3 Ways to Clarify Expectations

A couple of weeks ago I posted a LinkedIn article titled “Beware of Hearing What You Want to Hear.” I offered four ideas that I have found to be helpful as we help clients execute on their digital transformation projects:

  1. Clarify expectations, speak them back, rinse and repeat
  2. Define the roles that are needed to do the work, and then agree on who is doing them
  3. Have the hard conversations quickly and openly
  4. Don’t give up too soon, stay the course

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be digging deeper into each of these ideas. I think there are principles here that can apply to almost any program, project, or initiative. You will probably also find that these skills are useful communication tools in your personal relationships.

Today we’ll focus on idea #1:

Idea #1 – Clarify expectations. Speak them back. Rinse and repeat.

Beware of Hearing What You Want to Hear (LinkedIn Post) (1)

Let’s face it, effective communication is hard. Humans have different personalities, languages, cultures, beliefs, values, needs, wants, assumptions. These factors influence how we say things, and perhaps more subtly, how we hear things said by others. We find that we are saying one thing, yet the other party hears something very different.

At the same time, when starting a business project or initiative it is critical to identify key things like:

  • What is to be accomplished?
  • Why it is important?
  • How success will be measured?

However, each person involved in the project will likely have different expectations of what needs to be done, what is most important, and what success looks like. If a team is going to successfully accomplish a project, then they must be able to talk about and align on these expectations.

So there’s the conundrum we face:

Alignment of expectations is critical, yet effective communication is difficult.

Alignment of expectations is critical, yet effective communication is difficult.

Let’s take idea #1 a bite at a time:

Clarify expectations (Active Listening)

The heart of this bit is what is called “Active Listening.” In its simplest form, this is being very intentional about listening. Sounds simple right? Not really.

We’ve probably all experienced conversations where someone is talking to us, yet our minds wander and we stop hearing what they are saying. Perhaps we’ve become distracted by something and we start thinking about that other thing. Maybe they sparked a thought in our minds and we get carried away thinking about that tangent. Perhaps we heard the first part of what they said, but then we start thinking about what we’re going to say next. Perhaps we’ve totally lost interest so we intentionally decide to disengage and think about something else. (Yeah, that’s rude, but you know you’ve done it.) If we’re good actors, this might happen without the other person realizing their message stopped getting through, but whatever the scenario, communication has broken down.

Active Listening assumes that you, the listener, really want to hear what the other party is trying to communicate. It acknowledges that distractions happen and that you will need to be intentional and vigilant if you are going to get the most from the interaction. It also assumes that there is more to hear than just the words being spoken so you will need to “listen between the lines”.

Some basic elements of Active Listening are:

  • Physically take a “listening posture”, e.g. face the speaker, lean in, make eye contact (if possible), nod when appropriate
  • Avoid distractions, e.g. don’t check your watch or other websites, work at staying focused
  • Try to listen without judgment, hearing the key points that are being said
  • Take notes, capturing the key points that the speaker is saying
  • Be patient, allow the speaker to get their thoughts out, and try to avoid interrupting
  • When it is your turn to speak avoid re-directing the conversation to yourself
  • Ask thoughtful, clarifying questions to tease out more details of what was said

Learning to ask good clarifying questions is an important part of active listening. A clarifying question often requires more than just a simple Yes or No answer. The goal is to be curious about what the speaker has said and then ask questions so that you can explore more deeply what they are really thinking.

Here are some ideas for Clarifying Questions if you were exploring a new project:

  • What is the business reason for doing this? How will this create value?
  • Why is this project important to you?
  • When the project is successfully completed what will be different?
  • What work has already been done here? How far along the road are you already?
  • What parts do you think are the most difficult? What parts are easiest?

Once we start asking clarifying questions it leads us to the second bit of Idea #1:

Speak them back (Reflection)

The next bit is often called “reflection.” As the speaker is answering your clarifying questions, it is often helpful to put their answers into your own words and speak them back or “reflect” them to the other person. This lets the other person know that you are interested and really listening to them. It also will help to verify that your interpretation of what they are saying agrees with what they are trying to communicate.

