Beyond Words: How to Reach Your Employees | SOS Podcast

Beyond Words: How to Reach Your Employees | SOS Podcast

Studies consistently show most managers lack the skills needed to effectively communicate with direct reports. Where this exists, employee engagement, operational performance, and customer satisfaction suffer as a result. In this session, Phillip Van Hooser offers practical guidance on ways managers can more effectively reach and communicate with employees.



Episode Transcript


Joe White (00:00):
Communication is the art of recreating in someone else's mind an exact replica of what's in yours. Sounds easy, right? Stay with us.

Hello, and thank you for joining us today. My name is Joe White and I'm the host of Supervisor Skills: Secrets of Success. The SOS podcast series is produced for the ongoing development of front-line managers. With each episode, we take on a topic of interest and interview subject matter experts for the benefit of our listeners. In today's episode, we're going to talk about communication. My guest today is leadership expert, Phil Van Hooser with Van Hooser & Associates. Welcome Phil, and thank you for joining us today.

Phil Van Hooser (00:43):
Well, thanks, Joe. It's wonderful to be a part of this.

Joe White (00:46):
Thank you so much. If you would just tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and where you reside?

Phil Van Hooser (00:53):
I live in Western Kentucky, a little town called Princeton, Kentucky. It's my native hometown. I haven't always lived here, but we're back and enjoying our time here now. And what I do, and what I've been doing for the past 33 years, is I work with organizations and individual leaders on enhancing and developing leadership skills from a broad-based standpoint. And of course, communication is a major part of those skill sets. I've done that by way of the spoken word, training, the written word, online, in-person. It's just been a multi-faceted approach to helping individuals and organizations develop those people that are so key and including those front-line people that you're focused on in the area of personal leadership development.

Joe White (01:41):
Thank you, Phil. And speaking of talking and communication, if I'm not mistaken, you have a book, don't you?

Phil Van Hooser (01:47):
I have a number of books and articles, but I think the book that you may be referring to that focuses on communication is We Need to Talk and then subtitle, Building Trust When Communicating Gets Critical. It's a book that I've had out for a couple of years, but it's been well-received because of the practical nature. And maybe we'll even get into some of that conversation here today.

Joe White (02:10):
That's great. Thank you. I often refer to the perennial pain points, the pain points that just don't seem to go away for organizations, and communication always seems to rank at the top -- or among the top -- in terms of pain points organizations are dealing with. When we talk about communication,  do you have a definition for that? What does it really mean?

Phil Van Hooser (02:43):
Joe, there are a lot of folks, including a lot of people in the industry I'm in -- the information sharing industry, professional development industry -- who can give you a long and very flowery definition of communication, and then explain what it means. I've gone the other direction, I think I can answer your question with basically three words: communication equals connection.

Now, communication, of course, we can break that down. Communication, whether it's verbal communication, written communication, non-verbal communication, etc. has so many facets that we could talk for a long, long time about those alone. But for me, especially in dealing with and working with leaders, communication equaling connection means that communication will not happen -- I don't really care how articulate you are, how intelligent you are, how well schooled you may be -- if there is not a connection that has been made or will be made with the audience, be it an audience of one or an audience of 1000. If a connection is not made, communication will not happen.

On the other hand, if connections are made and people connect with one another -- and we can talk about that if you'd like -- but when those connections are made, you can be inarticulate, you can be scattered to some degree, you can be unfocused, but the connection is strong enough that the communication will still take place. Then the question then becomes, have we communicated a message or an intention and have done it successfully through that connection? But for me, communication has been, is, and I trust always will be, focusing on connections being made.

Joe White (04:28):
I really, really love that definition. And I think about in my experience, some of the most effective communicators that I've known, they didn't necessarily have a strong academic background; in many cases, they were just everyday people. I really like that, the point of connection I think is so important.

Phil Van Hooser (04:56):
Well, Joe, if I can interrupt, I'll simply say this, many of your listeners and the people that we're talking to today came out of an industrial or a technical or some sort of labor-related background, as I understand it.

Joe White (05:11):
That's correct.

