Steven Gaffney’s Communication Blog

7 Best Tips to Communicate Top Down and Bottom Up

7 Best Tips to Communicate Top Down and Bottom Up

Communication is only communication if the message gets where it needs to go and is received by those who need to hear it. Here are seven tips to successfully communicate top down, bottom up and even across your organization:

  1. Communicate face to face wherever you can. Research shows that less than 10 percent of the meaning of a message is carried through the actual words. If we just have written communication without any face-to-face communication, people are going to miss the message. If your workforce is geographically dispersed, then make use of technology. Seeing each others’ faces makes a huge difference.
  2. Clarity and simplicity are key. The person who defines whether a message is clear is not the sender but the receiver. Unfortunately, I often hear people say, “I must have said it five times. I was perfectly clear.” This shows the disconnect between what the speaker thinks is clear and what is actually clear. Be aware of your messages: Make sure your communication is to the point and not vague. A lack of clarity will only be magnified as the message gets relayed through the layers of the organization. Simple is powerful.
  3. Remember that messages can get distorted. When people are stressed, their listening decreases and so what they do hear becomes distorted. If you are trying to convey tough messages (which will cause stress), try to keep your message short, and then actually invite dialogue. For tough messages, one-way communication is not sufficient. Invite questions. Talk with folks. This helps people to absorb the message.
  4. Build in accountability. Many organizations suffer from what I call a thermal layer where communications do not penetrate. This is quite often the case when leadership conveys a message that they expect to get relayed down through the organization, and then they find out it was not relayed. When you have a message that needs to be cascaded down throughout the organization, give folks a deadline for making that happen and hold them accountable. One more thing: Check in with the bottom levels of your organization to make sure the message was received.
  5. Use multiple means of communication. For example, hold town hall meetings when you have to convey strategic initiatives and other vital information so that people can hear it directly from the leader. Use your organization’s intranet to post important information. Of course, you can’t expect people to always check that website, but you can incentivize them so they are more likely to use it. Email, website, meetings, and town halls all have their place. Important messages need to be shared in multiple ways.
  6. Make people aware of the central talking points. If you are expecting folks to cascade a message throughout your organization, make sure they are aware of the key talking points as well as the points not to say. This matters because people will often start expanding on less important points and miss the key ones. Be sure to emphasize what is most important so it can’t be missed.
  7. Watch out for lengthy emails with multiple points. Generally it is better to keep emails short. Remember, quick and easy is better than long and complicated.

Many organizations do employee surveys, and the results often show that there’s an issue with communication. I have worked with a lot of leaders who get these results despite the fact that they have been working hard at communication. Don’t give up. This is not an easy problem to solve, but it is one where you can make a difference step by step. You can always communicate more—and more effectively. Follow these guidelines and you can begin to make a real difference in your organization.

Communicating with Angry Customers

Communicating with Angry Customers

 Although it may be tempting, never dismiss an angry or upset customer—no matter how inconsequential their issue may sound. Unhappy customers are the much more vocal than happy ones, and with social media, one problem customer can turn into a firestorm of criticism and backlash. Just as important, one customer complaint may be the tip of the iceberg of a larger issue. Listening to your customer’s complaint will allow you to uncover the truth, which could be a systemic issue that needs your attention and resolution.

To help you approach the complaint with a good attitude, consider that your angry or upset customer could be giving you a gift of awareness. One thing that can seem intimidating about upset customers is that the situation feels tricky and unpredictable. Fortunately this six-step customer turnaround strategy provides a tool to manage the situation and bring it to a positive resolution:

Step 1: Make the correct assumptions.

After years in the trenches working with employees at all levels, I have learned that certain assumptions can empower lives and, in particular, our relationships. One such assumption is this: Assume good intent. People who handle customers, especially difficult ones, often assume that the customer does not know what they are talking about, just wants to get more for less, or will be unhappy no matter what they do to resolve the situation. Assuming good intent helps us use a different tone, and tone has five times the impact of the words we say. Assuming good intent is powerful.

