Frequently Asked Questions

Many people in the workplace today can’t always communicate in person or even via phone. We traditionally rely on messaging and arguably, must learn common brevity techniques to convey more than 90% of our message’s meaning without tone, body language, etc. Why can’t we work similarly to sharpen our e-mail communications?

No matter how well we sharpen our e-mail wording, we can still only control 10% of the meaning of the message at best. Therefore, no matter how we slice it, 90% is up to the other person for interpretation. This is true no matter how many smiley faces we use.

As we build better relationships with people, they are going to start to guess right. For the most part, most organizations are starting to push towards other forms of communication and balance. So, take advantage of existing tools. If you cannot meet face to face, other forms of communication such as phone and video conferencing may be a possible work around.

Just remember to use the best practices of e-mail communication. An easy one to remember is that if an email goes back and forth for more than two reiterations, then we should pick up the phone, as this is a sign that something else is going on.

How does a reasonably large organization put into practice, from a corporate perspective, the individual communications skills you are promoting?

The answer to this is to remember the five keys that an organization needs to do in order to create that open, honest, culture. Remember, it’s not what people say, it’s what they DON’T say to each other.The five keys are:

  • Awareness – people need to be aware that the big problem is not what people say, it’s what they don’t say to each other. In fact, people most commonly tend to withhold more than they share.
  • Cost – people need to realize the cost of us withholding and not having honest and open communication. For example, a client of mine shared that she had a team of folks that were meeting. What should have taken them four months actually took them a year and a half. And in the end, the product they delivered was not that great. The reason they took forever was because people were not bringing up the issues in the meeting and instead, were having the “real” meeting outside of the actual meeting. When totaling up the amount of salaries that they were burning per hour in these meetings, after all was said and done, it cost the organization thousands of dollars that could have been saved had it been more productive. Also, the folks that were assigned to this project, had the project been done quicker, could have been reallocated to other high priority jobs.
  • Leaders need to model the behaviors of honest communication. It is easy to talk about these things, but the key is for leaders to demonstrate through specific behaviors that relate honest communication.
  • Employees need to learn the nine most important steps in communicating and having honest conversations (call our office for these strategies).
  • People need to be held accountable to using the strategies. Left to their own devices, people will defer to what is comfortable. However, many things in life are uncomfortable. Once we develop the habits, we produce good results. Call us at 703 241-7796 if you need help implementing these strategies.

How do “authentic communication strategies” work in annual performance evaluations and feedback? I.e., on an ongoing basis, semi-annually and annually?

For the most part, performance evaluations and feedback are more like management tools than communication tools. Unfortunately, if we do not have honest and open communication and instead, wait until it’s time for performance evaluations, then we create a certain amount of awkwardness leaving people feeling blindsided. The solution is to not wait for performance evaluations, and instead provide feedback on an ongoing basis.If you find yourself stressed that you are going to give a performance evaluation, it begs the question “why are you stressed?” The answer could be because you know and/or are worried that you have not had that open communication prior to this evaluation.

Discuss a practical plan for assessing the communications health of our organization and developing a way ahead to immunize our organization, train and teach everyone to use the tools you identify in your books/seminars.

One way to easily assess the communication health of your organizations is to focus on three primary areas. The degree to which these are happening is the degree that there is a problem.

First area – How often are people being surprised and blindsided by problems, feedback, information, and challenges? Are you finding that many big problems that you ultimately hear about could have been solved if you had known sooner?

Second – How often do we find people in meetings disagreeing with you and with each other? As President Johnson once said, “If no one is arguing, only one person is thinking” and what I would add to that is “and telling the truth.” It is healthy and useful to have disagreements. This is not to be confused with spending time executing rather than re-litigating and negotiating the original decision after a decision has been made. The key is to make sure to have disagreements at the right stages, make good decisions, and move forward.

Ideas being shared – How often are you hearing proactive and spontaneous new ideas and opportunities from team members? If you find that many people are waiting to be told what to do and are not proactively sharing ideas up, down, and across the organization, chances are this is a sign that people are also not being up front and the health of your organization may be hampered. Specifically in this area, innovation and creativity is the life source that we need to keep growing and getting better.

Besides reading your books/attending a seminar and talking about the strategies, how can we make “honest communication” part of our culture and continuously practice and reinforce these strategies? How can we maintain the momentum and inspirational spark from a Gaffney session?

