How do you approach a coworker or friend with a concern about their body odor? Or negative feedback about their work or attitude? The prospect of an uncomfortable conversation has a tendency to set our heart beating a mile a minute – but it doesn’t have to if we take a few simple steps to establish openness and honesty within our relationships, whether professional or personal. Tyler Meuwissen, Xenium’s Compensation & HR Analyst and a frequent guest of the podcast, joins Brandon Laws to discuss Shari Harley’s book, How to Say Anything to Anyone and share practical advice and examples on getting comfortable with tough communication.
Brandon: Welcome back to the HR for small business podcast, this is your host, Brandon Laws. Thank you for the download today, we appreciate the support. If you haven’t, please go to iTunes and give us a review. We love to hear how we are doing and who likes the podcast and what we can improve upon, so we appreciate all the support. There has definitely been a steady incline of downloads over the last few months, and without you, we wouldn’t do what we are doing, so we appreciate you, the listeners.
Today, we are doing another book club round! I have Tyler Meuwissen back with me. Tyler, how are you doing?
Tyler: Back again, back at it! I am doing great.
Brandon: Last time, we talked about Disrupted, that was a fun podcast, a really good, interesting read. That was one you and I had read separately, it focused on work culture. For this one, we’re actually getting back on the book club train. So we have, How to Say Anything to Anyone by Shari Harley. Let’s just kick it off, what did you feel about the book? We had one of our best discussions in the book club about this one.
Tyler: Really, really good book discussion. It really boils down to the way this book is presented. It’s more like a how-to kind of reference that anybody, an entry-level employee or a manager or even a C-suite officer, you can learn a great deal about how to communicate with employees. I think that’s what everybody was hoping to get out of the book, and they did. We had a great discussion, it was fantastic.
Brandon: It was. We always try to pick books that are communication or culture based and topics that are on the outer edge of traditional self-help books. We want to get a the spectrum of how do we get better at jobs, how do we communicate better with other people, and how do we make progress in business?
Tyler: Exactly, I think a lot of people have different types of jobs, and they do different things, but one thing that is ubiquitous to every business professional is communication skills. How well do you communicate with your employees, with your manager, with your direct reports? You can always learn new things about how to communicate and about communication in general, so I think that’s kind of the great essence of this book is building your communication skills.
Brandon: Let’s set the stage a little bit before we actually dive into the aspects of the books. This book is really written for all sorts of people. Shari talks about a client relationship, where you’re really setting expectations on how to communicate with them and make progress on both ends. Co-workers, family, friends, this really touches on all aspects, and that’s why the title How to Say Anything to Anyone is all encompassing, and communication is one of those things where whether you’re typing an email, or you’re on Facebook, on Twitter, or in person, this is applicable to all of them, wouldn’t you agree?
Tyler: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s true to its title. It’s How to Say Anything to Anyone, regardless of whether it’s a work relationship, personal relationship, it covers the gambit.
Brandon: When you think of this book, and let’s just talk about what the book looks like itself, it’s a short read.
Tyler: Yeah, it’s a short read.
Brandon: How many pages would you say it is?
Brandon: So you could read it in a couple sittings. The one thing I would say about it is that it read sort of like, I don’t want to say necessarily a manual, but like you could pick it up and sort of flip through and there’s a lot of step-by-step processes or questions on how to walkthrough certain situations. I love how she lays it out in the book. You can flip to any chapter on any given subject and really just pick it up and run with it. So keep it at your desk!
Tyler: This is definitely a desk book that you can just keep right by your computer screen and if you have one of these conversations or you have something come up that you need to know what’s the best way to communicate – pull it up, scroll through it, and you will be able to find an answer or a communication situation that mirrors what you are going for.
Brandon: I felt like as a salesperson you could easily go to the parts about client relationships and setting those upfront expectations and contractual stuff. And then an HR professional, the audience of this podcast, employee relations things come to mind, coaching people on how to do 1-on-1’s for the managers, just giving them the tools. I felt like there are a lot of tools in this book.
Tyler: Oh yeah, I mean everybody has difficulty trying to find the right things to say to someone in difficult conversations. No one likes to have those or talk about difficult things with employees. It’s always kind of a gray area that no one wants to cross. So this book gives you some tools and some insights on how to broach the subject with these difficult conversations, one instance is body odor – that’s a tough conversation to have with someone, but it’s needed in order to build a relationship with that person. So I think this is just a great guide for anyone just trying to better communicate with people.
