How to Communicate What You Want

Last week I called a team member with questions about a report she sent me. I spent most of the call saying that one line item didn’t “feel quite right” and venting about the realities of multiple data sources even though her work was complete and thorough. Two days later she came back with more detailed reports that took her countless hours to prepare. It was more than I needed, and I quickly realized that my poor communication had caused her to waste a lot of time.

Effectiveness at work relies on knowing the outcome you want, sharing it clearly and understanding what others want. This is true in working with your team, your peers, your boss, your clients or consultants. Clarity on outcomes is essential – not only for reaching your goals but using time and resources wisely.

Tips for Sharing What You Want:

  1. Call out when you are brainstorming or just giving an idea. I once worked for an idea machine. We all soon learned that after white boarding a topic it was essential to discuss the implication not once but twice. I’d often go back the next day to revisit the topic with him before taking any action – as sometimes that idea was no longer important. Clarify when you are thinking out loud rather than making a recommendation or expecting action. The more senior you are – the more important this is as others will take special notice of anything you say. When you flood the zone with ideas it’s difficult for others to know what matters most to you and then consider it.
  2. Explain when you are venting. This was my story. I should have shared upfront I was frustrated about several things well outside of her work and I needed to talk it through. And, then, if I had been more specific on next steps my team member wouldn’t have had to guess or assume.
  3. Have clear outcomes. Know what you want and when you want it. If the outcome isn’t clear– then share the guardrails and what you do know. On a recent change project, the guardrails included simplicity and clarity for the site leaders, complete integration of multiple smaller plans and a success metric tied to service impact. This set a directional outcome even though there was still much to be decided and built out.
  4. Don’t change your mind every day. This can be tempting in times of high change and uncertainty. Pick the best option and move forward while incorporating new information to the plan as you go. Continually changing your mind on outcomes is the equivalent of doing nothing.


Continually changing your mind on outcomes is the equivalent of doing nothing.


Tips for Understanding What Others Want:

  1. Clarify – don’t assume. It’s always a good practice to end meetings with clarifying questions that validate next steps and actions. Make sure you are aligned on what is an idea vs. a confirmed direction. Confirm who is accountable for actions. In my example, my team member would have helped by confirming specific next steps and actions. My rambling call created confusion, and I needed to refocus.
  2. Confirm meeting outcomes upfront. I was once part of a leadership team with a consistent practice of tagging topics by 1) Idea generation, 2) Informational, or 3) Decision needed. Clear outcomes framed the entire conversation and how to use our time. Informally determine the meeting’s intention before you begin so expectations and actions are aligned.
  3. Validate & test. On bigger topics, check in and validate your progress. As an example, “Yesterday, we discussed outcomes and how we’d design this global delivery program. I’d like to share an initial framework to be sure we are going in the right direction.” An early check-in, with a tie back to outcomes, ensures you are aligned, identifies needed changes early, and helps you use your time wisely.

The likelihood of getting what you want increases greatly when you communicate your ideal end game clearly and consistently. You can get what you want – but you have to let others in on it!

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults and can be followed @pattibjohnson.