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For the first time since COVID, I decided to organize a very “simple” taco dinner for about 25 family members. The group of busy individuals ranged from 11 months to 76 years-old, and had many dietary restrictions. I also planned several other family celebrations. As a project manager, and mom of five, I’ve hosted parties for well over 500 people. And I was deliberately trying to keep my holiday simple. Yet, I still learned some communication lessons when I stepped back to reflect.

The taco dinner night took a turn when I realized some individuals thought it started at 7pm, rather than the 5:30pm plan. At about 6:15, when we were trying to start eating, I realized that some of the food was still in the coolers. It needed to be put on the buffet line with serving utensils. By around 7:15, I noticed the kids had left toys scattered all over the kitchen floor. They were having fun feeding my grand-dogs taco meat and lettuce. Much like some of the rest of us, the golden retrievers didn’t much like lettuce. And they left it on the floor, for me to clean up.

I spent the evening trying to balance quality time with my family, while also trying to ensure the food was prepared and nobody was tripping over Legos. As some of us were cleaning the kitchen, I learned that my 2-year-old grandson was inadvertently playing a water-activated “paint by numbers” type activity, using beer, instead of water.

Despite some snafus, my family had a fantastic time celebrating the holidays we treasure so deeply. Since the gathering, I have pondered whether my failure to communicate effectively was part of the problem. Here are six communication lessons I learned.

1 – Be clear about who is doing what, and who is tasked with communicating changes

With people getting communications by texts, calls, and emails, or perhaps through other channels, all of us are feeling overwhelmed by communications. And the holiday season is crazy busy. So, the communications and tasks grow.

We first need to understand what communication channel will get the best response and that can be a problem, since people are different. Some people do better with texts. Others don’t really manage their texts and so, if your message is not at the top of the list, it will likely be missed. Think through who needs what information and when.

We also need to think through what a task involves. Was it to bring a quart of sour cream from the store? How was the sour cream supposed to magically transition to the buffet line with a serving spoon?

When people are overworked and stressed, and perhaps, being pulled in too many directions, it’s easy to fall into a meltdown of sorts. When different people are texting on the same subject and sending conflicting or confusing messages, the result can turn chaotic. Perhaps you designate one person on the team to manage the communications, or to step in when there is a last-minute change.

Some of this chaos is to be expected, but are there ways to minimize it? I believe so. Hopefully these communication lessons will help.

2 – Sometimes, we should choose talking over technology

I do love technology. And I love the fact that there is a record of decisions made when it’s done in writing. And because there is lag between receiving a message and sending a response, there can be a certain grace period that allows us time to think.

Brainstorming, whether it’s about the materials to use on a construction project, what to eat at your holiday event, or where to go on your summer vacation, is not easily done by text. Sometimes we just need to talk, perhaps in person. Brainstorming is not easily or effectively done when people are multi-tasking.

And the inherent shortness of text messages can occasionally result in a lack of clarity, hurt feelings, or a sense of dismissiveness.

Sometimes, it just makes more sense to walk across the hall to your colleague’s office, or pick up the phone, and talk through a complex or confusing situation.

My 31-year-old daughter works in cancer research and frequently remarks about the challenges of training new staff to confidently navigate communicating with busy doctors. It often feels impossible to guess if a doctor will be more responsive to email, paging, texting, calling, or an in-person conversation.  How do we successfully blend each team members preferences to create a situation where everyone feels respected and is able to work and communicate effectively?

One communication lesson is to identify and document other’s preferences early on in each project/relationship.  Open a dialogue where these preferences can be discussed regularly to ensure that you are communicating as effectively as possible.

Sometimes, we should choose talking over technology #communication #lessonslearned #projectmanagement #teamwork #smartprojex Share on X

3 – Don’t assume that others have your event on their calendar

In the business world, we use online calendars, calendar invites, and perhaps shared calendars. That doesn’t always translate into personal events when people use paper calendars. While I might encourage the use of online calendars, I can’t force that on others. I can hope. But if people prefer paper calendars, they have that option.