Phil Van Hooser (05:12):
And for them, they may not have had the opportunity to have all the training or education in particular areas that other people may have benefited from. But the one thing that you can always know when someone is a good connector or a good communicator or a good connector on the plant floor or in the field, is when someone says "he's one of us, he knows us, he can talk our language", what they're really saying is that the person has learned to connect. And that connection is far more valuable to those that they have connected with than any degree or any certification or any particular level of training, as long as that training was successful in helping them learn to connect.

Joe White (05:57):
Again, I love that. And it just draws me back to my own personal experiences. My daughter recently sent me a text and used some emojis, and I had no clue. I was like, "Okay, I have no idea what she's trying to tell me here." And I had to pick up the phone and call her and say, "Okay, what exactly are you saying?" She certainly communicated, I didn't understand, but it was the connection that was missing. With these podcasts, our audience is that front-line, first-line supervisor, the foreman on the construction project. It's the person out on the shop floor in the manufacturing facility, in the shipyard... it's that person that's out there interacting with the client and with the employees. Why is this topic really of relevance and importance to them?

Phil Van Hooser (06:47):
Well, first of all, I love the audience that you're focused on. In fact, I came up through the manufacturing world in my early part of my career, and I was a young HR manager. So I spent a lot of time on the plant floor. And since I've worked with a lot of the trade industries and so on and so forth, I spent a lot of time with front-line supervisors. The reason communication is so critical can be summarized by reminding supervisors of who they are and what they do. A supervisor is someone who gets something done through other people. There are working supervisors out there who are still doing particular jobs. And in addition to the technical or the labor-related job that they're a part of, they're also supervising.

But if you can focus just on the supervision part of it for a moment, getting their job done has got to be done through other people. And the only way that we can do that successfully is to have open lines of communication and very successful lines of communication that are followed throughout. And so, yes, I agree with you, oftentimes it is the pivot point that a lot of people struggle with, or those people who are very successful with their communications actually succeed even more.

Secrets of success. If there's one that I would offer, even right now, I'd say work on your communication skills, regardless of who you are, where you are, where you are in your career. I don't care if you've been there six months, or if you've been there 36 years, the more we work on our communication skills, frankly, the easier our job gets because we don't have to go back and repeat or try to fix problems that communication could have solved or at least avoided early on. But it also is the secret sauce that gives us the opportunity to have more opportunities if that's what someone is interested in.

So for me, the communication and being able to communicate what needs to be done, what the expectations are, and frankly, offering feedback as to the success or lack thereof, of what's been done or what's happened... all of those things play to the success that individual supervisors, front-line supervisors can have because of their ability to communicate most effectively with the people working with and for them.

Joe White (09:08):
Again, great points. I think back in my career and early on, I had a superintendent tell me one time... he said that effective communication was like shooting a robin hood in archery. He said the first arrow had to be on target, and that was getting your points across, communicating effectively. But he said you're not done. He said that the second arrow has to split the knock in the first and that's, "Is it understood?" And that's really the ultimate test: did you communicate effectively? And secondly, was it well understood?

Phil Van Hooser (09:47):
Well, that's an interesting illustration, one which I've never heard, but I oftentimes talk about the curse of good enough. You'll hear people say, even people who are strong in a lot of different areas, "Oh, I'm not a great communicator, but I do what I need to do. It's good enough. I can get through. I can talk to anybody for 15 minutes." You've heard those kinds of comments around.

And the reality of it is, that's the kiss of death because that's what I refer to as a lazy communicator. One who's willing to take whatever level of communication they've sort of developed over time and stay right there.

Now, the reality is, if everybody else is staying right there too, you can probably get by. But as you alluded to a moment ago with your daughter's example, the fact of the matter is our audience, our workforce, the people who we call our followers or employees are changing every day. And their expectations of us are based on the communication experiences they're having outside of work. And so if we're not growing, if we're not advancing, if we're not preparing ourselves accordingly, if we're satisfied with good enough... then quite frankly, you're going to be dissatisfied with the experiences that you have, especially if we're talking years into the future. That's what I try to help people with -- to prepare not for today, even though preparing for tomorrow will help today, but I try to help them prepare for the rest of their career.

