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Convince Them Communication

I’ve been teaching a lot of project management classes lately and throughout the classes there are opportunities for people to ask questions about interacting with others; it could be stakeholder engagement, it could leadership, coaching, or motivating team members, etc.

Here are the three questions that seem to come up most often.

  1. How do I get that person to take the action or do the thing that they are supposed to do?
  2. How do I get the person to demonstrate more urgency?
  3. How do I get that person to work more carefully?

I have some thoughts to address each one of these separately, but there is definitely a common theme. In each one of these questions, the person doing the sending the message and the person receiving the communication appear to not do things the same way. Whether it’s a difference in communication, different work different, or different attention to detail, something is noticeably different about the way the person asking the question and the person they are asking about approach tasks.


1. How do I get them to do the thing?

  • This could be a team member who has a responsibility that they haven’t taken yet.
  • It could be a situation where you feel like you’ve asked someone else to do something 17 times and the dumb thing still isn’t done.
  • It could be a situation where you’re working with someone in a fairly new capacity and you really don’t know how to motivate them to do something.

Here are three quick tips to help in this situation.communication failure

First - Stop and think about what you’ve tried already that doesn’t seem to work.

There’s no point trying the same approach yet another time if that approach has proven to be ineffective.
Are you communicating in the way that’s easiest for you, rather than what makes sense to them?

  • Maybe you’ve told them, but haven’t written it down anywhere.
  • Maybe you’ve sent them an email, but you’ve never talked about it in person.
  • Maybe you haven’t had the time to understand how they communicate, and your natural inclination is to use your own default communication style, rather than theirs.

Whatever it is, be sure you understand what you’ve tried, and what it is that you prefer in a communication. 


Second - Switch your focus entirely to them. How do they usually communicate?
  • Are they a visual learner? Have you seen them draw pictures, read instructions, doodle, or jump to the whiteboard with a marker in meetings?
  • Are they a talker? Have you witnessed them sounding out their thoughts to help them take shape?
  • Are they a thinker? Do they seem to reflect on ideas and then come back later with responses or insights?
  • Are they in constant motion? Do they seem to talk with their hands, fiddle with things, or communicate with their whole being by moving around or tapping their foot?

Once you’ve taken a moment to figure out how they usually communicate, you can determine how your communication preferences and their communication preferences match or don’t match. 


Third - Adjust you to meet their needs. This is, frankly, the hard part, and perhaps the most important. Understanding you and understanding me doesn’t help us at all unless I actually do something to manage me and connect with you.

In the four stages of emotional intelligence, we talk about self-awareness, then self-management, and then social-awareness, and then relationship management. In each stage, being aware must be followed by doing something about it.

  • If 17 times I have looked you in the eye in a meeting and asked you to do something, and you still haven’t done it, then I need a different communication approach. I need to write it down or connect with you in a different situation where we can have discussion and dialogue and help you take ownership in a different way.
  • If something is documented in your roles and responsibilities, but we’ve never talked about it, I need to set aside time to meet with you and talk it through, to confirm your understanding of what it is that you’re being asked to do, and to confirm that you have what you need to get it done.
  • If we are new in our working relationship, then I need to build in intentional time to ask you about how you would like to be communicated with. Together, we need to try different approaches, deliberately and intentionally, eyes wide open, knowing that some of them will work better than others.

If a communication isn’t working, that doesn’t mean the message isn’t important. Many times, we can’t afford to just give up, and rather than allowing our own irritation to build, we should adjust our approach to see how we can make that message reach the intended audience more effectively.

Portrait of young man shouting loudly using megaphone


2 - How do I get them to demonstrate urgency?

This one is generally asked by people who are sensitive to time pressure, or who are naturally fast movers and talkers themselves. They find themselves interacting with another human who moves at a slower pace, talks at a slower pace, or completes work later or slower than they themselves would like.

  • Perhaps it’s because work keeps getting delivered at the 11th hour.
  • Perhaps it’s because our meetings or conversations keep running longer than I like because of all the talking.
  • Perhaps it’s because I believe in my head that a task should take a certain amount of time, and it seems to be taking longer than I think it should.

Let me offer three tips:

First - Figure out your own motivation.

Really and truly, stop and reflect on what’s motivating these thoughts. The gist is generally something like “if I really stopped and said what I’m really thinking out loud, I would say, ‘you work too slowly...why can’t you be fast like me?’”


Yikes. That feels like a value judgment.

Have I decided that this person is somehow less than I am because of their pace? Have I decided that I am somehow better because of my pace?

If you take a moment to search your thoughts, and find a hint of judgment, stop. Let it go. Find something else about the person that you do value so that you have not devalued another human because of their working speed.

Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? The moral of the great fable is “slow and steady wins the race.” But some of us are natural racers and want to speed ahead, and we judge or devalue the tortoises around us.