Brandon: Yeah, just going further on the difficult conversation piece, I really think this book is all about that. These conversations are so hard to have for a lot of people, we get social anxiety around having these really tough conversations. For some people it may come naturally, but I think the reason it’s difficult, and she makes this point in the book – is that we just don’t have the upfront expectations about, you know, an agreement between you and I. Like, I am going to be real with you and you’re going to be real with me, and we have that ongoing feedback loop. And it’s okay to do it, there’s permission to do that, and what her point in the book is – you need to have those things set up upfront. Otherwise it really becomes awkward because you don’t really necessarily have the permission. For instance, if you and I weren’t as close as we are and I had to bring up “what’s going with this body odor issue” and I had to say, Tyler, this is very tough for me…But if we didn’t have the upfront agreement or we didn’t have the friendship that we do, that would be a difficult conversation – I think that’s the point in the book is that when you have a new employee, you have a new client, even family and friends, you want to have that upfront permission to say, if this comes up is that okay for me to have this conversation with you?
Tyler: It’s not only difficult for the person instigating the conversation, but it’s the recipient as well. If you don’t have that relationship or that understanding that hey, if something comes up, can I speak to you about that? Can I be open with you about it? Do we have that trust level where we can talk about these things? It can be a shock and it can be completely debilitating for a person receiving that feedback if they didn’t get that permission beforehand. So it’s key to build that rapport up, build that trust level, and say, if something comes up, do I have permission to speak openly about it and talk to you about it?
Brandon: I think that’s the point, is the openness about it, because if we don’t have that permission, we’re likely to beat around the bush. We’re not going to approach it head on and I think that’s the whole point in this book, once you walk through the process or the steps to speak openly and provide feedback, just cut to the chase and get right to the brass tacks. If you try to soften it up, if it’s a tougher conversation, beating around the bush isn’t going to do any good.
Tyler: It’s going to make it worse, and she mentions it’s good to be direct, it’s the new nice, to be direct. So yeah, like you said, beating around the bush and circling the subject matter isn’t going to help anybody, it’s just going to prolong the necessary conversation that you need to have, so this is not going to be good for both parties.
Brandon: I am going to pull the thread on what you just said. You said, just being nice, and she makes that point in the book and I think that’s where you’re coming from is, she says being nice is direct and using the fewest words possible to convey the message clearly. So not softening the blow, cutting right to the chase using fewest words, and allowing them to ask questions if they have a follow-up.
Tyler: Exactly, and if you have that relationship, that understanding that you can be direct and be open, then there’s not going to be that much of an issue because the person’s going to know that we already have this established, that she or he is going to come to me with whatever he needs to say, the feedback, and it’s going to be direct, it’s going to be to the point and that’s how they’re going to develop the relationship further, that’s kind of the point of the conversation.
Brandon: I am going to talk real quickly about business relationships, just for those that may be in sales or even account management. She talks about how when businesses relationships lack a verbal contract that later it can get you in trouble if there’s a problem. Talk about sort of what she says about that.
Tyler: Well, I think initially it starts off with, oh we had this written agreement between two parties. But obviously the people who are doing the project work may not see this written agreement that the executives have signed off on so they don’t know the scope of what the expectations of the work are. So it’s good to be clear at the granule entry position, which people are doing the work. You need to have a verbal understanding of what’s going on because you know no one ever reads the fine print, it can get misconstrued, but if you have a verbal discussion – not by email, not by text – even though that’s kind of how people like to communicate, it’s a phone call, even in person would be better. To have that direct understanding of what are the expectations of this project or partnership.
Brandon: Do you think that it’s not just a verbal, in person, face-to-face but also written, especially with the business relationship?
Tyler: Yes. You want to write it down so you can go back to it and not just a verbal hey, this is what someone said. It’s good to have that conversation in person with the person but also have in writing as well. But to the point where both parties can understand it, it’s not just out there for executives to look at.
Brandon: I think people should read the book because there are step-by-step processes that she outlines and in fact I’ll just rattle some of them off, but she says, the steps in setting expectations for that, I think it applies to not just business relationship but—
Tyler: All relationships, yeah.
