Have you ever struggled to figure out how to let people in on how you're feeling about something important to you? Maybe you hemmed and hawed your way through the conversation trying to subtly convey that underlying emotional charge, without actually revealing the emotion.
How about this one? You are approaching an uncomfortable conversation and you aren't sure how to start, because it might reveal that you're uncertain about how to handle the situation. Perhaps your strategy is to obsess over a bulletproof soliloquy you can deliver that will pre-empt any debate.
Or maybe this ... You're trying to convey a complicated idea to your team that is going to require them to do things they don't like. You dive right into the details, only to find out later on that people are confused, complaining, or both.
In these types of difficult conversations - among others - I have found one skill to be hugely helpful. It's called "signposting". It's super simple. Imagine holding up a sign that contains just a few words to let people know what's coming. Let's see how that could work based on the three examples I gave above.
"Emotions Ahead" Signposting
In the first example, rather than assuming people know how you are feeling about something, try telling them up front in a matter-of-fact way. This can be especially helpful when you're feeling difficult emotions like anxiety, fear, frustration, etc.
Example: "I'm feeling overwhelmed because I realize that I have too many things on my plate."
Holding up an emotional signpost can allow others to understand that you are having a hard time and invite them in to help. (It is usually a huge relief to do this, too, because you are no longer alone with a difficult feeling.)
"Awkward Alert" Signposting
In the second example - feeling awkward about not having the right words - again, you can use signposting as an opportunity to defuse a difficult situation and invite help. All the energy you might put into a "perfect" speech can be freed up with a simple statement that invites collaboration. (And that speech rarely turns out "perfect", btw...)
Example: "I'm not really sure how to have this conversation, but I know we need to talk about it. I might need to fumble my way through this at first - is that ok?"
If you are human, you will have awkward moments in which you don't know what to say or where to even start. Signposting lets you simply name that and get on with it, without all the extra energy of "getting it right".
"Bad News" Signposting
In the last example, delivering a necessary message that you know is going to be unpopular, don't bury the difficult part of the message. Get ahead of it and be honest about how much you know it sucks.
Example: "Hey y'all, we're going to have to re-do a bunch of this work. I wish I had better news and I'm sorry I don't. Now, here's what I think we need to do..."
Being transparent can be hard when things aren't going well. Holding up a clear signpost that lets everyone know you understand the situation - and are with them in the disappointment about that - can make it easier to move through it faster and with less negative energy.
. . . . . . .
A lot of the leaders with whom I've worked over the years have fallen into a set of common traps like these. They have either glossed over the important part of a message (hint: it's usually the emotional impact), tried to present a convincing message when they didn't have all the necessary information, or avoided naming the difficulties ahead for fear of scaring their team. I really believe that most people don't use these strategies by design - it's just that they don't know a better way. Communications are tricky and can even feel scary for leaders.
And many times, there's a simple, highly effective answer: Hold up the signpost.
Yes, it takes some nuance at times to figure out the right words to put on the sign. But telling people what to expect turns out to be a great way to, well, set expectations. Which is something people really appreciate. After all, a well placed road sign keeps us all safe and on course.
Jim Young is a leadership coach, a former senior business executive, and a guy who works on his communication skills all the time. He especially enjoys working with men in leadership positions to help them build the relationship skills necessary to thrive in the modern world.
When Jim isn't holding up signs, he is often found goofing with his 3 ridiculous teenagers or co-creating laughter on a stage with his improv comedy troupe, "Not In Charge". (Because Jim appreciates the spaces in life where he is not in charge.)
If you'd like help learning about signposting and other practical leadership skills, get in touch with Jim.