Second - Figure out what motivates them.
  • Are they meticulous? Do they seem to take longer on some activities because they take time to make it as perfect as possible?
  • Are they pressure prompted? Do they seem to light up in situations of competition, where there are races, winners, prizes? Do they seem to really pull things out at the end when the pressure is on?
  • Are they connectors? Do they work better or deliver more thorough and complete results when they’ve had a chance to converse and connect with the people around them?

What motivates them to complete work or finish a thought? Once you understand what motivates them, you can appeal to that sense of motivation and help them use it to their advantage.


Third - Adjust you to meet their needs

Here are some examples that might help:

    • If you’re working with someone who is pressure prompted, create pressures and prompts that align with a timeline you can live with. If you know that they’ll deliver something at the 11th hour, but you would really be more comfortable with the 7th hour, then give them an internal deadline that helps them deliver at the 7th hour.Competitive business couple racing at the office
  • Create competitions among those who are motivated by races or friendly, internal competition.
  •  If it’s just one person, set visual reminders of how they can compete against themselves to get even better.
  • Create opportunities for human connection among the team. If you have folks on your team who work better when they can interact, then you must create opportunities for interaction.

Part of the joy of working with other humans is that they are different. We are motivated and inspired by different things. And our differences make our end results stronger and better. Delight in the differences of those around you! Don’t imagine that they are motivated by what you’re motivated by, rather take the opportunity to motivate others in the way that works best for them.


3 - How do I get that person to work more carefully?

This question seems to come up in situations where accuracy or attention to detail matter, and someone is producing results that are not meeting quality standards.


First - Figure out why accuracy matters

I’m admittedly hard-pressed to come up with decent examples where sloppiness is an acceptable standard. If the work we do is customer facing, our customers look for good products. If the work that we do is internal only, carelessness can cause misunderstandings or even injuries in a workplace.

But it is fair to say that different levels of quality matter. Asking ourselves “how good is good enough” in a given situation is still an important question. It’s part of why we have quality plans as project managers. How good is good enough for this situation? For example, the care and attention we would use to wrap paper napkins around plastic cutlery for an outdoor picnic is different than the care and attention we would use to ensure effective communication about a life-saving medical device.

Perfection is a direction, not a destination. As humans, we won’t get there anyway, so we need to decide how good is good enough for the situation. Then, we need to set up and communicate our expectations accordingly.


Second - Figure out what they need
  • It’s possible that they don’t understand the level of detail that is expected for their given role. If I don’t know your desire for perfection or accuracy, I can’t possibly meet the standard you have in your head.
  • It’s possible that their skill set doesn’t align with the accuracy you were expecting. Spelling is not a forte for some, in which case producing finished documents without the support of a spellchecker or a proofer will continue to be a challenge.
  • Transposing numbers is a challenge for some people, in which case data entry of numeric values is probably not an ideal task for them.
  • Perhaps the priority for that individual is speed over accuracy, in which case they will continue to hurry, rather than slow down and be careful.

Understanding what’s going on in the situation is a critical next step. If you don’t understand what I want, then we can simply communicate about it until it is clear to both of us. If I want something unreasonable, then I need to adjust my expectations. If someone is in the wrong role, then we need to adjust roles.


Third - Adjust you to meet their needs

The actions that you can take on this are varied, and can be effective, as long as the right action is matched to the right situation. We wouldn’t want to solve the wrong problem, so the first two questions in this prompt are intended help you to make sure the problem is clear. For solutions, here are some ideas:

  • Communicate – in multiple ways, multiple forms, how good is good enough for the situation. Make sure it is clearly aligned to the “why“  of our project or team or objective. Make sure we’ve had a chance to communicate in different ways and at different moments, so that we have a common understanding of how good is good enough.
  • Align people to their best roles. To the greatest extent possible, aligning the work that we assign others to do with their natural skill sets will produce better results and Closeup of woman's hands measuring bar graph with tape on blackboardmore engaged workers. Continually asking someone to do something that they struggle with can be demoralizing and will continue to produce less than superior results for the team. Align people with the work they do well. Sometimes that means sharing jobs, or splitting out a role, or adding technology or other tools to help ensure accuracy
  • Measure what matters. If you have measurements in place that measure speed, but accuracy is the priority, then stop talking about speed for a while until accuracy can be achieved. If you don’t have measures around accuracy, create them, talk about them, and use them to create motivators – competitions, team goals, personal goals, etc. Give people the grace and time to work from wherever they are now up to the goal.

These three topics are different, and get at different problems or situations within projects, but the responses to them follow very similar patterns.


One last thought...

When you find yourself challenged in a team situation, leadership situation, a project situation, and you’re trying to  get someone else to behave differently, I invite you to stop and consider these three steps.

  • First, reflect on your own style, motivators, desires, thoughts.
  • Second, focus on them and their needs and their strengths.
  • Third, put those two things together to create the right solution for the situation at hand.


Sinikka headshot 2017

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day.

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