There are many strategies and tips in my materials and sessions, here are four additional key points:

First, there are things that we can do immediately that can keep the momentum and excitement out of the session that we just conducted. Teach the Notice vs. Imagine throughout the organization and the eleven points and applications. Refer to your notes from the session and the Just Be Honest book (see the Success Store if you do not have a copy).

Secondly, share some of my free articles and use one of them as a topic of conversation in a meeting. Leading and Operating in Ambiguity and the 11 Most Common Problems are good examples.

Third, have a communication moment at the beginning of every meeting. Whatever is important, we need to share and focus on. For example, if safety is important, we may place this at the beginning of the meeting. Why not have a communication moment? Take one of these nuggets that you have earned. Teach at the beginning of a meeting and reference with an example or assign that tip to be taught by someone else in the organization. You can choose someone who is good at it and is a good example of it, or someone who is not very good at it and by you assigning the individual with that task, it will help him/her learn it through teaching.

The fourth tip is to hold people accountable for using these techniques and tools. The more we reinforce and hold people accountable, the more likely they will develop into habits and produce the results you desire. Ask everyone to share how they have used the seminar material, and how they have shared what they have learned. This will maximize the benefits of the session and provide accountability.

What are some corporate practices or environments which suppress an “honest communication” professional life style?

Environments that create fear suppress honest communication. Remember, the number one reason why people do not share what is on their mind is fear. Fear of retribution, hurting someone’s feelings, or hurting our career. So our job, as leaders, is to make people feel safe.

We train and condition people on how we want to be treated. If people get defensive and punish people who are more forthcoming, then they will train others to not speak up or be honest. The key is to train and condition people accordingly using the techniques and tools.

Are there value elements (e.g., integrity, respect, etc.) that should be in place within the environment before an individual can embrace an “honest communication” approach to interactions?

Hopefully, your organization should already have integrity, respect, and other key values in place. If not, you may want to notify the appropriate people. Either way, honest communication can be immediately implemented because that will only help improve the climate and culture.

How do you pull people together to get everyone to the same level of performance to apply your theory of ‘Just be Honest’?

Please refer to question #4.

span style=”color:#000000″>Given professional environments and cultures, have you found that there may be a timing issue as to when we can ‘Just be Honest’?

One of the things we talk about in our sessions is that we train and condition people all day long on how we want to be treated. We can train them to lie to us or train them to be up front with us. We need to recognize why people withhold, and that is out of fear.

As leaders, we need to make people feel safe. We don’t have to be happy with everything that they share with us, but we should be happy that our employees speak their mind.

It’s a simple concept, and the key is demonstrating it in our behaviors and making people feel safe.

In terms of timing – there is never a good time, but if we have a sense of urgency, we should share information as soon as possible. The answer is to do it early. If you wait, people start to create assumptions and their own ideas about what is true.

It’s important to remember to always investigate and ask questions. This deals with one of the takeaways from our sessions; Listen from a position that we “do not know.” The more we realize we don’t know, the more we will investigate and check in. You are bringing up a very powerful point among lots of things we shared. What drives us to investigate is not that we don’t trust, but that we need to find out more information. The first thing someone thinks to tell you is rarely the actual problem.

For example, have you ever had someone in your life that you cannot make happy? They tell you what is wrong and you try to appease them. But there are new complaints everyday so there must be some other underlying issue other than what is being said. If we keep that in mind when we hear things, it will cause us to ask more and more questions.

One could argue that we have well-developed skills and tools to avoid honest communication and that some personnel have, in the narrow sense, been successful and influential because of these avoidance skills. How do we change this dynamic at all leadership levels?

Please refer to question #4. In addition, we need to be clear that when people avoid honest communication, it costs taxpayer dollars and worst of all, affects the mission of the organization.

In one of your sessions, you mentioned “non-negotiable” items that you should not waste time on. There are many times we have “non-negotiable” areas that are unpopular. How do we get the fact across that a subject is “non-negotiable” without making people feel like their issues are not being heard? Do we let them vent and then try to make forward movement on how to find ways to make it successful?

It is fine and useful to let people vent, but in the end, what most people find rewarding is when we make it clear what things are negotiable and what are non-negotiable. After all, have you ever worked hard at something and then found out what you worked on and were promoting was actually a non-negotiable (it was not even open for discussion or change)? For example, on a positive note, when a leader says the goal is not negotiable, but how we are going to get there is negotiable. “I need your help and wisdom.”