Joe White (11:21):
Great points. I worked in a manufacturing facility basically for the majority of my career, a Fortune 100 company. It was in the chemical industry. When I first came in, there was so much talk about the generations at that point that were entering the workforce and how we had to train them to adapt to us. And I think now, very wisely, most people recognize and realize that if we're to be effective working with employees, we've got to find ways to reach them where they are and not necessarily expect them to change to our styles, and in this case, styles of communication.

Phil Van Hooser (12:05):
It's interesting when you talk about, we must change or educate them in a way that they can change to adapt to us. I came up in the manufacturing arena, as I told you. And as you alluded to, I did that as well. The reality of it is even if we could pick a number 200, 500, 1500, however many may be under the same roof. The fact of the matter is they are of different age, they have different experience, different educational level, different expectations, etc. We can't expect that many people -- even if we're great trainers, educators, etc. -- we can't expect to be successful in getting that many people to align with our way of communicating.

I, on the other hand, like to think in terms of being rigidly flexible.

Joe White (12:57):
I like that.

Phil Van Hooser (12:58):
Rigidly flexible. I know what I need to communicate, and that is my role and responsibility, but I will explore virtually any methodology or any thought process that will help me be able to be successful in communicating that... I will be flexible in that regard. Rigid in terms of the message, flexible in terms of the methodology. And frankly, it served me well for at least to this point in my career and I trust it will continue to serve me in the days ahead.

Joe White (13:30):
Great. I love George Bernard Shaw's quote. He was quoted as saying, "The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Why is communication so difficult? And with that, let me add, we have more means, more methods of communicating today than we ever have. So the efficiency of communication has never been better.

Phil Van Hooser (13:55):
Right. Well, it's a big question. Why is communication so difficult? If we had come to a conclusive answer to that question, life would be better on almost every front, family front, nations would be communicating more effectively, families would be communicating more effectively, and certainly, in the workplace, we would be communicating more effectively. I've had to deal with that throughout my career as well. And I think that the single answer I would come to, and it's a broad answer, but the single answer I would come to as to why communication is so difficult in the workplace is that we are too selfish. We're more focused on ourselves than we are on the people that we're attempting to communicate with and to. And so therefore I found that the best communicators are the ones that can step out of themselves and focus more on others and on the needs of others or the experiences of others or the circumstance of others, than trying to expect them to do that for me.

This is especially true for front-line supervisors. If an employee comes to a supervisor and they start a conversation, going back to what I said earlier, that connection is so critical. The connection may initially be made. But if in fact the supervisor then spends more time talking to his or her employee or follower about what their problems are, as opposed to what the employee's problems are, there's going to be a disconnection in that communication. So I've found that, whether I'm at home talking to my wife, whether I'm with my children, whether I'm with my friends or in the workplace, if I spend more time listening to and talking to, or trying to draw out the information about them, as opposed to trying to teach them, share with them, talk to them about me, the communication always is more successful. And according to George Bernard Shaw, I think that big problem, if not eliminated completely, can be whittled down somewhat.

Joe White (15:56):
Yeah, it's great advice. Again, I think about the years of experience I've had and some of the quotes and comments that people have made to me over the years. I had a friend one time tell me, "Look, if you want to end a conversation real quickly, start talking about yourself."

Phil Van Hooser (16:14):

Joe White (16:14):
And there's a lot of truth in that. The next question I'd like to tackle is really around problems that you may, as an organization or as a business owner, or as a supervisor... signs and symptoms that you might not be communicating as effectively as you would like to be. What are some things that you can look for? What are some telltale signs that you may not be communicating effectively?