Brandon: Stating the goal, like what do we want out of this, setting the expectations, what you’re going to do and what I’m going to do, agree on how we’re going to work together, how we’re going to communicate – in person, Skype, voicemail, text message, whatever. Asking for feedback, so, for example, Tyler I will expect you to give me feedback, and I will do the same candidly. Ask for permission; Can I give you feedback? Agreeing on all the roles, so if you are the client and I am the business person or salesperson or account manager, making sure we understand our roles and agree on the communication process. So she sort of outlines that and, of course, there’s meat to each of those steps that I recommend people read. But overall how I interpret this is that you’re planning for the worst with this upfront agreement, and that’s why I love this book so much. What do you think about that?
Tyler: Yeah, exactly. Always I think something’s going to go wrong. Something gets delayed, there’s going to be an issue with deadlines or communication, something’s going to lapse but in order to move forward and get past that, you have to develop some communication, some agreement with the parties to say, this is how we are going to handle the situation, these are the roles and these are your responsibilities, this is how we are going to give each other feedback in order to move past whatever roadblock we come to in the project process. So I think it’s good to have that verbal and written communication because everything is not going to be outlined in the high level, verbal written agreement.
Brandon: Well and even then it’s nobody pulls out the written contracts or remembers it. I think you constantly have to remind each other of that fact. But upfront it’s not only written but verbal. To outline sort of the simplistic things, I think the communication pieces are most important. What I mean by that is how do we want to communicate with each other? Because you talked about roadblocks, the roadblocks are, I don’t know how to reach you. If you are never around or it’s hard to get a hold of you, like what if I’m leaving you voice mails constantly and you are not returning them? Well, for one, that’s probably not a good place to give feedback, but maybe you’re going to respond to a text message, or maybe I should hit you up on a Facebook message or something. I don’t know, but have a conversation with somebody upfront to figure out how they want to communicate.
Tyler: Find the best channel for communication for each person. They may not have the same channel of communication that you prefer. She gives an example in the book where one of her employees’ direct reports was emailing her and since she gets so many emails a day and it’s so much she tries just to look at them and gets to them at later time. Then she gets the call from the employee saying I haven’t heard back from you on that email and so it gets to the point where, yeah, that may not be her best way to communicate so she said upfront and center that hey, I get a lot of emails each day, it’s probably best that you try to get in touch with me by phone because I check my phone or voice mails more frequently than emails.
Brandon: Do you remember the one story she was telling in the book, I think it was one of her personal experiences, but when she was working away on something and then an employee interrupts her, and she was just not in the frame of mind to respond?
Tyler: I think that’s the one where the employee was inundating her with emails, like CC-ing her on different emails.
Brandon: I think these are two different things, but they’re very similar. One is, she is just getting hammered with emails and then Shari, the author, decides, to have a conversation with this person to say, hey look I don’t need to look at every single email, but if you want to copy me on the most important things that I need to review or whatever, do it that way.
The one I was talking about was where an employee would come into her office and just catch her in the middle of something. Then when questions were being thrown at her, she was just not in the frame of mind to be able to respond, and I think she decides to have candid conversation to say, hey look, if I am in the middle of something, maybe just ask if I have 5 minutes so that we can talk instead of just blatantly asking the question when she is not ready for it.
Tyler: It all goes back to setting up the established relationship on how to communicate with each other and it goes vice versa between a manager telling direct reports and direct reports telling the manager how they best communicate. She also says later in the book that you need to have these questions and answers just to get to know and understand each other.
Brandon: Oh I love that. Actually at Xenium we do something pretty similar. When somebody comes into the organization we have, we try to play on the name “Xenium” where we have a form called Xciting Things About You. We have a form where people can fill out what their likes and interests are, how they like to receive feedback – whether it’s public or private, and then just general interests. We try to share it with people in the organization so they have a clear understanding of how people like to be approached and what they like. And I think that’s important when, especially when you’re integrating somebody into the culture to see where they are coming from. Everybody is so different, I think that’s the point, is that everybody likes to be communicated with very differently.
Tyler: And when you’re trying to build a very cohesive team to do the best work that you can, you want to play to every single team member’s strengths. So finding out what they like, what they dislike, what their best method of feedback is, or how they best communicate – those are all key elements in developing that cohesive team to get the project done. And we all work on projects, most of us work on team projects, and we’re always working with people, so it’s key to have those subtleties and those interests and what people like in mind.