Step 2: Probe and deeply listen.

When people are upset they may say things they don’t mean or things that are not the real issues. If you get defensive or become combative, things may spiral into a negative debate and, worse, you may shut the person down. If that happens, you’ll never uncover the real issue. Don’t argue. Ask questions and listen.

Step 3: Acknowledge their emotions.

Don’t get caught up in the words people say. Listen for the true emotions behind them. Emotions are one of the driving forces of human beings. When we acknowledge and reflect back someone’s emotions, we validate their feelings. This can be a calming influence with an angry or upset customer. Remember what Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Step 4: Apologize.

Apologies go a long way toward easing tension, even if you are apologizing on behalf of another individual or area. When you apologize, do not say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry that happened, but…” That is not an apology. An apology takes full ownership, which can lead to forgiveness and enable others to let go of their bad feelings.

Step 5: Facilitate an agreeable solution and manage expectations accordingly.

You can do this by asking solution-oriented questions. For example, you can ask the customer: “Given what has happened how can we best help you now? What can be done to improve the situation?” If they ask for something you cannot deliver, say so and offer a different suggestion or compromise. If you are not sure you can deliver what they’re asking for, say so and give them a specific time frame by when you will get back to them. Be clear and manage expectations.

Step 6: Close the loop.

Make sure the solution is satisfying to the customer before you take action and move forward. Be bold and ask the customer: “If we are able to do the following steps, will this resolve the situation for you?” People often shy away from asking a question of this nature because they are afraid the customer or client will say the solution is not good enough. If they do, go back to step one and start again. Be thankful that you found out now rather than later after wasting your time and company resources without ultimately satisfying the customer.

With this six-step customer turnaround strategy you can turn any upset customer into your best customer. Sound unlikely? It’s not. When you go above and beyond and resolve your customer’s issue, it is a chance to shine. Many companies report that their toughest customers end up being their happiest and most vocal customers. Use this six-step strategy and watch your business grow.

Overcoming Idea Breakdown

I love McDonald’s. I know some don’t, but I love it. My favorite sandwich is the Big Mac. The Big Mac, which is one of the most successful fast food sandwiches ever created, was created by a franchisee, not by McDonald’s corporate headquarters. Whether you like Big Macs or you don’t, the point here is that breakthrough ideas often don’t originate from leadership.

Any employee can generate a great idea, the problem is that good ideas aren’t always shared. We all need to innovate, which means we need good ideas. The trouble isn’t a dearth of good ideas, the trouble is in the lack of communication about those ideas. The number one way to motivate people to share ideas is to demonstrate that those ideas will be used. Unfortunately, the number one reason why employees don’t share ideas is because in the past they have had their ideas rejected or—even worse—they have not received any feedback at all about their ideas. The interesting twist to this is that the number one reason that leaders reject ideas is because they report those ideas are half-baked, not well thought out. In other words, the ideas are just too rough to be actionable.

The fix here is simple: If everyone is honest and shares their perspective, we will get more information, more yeses, and more ideas to act on, which will create even more ideas. In this scenario, everyone benefits. If leaders say yes or at least share what is missing from an idea, then employees will know what to do to get their ideas accepted. And if organizations do a better job of sharing how ideas are being used, it will encourage more people to give ideas.

Usually there is a breakdown somewhere in this process. I was brought into a situation where an organization was using ideas but doing a lousy job of sharing how those ideas are being used. So people wrongly concluded that ideas were not being used and therefore stopped giving them. Once we worked with the organization to broadcast how ideas were being used, the floodgates opened with fresh innovative ideas.

If an idea of yours is rejected, don’t despair. Instead ask for feedback. You can even ask, what would it take for you to agree to my idea? You may find out you are closer to getting a yes than you realized. Ideas are not usually the problem. The ideas may be half-baked, they may need work, but that is not the problem. That is normal. What is needed is feedback, explanation, guidance, and the broadcasting of success. With that we can get more yeses and therefore more successes.