As you grow in your active listening skills you will find that you’ll be combining reflection into your clarifying questions. When exploring a new project, this is a powerful way to dig into the details and nuances of the project vision and goals.

Keep in mind that the goal of reflection is both to validate your current understanding of what the speaker is saying, and also to keep the conversation going so you both can continue to clarify what the speaker is trying to communicate.

Which brings us to the final bit of Idea #1:

Rinse and Repeat

This is the easy part. Just keep asking clarifying questions and reflecting back what you’re hearing. Stay curious and keep exploring so you really understand what the other person is saying.

How do you know when you are done? When you start to feel like you are both saying the same thing and coming up with the same answers. At that point there is a good chance that you have a pretty good understanding of what the other person is really saying.

Many business conversations are already time-boxed due to a meeting schedule. This means that you’ll need to wind things down as you approach the end of your meeting. If you feel there are still things that aren’t clear and need to be explored more deeply then you should probably schedule another conversation to continue to explore.

The end goal is that you both feel that you have gotten to a point of mutual understanding.

A Sample Conversation

So what might this look like in the real world? Let’s say a digital transformation project is being explored and the topic of moving to the cloud is mentioned:

Business Leader: We are very interested in moving our customer service portal into the cloud!

Consultant: You are in good company. So many companies are moving things to the cloud right now. What benefits do you anticipate from having your customer service portal in the cloud?

Business Leader: We anticipate that it will save us a lot of money and be more reliable than having to run our own data center.

Note: Those two benefits of cost and reliability may or may not be achievable, but at this point, we don’t know enough to speak to that. There also may be other issues. So we keep listening and exploring.

Consultant: So it sounds like you have your own data center today, and that your primary goals for moving things to the cloud are cost reduction and reliability. Running a successful data center is a complicated thing. Are there specific challenges you’ve faced with cost and reliability?

Business Leader: Well our data center is not very big, at least not compared to many companies. We have several racks of servers and a small team of people to maintain it. The biggest challenge we face is that sometimes the customer portal becomes overwhelmed with traffic and our systems can’t handle the load. We are hoping that moving things to the cloud will help with that.

Note: We just learned a root issue that is actually deeper than just cost and reliability. This may be one of the key business drivers for this initiative and we might have missed it if we hadn’t asked questions.

Consultant: That is a great reason to move to the cloud! Being able to scale up quickly to meet demand can be a huge competitive advantage. If your current IT staff is fairly small then I would imagine they get quite busy trying to keep up with this system demand issue. Is that correct?

Business Leader: Definitely. In fact, that is the main thing that has kept us from moving to the cloud sooner. We have smart people who are very capable, but everyone is so busy putting out fires that we don’t really have the spare cycles to work on cloud migration.

Note: We just learned more about the team, their capabilities, and can speculate that this problem is pretty urgent. But we shouldn’t assume that, so let’s ask more questions.

Consultant: Well you are definitely not alone in that challenge. We hear that from many companies and that is one of the main reasons people ask for help with cloud migrations. So how urgent is this situation? How soon would you like to have your customer portal online in the cloud?

… and so on… rinse and repeat. If this was a real project there are a number of other questions we should ask to get into the specifics of the scope, challenges, risks, specific technologies, etc.

If this was a Veracity conversation, then one of the questions we ask our clients is “What do you want to do yourself vs. what would you like help with?”

That leads us to Idea #2 which I’ll cover next time:

Idea #2 – Define the roles that are needed to do the work, and then agree on who is doing them

I hope this basic discussion of active listening has been helpful. However, there’s a lot more you can learn about this topic. Just search for “active listening” and you’ll come up with a number of articles that will give you tips. If you want to dig deeper into this concept, a book I found to be helpful is Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People by Emily and Laurence Alison.

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