Brandon: I want to keep honing in on that point. There was a section in the book, I can’t remember where in the book it was, but it talks about asking about work habits. Whether it’s a colleague or direct report or a superior, being able to come in and at the beginning of the relationship say, Tyler, how do you best like to work? And there’s a series of questions that she lists that I think are just genius and so simple, too. How best do you communicate, email, voicemail, text message, instant messenger, telephone or in person? Are you a morning person? Are you an afternoon person? Are you a night person? If we need to talk in person, it would be best by appointment, a drop in? Or should I give you call? What should we do? And then this is the interesting one, if I need to reach you outside of business hours like an emergency setting, when is the earliest or latest I can call? And I think the way that question is framed sets expectations, like I am not going to call you outside, even if it’s craziest hours – I am not going to call you after 11 pm. Certain contexts, of course, not life or death, but just having some of those upfront things, I think it’s pretty interesting.
Tyler: Not a lot of people do this.
Brandon: And it’s so simple!
Tyler: So simple and it’s genius because it can help develop and nurture relationships with your coworkers or fellow employees.
Brandon: Or your wife or husband!
Tyler: These are things that we should be talking about, and yet we don’t do it, and that’s what brings it to these conversations where we feel too timid or many too nervous to bring this up because we just don’t know how that person likes to receive or when to do it.
Brandon: I think we default to mirroring what communication style we like the best.
Tyler: I like to receive feedback this way, so I am sure that person likes to receive it too.
Brandon: And I run into that all the time where people I work with, I would think that maybe they want to default to email, when maybe they’d rather I drop by their cube or desk or office or whatever instead of the email. I prefer email, so I think everybody else likes email, but to your point, that’s not necessarily true, people’s expectations are not always the same, the list goes on.
Tyler: It just leaves to communication roadblocks and then you can’t have these conversations with people when you don’t know how they like to receive feedback or just in general how they like to be approached for any kind of conversation.
Brandon: When she’s talking about the feedback, Shari says that the common quote you hear is you are doing great, just keep doing what you are doing. She says that’s not really helpful, why is that?
Tyler: The “Captain Crunch” feedback. Yeah, it’s very true. It has all the flavor but not the nutritional value, I think that’s what she says. There is no substance behind it, and she also makes the point that if you’re not going to give an example then it’s not feedback, don’t give the feedback. If you want to say, this person does a great job of writing reports, give them examples of what report went well. When you give feedback that’s vague, it doesn’t help anybody, it doesn’t do anything. It does not have nutritional value.
Brandon: Right, I totally agree. Without giving away the entire book, as there are so many things I would like to touch on, like there are great 1-on-1 meeting questions for if you have a direct report or even if you are an employee and you are leading the meeting. The 1-on-1 is usually about you, so how to ask questions of your manager. There are so many nuggets in here, steps on feedback, etc. What else did you find pretty helpful? There so many get to know you type questions as well.
Tyler: It was, like you mentioned, the situational things. I thought the situational scenarios were really helpful because it runs a gambit through a bunch of different situations that you can counter, and those were the last several pages of the book. That’s what’s so great about the book, it’s only 150-160 pages, but there is so much in here, it’s pretty astounding. The feedback was one thing that I definitely took away because I have the tendency to give that kind of vague feedback and I don’t really go into examples. It’s tough to get going but it’s needed if you wanted to help build someone’s habits or build someone’s behavior that they want to see reinforced or changed. You need to do that in order to help someone. I also took away the direct comments, like being direct is sometimes good, like the example – someone has something in their teeth, walking around all day, do you not say anything to that person or is it nice to say something to someone? You may not think it is but it’s not nice to not say anything to that person the whole day and let them go around with something in their teeth.
Brandon: I just wanted to pull that thread a little further, the ‘being nice’ part of giving feedback. She explicitly says ‘in private,’ right? Doing it in public, like the thing in the teeth sort of thing, that is kind of brutal.
Tyler: Yeah, no. You’re not trying to belittle or give feedback to someone in front of people, that’s not the way to convey feedback.
Brandon: Unless it’s positive feedback, maybe some people like it in public
Tyler: Yeah, sure positive feedback. If it’s something like body odor, or something in the teeth, you might want to be as private as possible.
Brandon: For behavior change or something
Tyler: It’s just being respectful. Make sure that you are understanding the atmosphere and environment and are humiliating them.
Brandon: This book really reminded me of a podcast discussion I had with Lacey Halpern probably a couple of years ago on corrective action and performance improvement plans too. I think if you are trying to change behavior, what better way to change a behavior than to set expectations and actually understanding that there is going to be a feedback loop in play here. So I really loved everything in this book.