I left one of your sessions without a great handle on the three buckets (i.e. what we know, don’t know & can’t tell). Would you share more on that?

Another way to look at this from a managerial perspective is the what, why, and how. There are three buckets that a manager needs to convey. “What” we want done, “why” it is important, and “how” to do something.

First, “what” we want is very key. If we are not clear, we will not get the desired results. Fuzzy communication produces fuzzy results. Secondly, “why” we want something done is very important. This is especially crucial when managing change. Often, people are clear on what the change will be, but they are not always clear as to why that is important. When you share why, you build respect from others and also help other people to anticipate things that may not be as clear because they will better understand your intentions as to where things are going. Thirdly is “how” to do something. This is perhaps the area where most of us need to let go and let employees figure out and use their creative juices to address the issue. Having said that, sometimes when people are new to an organization, the how can be useful to jump start the process.

I am using the communication principle, “if an email goes back and forth two times, go and see the person.” I have found by following this communication principle the “unclear issue” becomes clear. Communications via Emails are 10% effective.

Great point, see question 1 for more detailed information.

If we are wrong up to 50-70% of the time, doesn’t that lead to indecision?

The desired effect for most people and organizations is to increase collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork. The reason is, having taught this to thousands and thousands of people, when people realize that they may be wrong (in fact, they are more wrong than they may be right), they are more likely to check in and reach out to network.

If you find that people are actually being indecisive, the key is to remind them that often, making no decision is worse than a mediocre decision. It is about making progress, not perfection. As I have learned from some of my clients in the military, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” But that is not to say we do not do our best to plan. It is to say that it is about planning, executing, and adjusting.

You used an example in your book whereby the other person is in control of 95% of a situation and I’m only in control of 5%. But I can still be effective if I concentrate on the 5% that I’m responsible for. Doesn’t the 5% rule stifle our attempt to grow and reach to do more?

The point I was trying to make is that even in the worst case scenario, we can still control the small part we are involved in. We are 100% in control of our own actions. What does that mean? Assume that you are the cause in the manner and that you can effect situations in a major way. The reality is that you can. If ever you find yourself saying there is someone else to blame, remember the 5% rule; Even if it is 95% their fault and 5% our fault, focus 100% on the 5% you control and you will produce major effects.

Perceptions are everything. If we are potentially wrong 50-70% of the time, does that say that our perceptions are wrong up to 50-70% of the time?

Yes. But the key is to not be focused on the percentages, rather to honor the fact that we are more wrong than we realize and to give ourselves and others a break by checking in. Give them the benefit the doubt and when we are unclear and need more information to be proactive, it is important to check in with others. Remember, self righteousness is toxic to relationships, growth, and ingenuity among other things.

In the absence of notice, people will fill in the vacuum with their imagination (which is usually filled with negative or wrong assumptions). Is it better to quickly communicate the little or no information we have to report, or wait until we have all the facts to convey to the workforce? Why or why not?

People wait for more and more information. I often feel, “I wish that someone could just tell me something.” If we were on the other side, how would we want to be communicated with? The solution is to communicate early and often.

There are three buckets of communication: here is what we know, what we don’t know, and some things that we cannot say. The third bucket is what makes people upset. With a changing environment, the worst thing we can do is remain silent. If we stay silent, we fill it in with our own imagination. Think about your children – it’s the one-word answers that worry us. If we say what is on our mind, we worry less. Be up front.


If we spend time teaching someone how to solve a problem, it will pay dividends. You may be tempted to say “here is how to fix it.” Things are short in time and we have a triage of information. The problem is we lose their creative benefit. I often say, “I want to hear your idea first so I don’t taint your idea” Other times, some people say “Here is the problem” and you should say, “What you would suggest?”

Another idea is to say, “I know you are capable; come back in an hour and come back with three ideas.” If we, as leaders, do not do that, we aren’t mentoring and teaching them. We have trained and conditioned them to come to us and solve their problems. If we facilitate them, they learn and they are MUCH more motivated. After a while, we, as people, are not motivated if we are not engaging our minds. There are so many great ideas out there and one of the things is to get them to use it.

There is a book called, Mastering the Rockefeller Habit. It says that if a leader is not being mocked, they are not repeating enough. In other words, repetition and hitting the main points over and over again. How we build folks is based on how messages get received. Some say, “I was clear, I said this three times.” The problem is the sender not the receiver. There is a lot to be said about repetition; if a leader is not being mocked, they are not repeating enough.