Follow up to National Honesty Day 2016

In an effort to help you further celebrate and implement National Honesty Day, so that it is every day of your life, I wanted to share this radio interview with you.

In this interview, you will learn about:

•  How human beings suffer from Honesty Delusional Syndrome (HDS) and what to do about it

•  The three most damaging lies to pay attention to

•  What we can learn from today’s political situation

•  Social media: Is it helping or hurting honesty?

•  Whether or not people are more dishonest today

•  The number one way to make people tell you the truth

Share with us how you celebrated National Honesty Day at!

National Honesty Day 2016

How to celebrate National Honesty Day on Saturday, April 30th – How often are we really telling the truth? Is it ever okay to lie? Honesty has a significant impact on any business as well as your personal life. Getting the Unsaid, Said is key to opening up communication and building trust with others.

Watch this TV interview to learn the #1 reason people don’t speak the truth and the steps you can take to embrace difficult situations that require honesty.

Top 2 Key Strategies to Manage Negativity

Do you feel like negative thoughts or people are affecting your confidence level? Is it impacting your daily life and job performance? This two minute video will highlight two key strategies to take control of these negative situations and turn them around for the positive.

What To Do When Things Go Wrong

Life can be hard to compartmentalize, and when something bad happens in your day—whether it’s a meeting, an interaction with a co-worker, or a call—it has the power to send you into a negative spiral that ruins your day and even impacts others. That awareness is half the battle. The good news is awareness allows you to do something about it. Here are seven tips to help you recover from a negative incident. You can use the tips in order or just pick and choose what you want to do based on your situation or available time:

  1. When something bad happens in your day, be aware of it. Don’t simply dismiss it and pretend it didn’t affect you. Most of us are lousy actors. Can’t you tell when you’re interacting with somebody who is having a bad day? Don’t kid yourself. Others can tell, so be aware.

  2. Take a break. Disconnect if you can. Just stop before you go on autopilot to the next agenda item. Just like a lot of things in life, we need a break to rejuvenate our mind and our spirit.

  3. Do something physical—not to someone, of course! Get out of your chair. Take a walk. Change your breathing pattern. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Doing something physical will help you disconnect from what just happened.

  4. Get it out. Call a friend and vent about the incident. When you let out that negativity, it can clear your mind. Another option is to write down what is upsetting you. This way you don’t have to spend any mental energy trying to remember what you are upset about.

  5. Think about something that makes you happy. You could write down five things you appreciate, or even share those on the phone with your friend after you vent. Focusing on what you are grateful for will help you to reboot and reframe your mind.

  6. If the issue lingers in your mind, stop what you’re doing and jot down lessons you can learn from the situation so that it will not happen again. I have found this tip to be incredibly useful. It helps me to not only get over the situation, but to grow from it.

  7. Surround yourself with good, positive people. Remember: Input drives output. Garbage in is garbage out. Rid yourself of the downers so they don’t infect your mind. Positive, encouraging people will help you to engage and look forward to what is next in your day and your life.

    No one can ruin your day unless you allow it, but sometimes it takes effort and focus to keep it from happening. Don’t let anyone derail your day. Use these seven tips to move forward and stay on track.

How to Build Trust with Anyone


The foundation of all relationships—at work and at home—is trust. Without it, things fall apart. There are three essential keys to building (or rebuilding) trust with anyone—your boss, your customers or clients, your coworkers, your employees, and even friends and loved ones. Implement these and watch your relationships improve:

1. Make and Keep Commitments without Checking In

In other words, keep your word with anyone without them needing to remind you. I once asked a client why she had hired me, and she said it was because she trusted me. I asked how she knew she could trust me, and she said it was because I called her at the exact time I said I would for all of our conference calls. Small things matter. If you say you are going to send something over by 5:00, make sure it is 5:00, not 5:05. This may sound inconsequential and silly, but it is not silly to many people—even if they never say anything about it. On the flip side, if you find yourself constantly checking in with someone or reminding someone of their commitment, it is probably due to lack of trust. Be up front and resolve the issues rather than developing a culture of babysitting and policing. I do believe in trust but verify—but not constantly verifying. Think of the money organizations spend and the tremendous amount of red tape and redundant processes they engage in due to lack of trust. This is why creating a culture of trust increases productivity, revenue, and profits.

