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Ron Ashkenas Headshot

Turn Down the Volume on Yelling!

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Have you ever observed an interaction between two people who speak different languages? Oftentimes, they speak louder and louder as the conversation progresses -- unconsciously hoping that turning up the volume will cause the other person to eventually get the message.

Increasing decibel levels is usually not the key to effective communications. Yet many managers still rely on dialing up "virtual volume" when persuading subordinates or peers. We've all seen managers who do this in various ways, such as sending belligerent or nasty emails; enlisting others to exert pressure; escalating disputes to higher levels; pulling rank; or threatening to derail a career. You've also probably seen managers use these techniques with suppliers or customers -- trying to get them to change terms, conditions, or prices.

The reality is that speaking louder is usually a symptom of frustration, like when an exasperated parent yells at a misbehaving child. It's a last resort when calm, rational arguments haven't worked. But when things reach this stage, communication deteriorates rapidly. Frustration and anger affect the yeller like an internal static, making it difficult for him to understand anyone else. And the raised volume -- while it might force the subordinate, colleague, or customer to give in -- certainly doesn't increase real understanding or acceptance of the message. In the long term, this kind of behavior creates fear, distrust, and suspicion -- not a good foundation for future understanding or problem solving.

It's easy to say that managers in organizations shouldn't act this way, just like we say that parents shouldn't yell at their kids. But organizations are made up of flawed human beings -- and all of us struggle with effective communication. So what can you do to deal with a loss of volume control either in yourself or others? Let me suggest two simple steps:

1. Tune up your sound meter: The first step in dealing with organizational yelling is to recognize when it is occurring, either in yourself or others. As mentioned earlier, managers often use various types of "virtual volume" to shout at one another in ways that can be silent. In the absence of real noise, you need to be alert for the signs of volume disorders such as projects that are stalled, decisions that are never made, and managers or departments that tend to blame each other for problems or just don't seem to get along.

Here's a quick example: In a large financial services company, a key systems project was months behind schedule with nobody taking responsibility for the delays. When asked, the business teams said that IT "couldn't get anything done," and the IT people reported that the business arm "didn't know what they wanted." As this kind of quiet shouting continued, project meetings eventually deteriorated into detailed task reviews with no real discussions about how to get the effort back on track. Eventually as the lack of progress escalated, the head of the division realized that the business and IT people were shouting, but not really talking.

2. Restart and reframe the discussion: Once you realize that a shouting match is underway (even if you are part of it), you need to get the parties to step back, turn off the megaphones, and start the discussion all over again. In doing so, you should begin with the premise that no one is to blame and that a shouting match does not serve any purpose. Instead, start from the end-point and work backwards as a team: What are we trying to accomplish? What's our shared organizational goal? What do we need to do to accomplish that goal?

In the financial services case, the division executive insisted that the IT and business teams (ten people) spend a full day recalibrating the project. With the help of a facilitator, the group focused first on the goal of the project. As the business people talked about their current products and what they hoped to do differently as a result of this systems change, some of the IT people began to realize that there was a completely different -- and much easier -- way to satisfy the business need. Six weeks later the first customer transaction was successfully concluded and the new revenue stream was underway.

Of course not every shouting match is defused as easily as this one. But by recognizing that the volume has been turned up and reframing the conversation in terms of a shared goal, you'll have a much better chance of making progress. Otherwise -- like those two people speaking different languages -- you'll just keep talking louder and louder.

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

[For more, visit the Communication Insight Center.]