Phil Van Hooser (16:39):
Well, this may be one of the easier questions you've asked so far in terms of a specific response to it, but that doesn't mean it's easy unless we're paying attention to these things. I would break this down into two areas, the signs and symptoms that some communication is not as effective as they might be, can be both obvious and subtle, let say. For example, if we're a supervisor and we say to our employees, "If you ever have any problems, come talk to me. I want to hear it before I hear it someplace else, don't want any surprises, etc." And then they try that, and then they get met with resistance, or they get blown off or it can be any number of things. A subtle symptom that communication isn't taking effect is they don't come back. They just shut down the communication. Well, they're even saying in the break room, "I tried that, I tried going and talking to him or to her, and it didn't work. Why am I going to waste my time doing that anymore?" It's not that there's been a confrontation, there's not been a blow-up, etc. It's very subtle. But all of a sudden, they're just sort of invisible. They don't happen. Or even if you search out an opportunity for conversation, it just really hard to engage them.

The more obvious idea or symptom that communication is breaking down is that if everything is couched in emotion. If every time we have a conversation, it looks like the person that we're communicating with is just itching for a fight. Or they are very harsh in the way that they respond to something. The reality is it may not be them, it may be you.

I've heard too many times these words and I'll bet you and our listeners have too. I've heard these words, "I told them once, if they didn't get it, that's not my problem." Or if we really want to emphasize something to an audience member, again, an audience of one, or an audience of a department, whatever it may be, what do we do? We start talking louder. And the reality of it is that's off-putting for a lot of people. You told me once, and then you're making me the scapegoat of this poor communication because I didn't get it. Have you ever considered that you didn't do it very well? Have you ever considered that you were confusing or that you talked about three different subjects and I don't know which one of them is most important?

We've got to look at ourselves first to make sure that these symptoms aren't indicative of something that's going on with us. I wrote a customer service book several years ago too. And I used a line in there that goes something like this: "A complaint is a symptom that a problem exists." Now, a complaint doesn't always mean that a problem exists, but it's a symptom and therefore should be explored further. When we see these symptoms, that communications are not going as effectively or moving the direction that we had hoped, before we start pointing fingers at someone else and blaming them, I think, first of all, we need to do a self-inspection, to see if our communication has been what we want it to be. So there's a couple of observations. There could be many, many more, but in the interest of time, that's probably all we need to cover right now.

Joe White (20:07):
A great point. And I know having spent a better part of my career in safety, one of the things I quickly learned is that if you're tackling symptoms and not root causation or causes, you're very likely going to be dealing with them again at some point in the future. And they very likely won't go away. I want to ask you a question and with each of these podcasts, we really try to take it down to something that's practical. Something you can go do something with. What suggestions might you have for someone that's wanting to improve the effectiveness of their personal communication?

Phil Van Hooser (20:46):
Well, like you, when I stand before an audience, or when I write something that will be read by an audience member somewhere down the road, I'm always trying to get to that point too: what is the basic, foundational, walk away with and apply kind of principle? And in regard to communication, and there's certainly a lot of ways that we can consider this, but I'm going to give you what I consider to be the six basics of face-to-face communication or nose-to-nose or toes-to-toes. And when I say nose-to-nose or toes-to-toes, I'm not necessarily referring to confrontation. I'm just meaning that it's not anybody else, it's just two people communicating most effectively with one another. And when the leader, the supervisor, is the one leading that communication, I always remind them of six things and they're fairly simple.

In fact, they can be narrowed down to 18 words if you want to make it that simple. The first three words are talk with people. Not to, not about, not behind, not around, not up to or down to, figure out how you can talk with people or with individuals. The more this is a two-way conversation, the more effective the communication is going to be. So, number one, talk with people.

Number two: explain the process, upfront, before you get deep into any kind of activities, take the time, invest the time to explain the process. If you don't explain the process upfront as a supervisor, you're always going to have to explain it later on sometime, when someone comes back and asks, "Help me with this" or they made a mistake or whatever. But the environment changes then because someone's already frustrated, there's already been a problem. It's always much more effective to explain the process upfront while there's still an opportunity to make a substantive change or substantive success happen.

Number three, tell the truth, tell the truth. There's never a good time to tell an untruth. There's never an inappropriate time to tell an untruth. And frankly, the matter of communication is if someone ever catches you in an untruth, be it sharing something you want them to know or something you don't want them to know, then they're not going to trust future communications going forward. They're going to expect that you're always lying to them. And that's the kiss of death.