2. Proactive Honesty

One of the reasons you know you can trust someone is that person proactively lets you know about a problem. The key here is the word proactive. Don’t wait for someone to ask. If you cannot deliver what you said you could or when you said you could, notify the appropriate parties as soon as possible. If something is due by Friday at 5:00 and you know on Tuesday that you are unlikely to achieve it, update those who need to know. When I have worked with companies to build a culture of trust where people are expected to be proactively honest, then people hear about issues and problems before they become huge challenges that waste company resources. They also hear about ideas and recommendations that help their organization be more innovative, move with velocity, and ultimately be more successful.

3. Be Honorable in How You Speak about Others

You can judge the character of a person, and the degree to which you can trust them, by how they speak about others to you. If they bad-mouth others to you and break confidentiality, they will bad-mouth you to others and break your trust when you’re not in the room. There is no justification or excuse for such behavior. Watch what you say and how you treat others, and never break confidentiality.

A culture of trust and honesty boosts morale and employee engagement, allowing the organization to move fast, fix problems, and constantly grow. Use these keys at work and home and watch your life take a quantum leap forward.

The Tip of the Iceberg: Putting an End to Complaints

Often I am asked whether there is any value to complaining and listening to complaints. After all, complaints allow us to be aware of what is on someone’s mind and the act of complaining gives the complainer the opportunity to get things off their chest. The answer is yes, of course. Complaining has its place, and venting can be useful to clear one’s mind. The trouble comes when complaining is recurring, because that’s a signal nothing is getting resolved.

If someone is continually complaining about their boss or their co-worker or, on the personal side, their spouse, problems are just not getting solved. Complaining gives the person the chance to blow off steam, which can actually reduce the pressure needed to take action. If left alone, this complaining can infect others, which leads to bigger problems. I have been brought into many situations where complaining and negativity polluted the entire culture of an organization, impacting morale, productivity, and even growth.

To eliminate and resolve complaining, you have to understand what drives complaints. The number-one reason why people are not able to stop complaining is because they are not dealing with the real underlying issue.

Think of complaints like an iceberg. The words people say are the part you can see—the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The largest part of an iceberg is what you can’t see—everything that lurks below the waterline. With complaints there are two things lurking below:

  1. Unexpressed or hidden wants
  2. Pent-up emotions

Let me give you an example. At a seminar, a woman shared how she was upset and constantly complaining that her co-worker was not pulling his share of the workload. After a bit of questioning it became clear the issue was that this woman had to stay at work longer to make up for her co-worker’s lack of performance. Therefore, she was concerned she was neglecting her family, her kids in particular. On the surface her complaint was about her co-worker; below the surface she wanted her boss to resolve the situation because on the emotional front she was concerned she was not being a good mother. After our discussion, this woman realized she needed to stop complaining and instead have a conversation with her boss to gain clarity around her job expectations and responsibilities. This way she could leave work without feeling guilty about not being a team player and get home to her family.

So how do you use this iceberg complaint principle and eliminate complaining? Just go to the true source of wants and emotions to look below the waterline of words by using the following two-step complaint-ending methodology:

  1. Acknowledge the complainer’s emotions. When you account for the complainer’s state of mind and appropriately acknowledge and reflect back their emotions by saying things like, “I can understand how frustrating this must be. I get how upset you are,” the complainer will feel connected to you and chances are their emotional level will come down. This is critical because when someone is highly emotional, they have a hard time listening, which makes it difficult to resolve the situation. This may sound obvious, but people often do just the opposite and instead invalidate another person’s emotions, which always leads to bad results.
  2. Facilitate a workable solution. You can do this by asking these questions: “What would you suggest?” “How would you like to resolve this?” “What would you like done?” You might even ask, “How can I help you?” By asking the complainer these types of solution-oriented questions, you are helping the complainer move from the complaint stage to the resolution stage. The complainer is now encouraged to start thinking of their true wants.