Towards the end I pulled out a quote that I just loved. Maybe it’s not impactful for everybody, but I put it on Facebook because I liked it so much. She says, “Here is the bad news: you can’t control what people think, feel or say, but there is also good news: you can control what you put in front of people, you can change what you do, what you wear and what time you show up to work and thereby change how you are perceived.” What I’d say about that particular quote and how it impacts me, this whole communication and difficult conversation issue and feedback, it’s all about you and driving this to understand that we need to set expectations. It’s hard to start a relationship without those things in place because you never feel like you can ever provide feedback, and if you do it might be awkward for both of you. It’s not necessarily fair, either, I think it’s kind of the whole point. What do you think?
Tyler: I completely agree. It definitely starts with you since you are going to be the one that’s going to drive this. And there are always going to be those conversations that are difficult regardless of who’s setting up a clear understanding beforehand, but by doing that it lessens the severity of how awkward it’s going to be. It sets up a way for you guys to build a relationship for the future and not have some bad conversation lingering around. It’s all geared towards improvement and you are in the driving seat, so it’s up to you to kind of initiate, instigate, that scenario with someone.
Brandon: I think in our book club discussion we all felt the same, but in tackling a topic like this where we know we can control ourselves and then drive those discussions, you can make progress incrementally through the culture. And it can stick, if everybody took control of their relationships and set expectations, what kind of impact do you think it would make on the culture?
Tyler: A dynamic impact. Things will change if it’s a domino effect. If people see someone communicating openly, it’s going to be a domino effect. More people will pick it up and you will have a culture of openness, a culture of people who say, hey come talk to me, I am open to feedback. One thing’s for certain, if you don’t do anything, nothing is going to change. So it’s up to you to kind of be that change. This book definitely helps you kind of realize that it’s going to be tough at first, but the rewards outweigh the risks.
Brandon: I have an example of that openness and leading by example. One of our clients did a presentation for us recently and he was talking about the 360 feedback that their company does, and he said that when he, as the president of the company, would receive feedback, and he would publish it for everybody to see. I don’t think he expects everybody to do that, but he is just trying to lead by example to say, look, feedback is really important and I am going to take it to heart, and I want everybody to see what I am working on as a person, I am trying to develop professionally. Even though you know these feedback loops are private, which, most of the time they should be, I think if we set expectations that I want to help you improve and I want you to help me improve and we just sort of have that agreement. It can do wonders for the culture – that was what that whole presentation was on, the topic was a culture of engagement. I think this sort of thing is so important to culture.
Tyler: What it does, too, is it helps build that trust level and especially with an executive of the company, a leader definitely wants to build that trust with the direct reports, employees and other coworkers in general. So when you build that trust you create an environment for people to give feedback openly and come to people when they have difficult things that they need to say and are open to giving and receiving feedback. So I think once you develop that trust, and I think Shari makes a good point there about developing trust being a foundation for the relationship in the future, so once you have that trust you can develop it further.
Brandon: So in summing up the book, I think we always do a little rating, I always enjoy this part. Out of 5 stars, what would you give this?
Tyler: It’s a good 4 and a half stars, I liked it, I liked it a lot.
Brandon: So a 9 out of a 10? [laughing]
Tyler: Yeah, 9 out of 10 stars.
Brandon: Yeah, I am right with you. I probably give this a 4, 4.5. I would give it a 5 if it was a little meatier with stories. Like I said, it’s very manual-like and step-by-step, which is great because you can always reference it. I just kind of wished there were more stories to help me apply this to my own experiences, I just kind of like that stuff.
Tyler: Yes, be able to set yourself in that narrative, I like that too. I think that, as we mentioned, it’s a good reference book to use and keep in your desk and pull it out and get a lot of good nuggets out of it when a difficult conversation is coming up. It definitely was an enjoyable read and I’d recommend it to everybody.
Brandon: People enjoyed it. We had 20 people participate in the book. Our next book is Grit by Angela Duckworth and I have actually read this in advance, so I thought it was an awesome book. And if I can’t get Angela Duckworth on the podcast, which I try but it’s not going to happen, I am sure you’re coming back.
Tyler: Alright, let me know!
Brandon: I appreciate you, Tyler, it was a lot of fun. For the listener, check out this book and join us the next time. Thanks for the download again. Appreciate it. Tyler, see you!
Tyler: Thank you!