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Better Communications

Bert Troughton, ASPCA


Better Communications

Ask just about any manager, staff person, or volunteer in any organization what change would dramatically improve the effectiveness of their organization, and you’re likely to hear “better communication”. But what, exactly, do all of these people mean by “better communication”, and how do you know when you’ve achieved it?

For the answers to these questions, consider going right to the source. By engaging all of your staff (and volunteers) in the process of studying and talking about improved communications, you defacto engage them in the act of practicing better communication. In this way, rather than trying to direct change from the top down, change takes place somewhat organically throughout the organization…and everyone on staff is in part responsible for the success of communications.

A survey is a handy way to start this process. By clicking on the link below, you will find a survey designed to empower everyone on staff to ask good questions about your organization’s best communications and staff hopes or visions for improved communications. Once everyone has participated actively in the survey, you can schedule time in your staff meetings to study each question in more detail – allowing time for people to share their stories as well as their insights about the process of interviewing others and being interviewed. The value of this debriefing can hardly be overstated. Adults learn best by “doing”. Since nearly everyone wants better communications – and asking positive questions in a one to one setting is a healthy and productive communication process – your staff will have increased their level of competence and confidence through the course of the interviews. By adhering to a survey that uses affirmative questions, you will likely find in your follow-up meetings that people gravitate easily to identifying constructive plans for practicing better communications.

It’s somewhat ironic that we all begin to communicate as infants and yet even with a lifetime of practice, most of us feel the need for more and better communications at work. It may be even more ironic that the best answers to “how do we have better communications?” reside within the very people who desire them.

Click here for a participatory staff communications survey

Participatory Communications Survey

1. Attached is a list of questions about communications in an organization. Note that these questions are largely written in the affirmative and/or ask about best experiences and positive visions. This is intentional. These questions are designed to invite staff into a positive process of communication improvement versus a problem solving process which generally results in finger pointing and hard feelings.

2. Share the list of questions with your staff. Ask every staff member to take one question. If you have fewer than 16 staff, you can narrow the list to those questions you all agree will be most interesting and helpful to your organization, or you can ask for a few volunteers to take more than one question. If you have more than 16 staff, divide your staff randomly (there should be a mix of managers and front line staff in each group) and ask each group to work the entire set of questions.

[One fun option for distributing questions is to write each question on an index card and then allow staff members to draw one card from the deck. If you want to get really playful (and why not?!) once everyone has drawn a question card, you can allow your staff to trade cards until everyone is happy with the question they’ve got.]

3. Over the course of a set time frame (usually two to four weeks) each staff arranges to meet with every other staff member to ask their question, listening carefully to the answers, and taking notes. Questions must be asked “in person”, that is – not via email or over the phone – and there should be ample time to get thoughtful answers.

4. Once everyone has finished their interviews (and answered their own question themselves), summary responses should be compiled and distributed to all staff. The summaries will look something like the following example (note that names and other identifying data are absent from the summary report).

Example summary report

Question: “What do you think you would most like to learn or most want to practice in order to be a better communicator?”


4 – patience, taking the time to listen
1 – that it’s OK to say what’s on my mind
5 – how to give someone negative feedback constructively
6 – to remember to give positive feedback more often

5. Now that everyone has engaged in thinking about and studying successful communications you can bring communications topics to your staff meetings to discuss what you’re all learning and how you want – as a group – to improve communications. You will no doubt discover that the simple act of getting staff to ask affirmative questions and listen to one another has already begun the process of improving communications.

Staff Communications Survey

The Questions

1) What kinds of information or communications do you usually receive on a timely or regular basis? How do these communications help your work? How do these communications help your relationships to others here?

2) What kinds of information or communications would you most like to receive on a timely or regular basis? How would this help you in your work? How would these communications help your relationships to others here?

3) What do you think you would most like to learn or most like to practice in order to be a better communicator?

4) Tell me about a time when you have felt listened to here. What happened? Who was involved? What did you do? How did it feel to be listened to?

5) Think about a person or people here whom you find you can talk with more easily than with others. What are the circumstances, conditions, and personal traits that make people easy to talk with?

6) What do you think other people here most need to learn and/or practice in order to be better communicators?

7) Is there something you would like to say to someone here that you have not said? Without sharing names, talk about how being able to have that communication would help you, the person, and the organization.

8) What parts of the newsletter and web site do you routinely read? Why? How does this help your work?

9) Is there anything about working on better communication that might be scary or intimidating to you or to other people here? How might you and others overcome these tensions in order to communicate better?

10) Can you share a story of the best communication you ever had here and why it stands out for you?

11) If you could ask any question of any person here, what would that question be?

12) Can you think of one or more specific examples of things that would be better around here with more and better communication?

13) What communications do you need more of in order to be more effective in your job?

14) If you could change one thing at UVHS that would forever improve communication overall, what would that one thing be?

15) What could we all learn from dogs about communicating better with one another?

16) What could we all learn from cats about communicating better with one another?

© 2003 Bert Troughton

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