Joe White (23:14):
So true. I've seen evidence of that so many times.

Phil Van Hooser (23:18):
And we all have, and we all know even sitting here right now, even though I should be thinking about what I'm saying to you, I'm actually thinking about people that have lied to me in the past. That's how long we hold these particular issues, as leaders we can't afford to have that happen. So there's the first three: Talk with people. Explain the process. Tell the truth. Now I said there were six. So let me give you the final nine words.

Number four: work for understanding. Now, most people will focus on the word "understanding". Certainly, we've got to work for understanding. There has to be understanding in communication, but I think I'd like to put the emphasis on that first word, work for understanding. If understanding it doesn't happen immediately, we can't give up. We can't throw our hands in the air. We can't just sort of wash our hands of it, we've got to go to work. We've got to figure out communication is our job. I must work at it.

Number five: get them on board, get them involved. The more you involve and the more you engage individuals in conversation, then all of a sudden it becomes a dialogue, not a monologue. It's not a lecture anymore, it's a discussion. And so the more we get them involved and, even better, if we can give them a job to do in that communication process so that they are more focused on what they are supposed to do than being focused on what someone else is not doing. Now, the first five, I think will make us better communicators overall just by doing those five: talk with people, explain the process, tell the truth, work for understanding and get them involved.

But sometimes those five things still leave communication a little lacking. So the last thing I always tell people is: do your job, do your job, as a communicator, especially in the role of supervisor or manager, it's our role and responsibility. Number one, to set the expectation. Number two, to communicate that expectation. And then number three, to give feedback relative to how that expectation is either being met or exceeded or not being met and therefore needs to be improved upon -- that's our job too. And if we're not communicating in those difficult times, then quite frankly, our communication when we're only communicating during the positive times is less effective and not as much appreciated by those that we're attempting to communicate with. So from a face-to-face standpoint, from an individual communication standpoint, I think those six things can be as helpful as anything else I can communicate to your listeners today. Talk with people, explain the process, tell the truth, work for understanding, get them involved, and always be focused on doing your job,

Joe White (26:05):
Phil, that's just great advice. And again, for us, we always try to make things practical, relevant, and actionable. And I think those, the six items that you've outlined, touch on each of those. And again, I can't thank you enough. I know those are things that could readily be applied, you could start with that today. And if you certainly do that, there's no doubt you're going to improve. Phil, we're out of time in this particular episode. I would love to have you back, I'd love to pick up this conversation a little bit further, explore this whole notion of communication. We could spend a day talking about this, but I really want to thank you for your time. It's always a pleasure to speak with you.

Phil Van Hooser (26:46):
Well, Joe, it's been a pleasure for me as well. And my hope is that something that we've discussed today will prove to be pivotal and important for the continuing improvement of communication for the listeners. That's my goal.

Joe White (26:59):
Awesome. Thank you so much. All right. Contact information for Phil in case anyone wants to follow up with him, would like to get in touch with him, will be available in the show notes for this episode. For those listening, hope you found this discussion of value and benefit. If so, please help us spread the word, share the podcast with others that you may know, and others that may have an interest. The SOS podcast series is brought to you by AEU LEAD, a consultancy dedicated to the needs of frontline managers. For additional information, or to follow us on social media, please use the links in the show notes provided. That's it for now, stay safe, and thanks for listening.



About our guest, Phil Van Hooser

When organizations want to create a culture of trust, teamwork and valued employee engagement, Phillip Van Hooser is the trusted advisor they can confidently turn to.  For more than 30 years, hundreds of U.S. companies and organizations have trusted Phil and his commonsense, results-driving leadership methods drawn from his high-pressure management roles in banking, manufacturing and consumer goods.

An award-winning keynote speaker, leadership trainer and accomplished writer, Phil’s clear success plan is laid out in multiple books including We Need to Talk: Building Trust When Communicating Gets Critical.

A Certified Speaking Professional, a member of the CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame, Phil is a 30+ year member, past president of the National Speakers Association, and is a recipient of the Cavett Award, NSA’s highest honor. 

Where you can find Phil

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