like at the end of the project.
Over-Communicate (if there even is such a thing!)
On average, people need to hear a message seven times before it clicks. If we are going to bring clarity to a situation, we need to over-communicate the message – to the point that your team might make you into a meme.
Back to our hard-boiled egg text exchange… this piece I did get right. I followed up with him later to see how his cooking was going and making sure he didn’t have any more questions. He happened to be good-to-go at that point and was planning on cooking the next day, but I was keeping the lines of communication open and ready to reinforce the “recipe.”
Even after the communication or project hand-off, clarity should not stop:
- Have you reinforced your point – even up to seven times?
- Have you considered different learning styles to aid in your clarification (visual learners or action-based learners)?
- Consider scheduling a synchronization meeting or call to ensure that you both are on the same page, or no additional clarifying questions or context are needed.
The worst thing that can happen is that your team says, “If s/he tells us one more time that our objective is x, y, and z…” That is not a bad place to be, is it? They are crystal clear on what the objective is – even reciting it as they make fun of your “over-communication!”
Back to my true story:
2 days later <ding>
Him: <Picture of hard-boiled egg> “Crushed it…”
There you have it. In the end, not only is clear kind, it is delicious!