Sometimes to reduce the number of communications, I will separate my messages to specific individuals. I’ve wondered if it makes more sense to simplify the planning process by just texting larger groups, knowing that I’ll be inundating people’s phones, maybe more than necessary. Perhaps it makes more sense to just send a calendar invite out several months in advance, and not be bothered if some can’t attend.

And this communication lesson is not just for households. I know plenty of people who have an online calendar in the work world and a paper calendar for home, and rarely connect the two calendars with intention. I also know people who use a paper calendar during the day when they are not in the office – and so, updates to their afternoon schedule may not be received.

Don’t assume that others have your event on their calendar. #communication #lessonslearned #teamwork #calendar #projectmanagement #smartprojex Share on X

4 – Train the new people in your organization to respect others

I’m sure most people in the business world are familiar with younger people coming in with significantly stronger technology skills. Have you noticed some young people being a bit dismissive of older people without strong tech skills?

I would argue that this respect for older people is a cultural characteristic that is more prevalent in some cultures, than others. I also think that the United States needs to focus a bit more on teaching respect for others. We especially need to focus on seniors, disabled individuals, and people of different races.

It begins at a very young age, in the home. For example, how do I effectively communicate with 20+ adults, or even a 7-year-old, who must wait for others to get food first? They may not understand that those with food allergies risk illness when eating contaminated food.

When children aren’t taught respect at a young age, it grows into a lack of respect for others when they enter school, or the workforce.

And when you teach respect, you build adaptable children who turn into adaptable adults. Teach children how to adapt to different expectations in different places. And watch them grow into adults who can balance different expectations from different team leaders.

When we build respect for others, we increase our awareness of the need to set expectations early in the game. We don’t wait until the day of an event to announce that plans need to be adjusted unless an emergency arises.

5 – Build awareness about the different systems within which others operate

One of the most painful communication lessons that I learned involved other people’s systems. I need to build more awareness about the different systems within which the others in my spaces operate. Understand that every person who will be impacted in your holiday planning also operates within other systems. Your event may not be their highest priority that day.

In the business world, I’m frequently impacted by the other systems of the people I work with. A team member might be out for a death in the family, or a serious illness. This could necessitate shifting tasks around or rescheduling a critical meeting. The software that a team I manage has created for other companies to use needs a critical update. Is the weekend of New Year’s a good time for that update? Or could a disaster in the update process impact year-end reporting?

The same is true in holiday event planning. Your seated dinner for 20 adults at two tables suddenly changes when one family comes down with COVID. Or, when the person responsible for bringing one of your side dishes at your family meal just doesn’t bring the dish, will you have enough food?

What happens when the guests coming to your house for afternoon drinks are hosting their uncle for lunch beforehand, and the uncle just won’t leave? Did you know they were hosting a lunch before your afternoon drinks and that there might be some ramifications? What happens when you set the table for 10 people, only to realize that some of the guests will prefer to sit in front of the TV to watch football?

Building awareness of the different systems that impact others will help set you up for a more successful event.

6 – Pay attention to the clarity of your messaging

I’ve lost track of the number of messages that I’ve read or heard that could be interpreted multiple ways. Sometimes, messages ask more questions than they answer, without that being the point of the message.  We can all improve here.

For one event, we scheduled a grown-up conversation. I hired a babysitter to be with the young ones in the basement. As the babysitter arrived, I learned that one child had organized a pirate dig in the basement. The floor was covered with a kind of fake dirt. It desperately needed vacuuming before a toddler could play.

Clarity requires that we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and imagine the situation from their perspective. Of course, a 7-year-old wants to play with their Christmas toys!! Why should we think differently?

When you write an email, ask yourself what the reader is supposed to do with that message. Tell them that in the subject line.

For our taco dinner, I had done a great job of figuring out who was going to bring the various foods. I did a lousy job understanding how food was going to get to the buffet line.

Pay attention to the clarity of your messaging #communication #lessonslearned #teamwork #projectmanagement #smartprojex Share on X

One might argue that these six communication lessons are not about communications. But they are all about communications. It includes how we talk to one another, as well as how we write. It includes what we say and what we don’t say. By implication, it includes the assumptions that we make. Are others really able and willing to perform the tasks we need done?

If you’ve read this far, I believe you will like my new book: Herding Smart Cats: Project Management Reimagined.