Ask just about any manager, staff person, or volunteer in any organization what change would dramatically improve the effectiveness of their organization, and you're likely to hear "better communication."
But what, exactly, do all of these people mean by "better communication", and how do you know when you've achieved it?
For the answer to this question, consider going right to the source. By engaging all of your staff (and volunteers) in the process of studying and talking about improved communications, you defacto engage them in the act of practicing better communication. In this way, rather than trying to direct change from the top down, change takes place somewhat organically throughout the organization – and everyone on staff is in part responsible for the success of communications.
A survey is a handy way to start this process. You can download a sample survey (.doc) designed to empower everyone on staff to ask good questions about your organization's best communications and staff hopes or visions for improved communications.
Once everyone has participated actively in the survey, you can schedule time in your staff meetings to study each question in more detail, allowing time for people to share their stories as well as their insights about the process of interviewing others and being interviewed.
The value of this debriefing can hardly be overstated. Adults learn best by doing. Since nearly everyone wants better communications, and asking positive questions in a one to one setting is a healthy and productive communication process—your staff will have increased their level of competence and confidence through the course of the interviews. By adhering to a survey that uses affirmative questions, you will likely find in your follow-up meetings that people gravitate easily to identifying constructive plans for practicing better communications.
The steps below will guide you through having your staff complete the survey through follow-up on the responses.
Conducting a Participatory Communications Survey
The survey questions (.doc) about communications in an organization are largely written in the affirmative and/or ask about best experiences and positive visions. This is intentional. These questions are designed to invite staff into a positive process of communication improvement versus a problem solving process which generally results in finger pointing and hard feelings.
Share the list of questions with your staff. Ask every staff member to take one question.
If you have fewer than 16 staff, you can narrow the list to those questions you all agree will be most interesting and helpful to your organization, or you can ask for a few volunteers to take more than one question.
If you have more than 16 staff, divide your staff randomly (there should be a mix of managers and front line staff in each group) and ask each group to work the entire set of questions.
One fun option for distributing questions is to write each question on an index card and then allow staff members to draw one card from the deck. If you want to get really playful (and why not?!) once everyone has drawn a question card, you can allow your staff to trade cards until everyone is happy with the question they've got.
Over the course of a set time frame (usually two to four weeks) each staff arranges to meet with every other staff member to ask their question, listening carefully to the answers, and taking notes. Questions must be asked "in person", that is, not via email or over the phone, and there should be ample time to get thoughtful answers.
When everyone has finished their interviews (and answered their own question themselves), summary responses should be compiled and distributed to all staff. The summaries will look something like the example at the bottom of this page. Note that names and other identifying data are absent from the summary report.
Now that everyone has engaged in thinking about and studying successful communications you can bring communications topics to your staff meetings to discuss what you're all learning and how you want, as a group, to improve communications.
You will no doubt discover that the simple act of getting staff to ask affirmative questions and listen to one another has already begun the process of improving communications.
Example summary report
Question: "What do you think you would most like to learn or most want to practice in order to be a better communicator?"
People Who Gave This Answer
patience, taking the time to listen
that it's OK to say what's on my mind
how to give someone negative feedback constructively
to remember to give positive feedback more often
Bert Troughton, MSW, is ASPCA Vice President of Pro Learning, Community Outreach.