Keys to effective communication for construction leaders

communication tips constructionA study from FMI and PlanGrid discovered that 52% of all construction industry rework is a result of poor data and miscommunication. Also, 45% of project managers said they spend more time than planned on communication with various project stakeholders — largely due to poor communication.

The need for construction leaders to become better communicators is clear. There is also a clear path to get there. Leaders must recognize the elements of effective communication, understand when it makes sense to utilize a certain mode of communication, and learn how to overcome common communication barriers.

Foundational elements to effective communication

  1. “The people you are communicating with will never believe you if they don’t trust you,” says Peggy Newquist, a principal and co-owner of Constructing Opportunity.
  2. When a leader can display empathy, typically through the words they use, people are more likely to listen. Examples include, “If I am understanding you correctly,” and “I can see how this can be frustrating for you,” etc.
  3. When a leader establishes trust and displays empathy, their credibility strengthens. Great leaders are reliable and honest, build rapport, admit what they don’t know, maintain confidentiality, avoid exaggeration and accept responsibility.

Close the communication loop. It’s important to recognize that communication is not as simple as just sending and receiving messages. To ensure effective communication, leaders should commit to a four-step process:

  • Sender sends message
  • Receiver hears message and responds
  • Sender clarifies
  • Receiver confirms

“Closing the communication loop like this can help avoid a lot of miscommunication,” Newquist points out.

Master both forms of communication. Effective communication is about more than just the written or spoken word. Non-verbal communication helps establish tone and emotion. Depending on how it is delivered, it can either help or hinder communication.

Newquist points out that there are several types of non-verbal communication, including:

  • Eye contact and blinking
  • Tone of voice
  • Facial expressions
  • Gestures
  • Posture and body language

“When your verbal and non-verbal communications don’t match, you’re likely to have miscommunication issues,” Newquist says. For instance, if you’re gritting your teeth while telling someone they did a great job, what message does the recipient really receive? Mixed messaging causes confusion, and can also hinder trust and credibility.

Understanding which communication mode is best

Email and text can be fast and cheap. The problem is that these modes can also be rather impersonal. People can also misunderstand messages, sometimes triggering an emotional response.

Email in particular can be effective for non-urgent communications. It’s also useful for following up on other communications to get some documentation. Emails are also great to hand out praise, or share documents and photos — especially when sharing with numerous people. “Just make sure your emails are always professional,” Newquist advises.

Phone communication can be useful when asking questions or gathering feedback. Because the conversation is happening in real time, agreements can be reached faster. On the negative side, there is no inherent documentation like you get with email.

“Phone is a great channel when you need to apologize, anticipate a lot of questions, need to explain something complicated, or need to discuss something personal or urgent,” Newquist says.

Face to face communication also allows you to reach consensus faster. Leaders can also capitalize on non-verbal communication to help get their message through in the right way. On the negative side, face to face communication can be costly and time-consuming. It also requires strong documentation because nothing is being transmitted in writing.

Face to face is an ideal communication mode when you want to:

  • Demonstrate the importance of the conversation
  • Interpret thoughts and feelings
  • Enhance credibility and trust
  • Build relationships
  • Gather feedback
  • Address sensitive issues

Overcoming barriers to communication

Familiarity. When a leader works with the same people on a regular basis, it is easy to neglect the step of finding out how they like to communicate. “Because we work with them so much, we assume we know,” Newquist says. But that’s not always the case. “Check in with people regularly. Ask if they’d rather you text them or call them,” Newquist says.

  1. Noise can be a barrier in the construction industry. So can distance and visibility. Climate can also be a barrier, whether it’s a frigidly cold jobsite in the winter or swelteringly hot jobsite in the summer. “Think about all of these things that are working against you when trying to communicate,” Newquist says. Environmental barriers can impact both verbal and non-verbal communication.
  2. This encompasses more than just English-to-Spanish, etc. Language barriers can also be business or industry jargon. “Sometimes a leader needs to work extra hard to clarify and confirm,” Newquist says. “Be especially careful with industry acronyms (i.e. BIM, building information modeling) when communicating with clients who might not be familiar with them.”

Watch the words you use, as well. Words and phrases such as hopefully, probably, someone, if time permits, etc. are referred to as “weasel words.” Newquist says these words allow leaders to make statements without establishing accountability.

  1. Leaders must be mindful of an organization’s rules and policies because they can slow things down. For example, if communications to a client must flow through a certain vice president, it’s important to know that so you can take steps to satisfy that requirement.
  2. How people like to communicate often ties back to the way they grew up. For instance, baby boomers often prefer face to face. Millennials often prefer texting and email. At the same time, most people are capable of adapting. As pointed out earlier when discussing the barrier of familiarity, it’s always good for a leader to check in with people to confirm how they like to communicate.
  3. Introverts and extroverts have very different personalities. Thus, they also have different ways they like to communicate.

“Some people like to speak to think,” Newquist says. “Then there are people who think to speak. Leaders have to be cognizant of different people’s styles. Sometimes you need some ground rules, too, as in ‘give me a minute to think this through,’ or ‘let’s talk through this for a minute.’”

To that point, leaders should also recognize that hearing is not synonymous with listening. Hearing is a sense. Listening is a skill.

“Listening is your interpretation of what you hear,” Newquist explains. “Leaders must make a conscious effort to listen. When you really listen to someone, that’s how you show empathy and build trust — and that’s how you become an effective communicator.”

This article is based on a presentation given by Peggy Newquist at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2020. Newquist is a principal and co-owner at Constructing Opportunity LLC, an organization that provides leadership development, mentoring and people skills training with emphasis on gender diversity in the construction industry. Visit ConstructingOpportunity.com for more information.

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