Let me show you how easy this is. If someone complains, “My boss is really hard to deal with,” then you could say, “I get how frustrated you are. What would you suggest?” The complainer may say, “Well, I want your help to address this issue,” to which you could respond, “Okay, I feel the same way. Let’s figure out what makes sense.” Or you might say, “I actually don’t have time to address this, but what if I helped you figure out a couple quick solutions that might help you?” Or you might actually have to say, “I’m not sure. Let me give it some thought and get back to you by the end of the day tomorrow.”

You may be wondering whether it is appropriate to give advice or if it’s better to facilitate the complainer to come up with the solution. Don’t worry. This two-step methodology will uncover the answer. For example, when you say, “What would you suggest?” if the person wants your suggestions or advice, they will most likely say, “Well do you have any ideas?” Then you can provide your ideas.

One cautionary note: If the complainer says, “No, I actually just want you to listen,” you will have to make a decision. Just listening may be appropriate, but if this is a recurring complaint, it might be time to challenge the person. For example, you could say, “I know you want me to listen, but I think I’m doing you a disservice because you seem to be constantly upset by this and nothing is getting resolved. So let’s try to figure out what can be done about it.”

When you hear complaints, remember to consider there is a lot more to it than the eye can see or the ear can hear. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Then implement the two-step complaint-ending methodology. Not only will you be helping the complainer, but you will be helping yourself—and all those impacted by the complaining will probably say thank you for resolving the real issue.

The Surprising Value of Unsolicited Advice


My mother can be a negative person. If I say, “Business is great,” her response is, “Well, what if the economy takes another downturn?” This is exactly why some people never listen to unsolicited advice—they don’t want to be bothered with what they’re not even looking for.

But if you only accept solicited advice, you may be missing a gold mine from somebody who has something to share. My mom’s warnings have actually served me well, especially given that I can be a glass-half-full kind of guy. Her rather pessimistic perspective has helped me to be better prepared for difficulties and has ultimately helped me to build a robust business. She has helped me see things that I would have missed on my own, and here’s the clincher: she has never run a business.

With this in mind, I am suggesting that you be a sponge. Accept all advice and wring out later what you choose to discard. Of course, this takes confidence and requires wisdom and judgment about what to retain. After all, some people do not have the best of intentions. They may have hidden agendas or may be acting passive-aggressively, so you need to be able to see through this and not get rattled. But honestly this should not be a big worry.

The big worry is just the opposite, in fact. Most people suffer from a lack of feedback rather than too much of it. It’s much more common to hear people complain about being surprised and blindsided; they wish others had told them certain things. We need to hear about what other people see, so we don’t end up with an unpleasant surprise.

Advice and feedback is hard for many people to give, so it’s unlikely you’ll be overwhelmed by too much anyway. If you set parameters like, “I’m willing to hear anything as long as it is said in a respectful manner,” you may miss out on some important feedback. Some people interpret “being respectful” as “not hurting your feelings.” Better to let everyone know you want feedback and deal with those results (maybe some hurt feelings on your part) than the alternative of not hearing what you need to hear.

If you live your life by only getting advice from those you solicit or deem worthy, you are closing yourself off from things that you don’t even know you could know. You even need to hear from those people who you might be tempted to say, “What do they know? They don’t even understand what I am going through.” Those are precisely the ones you need to hear from. They can often provide a truly objective point of view because they don’t know your perspective or back story.

Years ago, after listening to me ramble on about what I do, my teenage nephew said, “Uncle Steve, basically what you do is help people get along better.” And thus was born a key marketing message—from someone with no marketing or business knowledge at all.

People who are open to outside perspectives hear problems sooner so they can act on them before they become big problems. With feedback and advice, these people bounce back from setbacks faster, and they are always growing since they are constantly learning.

Be a sponge. Create an environment where all feedback is welcome. This way you get to decide what to retain and act on.