2-Way Communication: Take it to a Higher Level

We Need to Touch Base

2-way communication involves senders and receivers passing information back and forth. The ‘content’ has meaning to both, and they decipher it and reply with feedback. That sounds pretty dry, not reflecting we also have a human need to communicate and connect. In business, vertical communication from people of higher status can be lacking in sensitivity. The best communication is horizontal, between people at similar levels. But everyone can improve their 2-way communication, and improve their business’s performance.

In this article, we explore how 2-way communication works in business. From there we consider the difference between vertical and horizontal communication and how different power levels affect the process. We discuss how better two-way communication improves working relationships. And at the end, we have some tips based on a catchy acronym, NEW LEAF.  Share this article, and give us your feedback!

It Works Both Ways

One-way communication is linear and limited, going in a straight line from sender to receiver and serves to inform, persuade or command. In business, one-way communication from top executives can leave rank and file employees feeling unappreciated.

Two-way internal communication in businesses happens at corporate level, when they enable employees to join the company conversations. At operational level, democracy leaders and managers give their team members opportunities to participate in decision making. They actively encourage discussion and exchange ideas freely. The leadership styles leaders and managers use day to day clearly vary with the situation. But whatever’s happening in the business, everyone needs to use two-way communication effectively to build their working culture.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Two-way communication is a cycle – the information goes out and the response comes back. Sometimes it takes a while, say with internal communication about company policy, or information sent to customers or supplier partners. Leaders and managers need to have two-way communication with team members because they can’t function without it. We’ll come to that in a moment. It’s also advisable for leaders and managers to stream information to their stakeholders, and take note of the reaction!

Let’s Take This to a Whole New Level

The word email written on a felt board on a pink background

When email arrived in the ‘90s, communication between businesses’ functions and the outside world speeded up instantly. In the new normal, business communication is changing again. Leaders and managers are looking at new ways of working, from flexi-working to flatter organisational structures. But some fundamentals haven’t changed.

Horizontal communication still takes place between people on the same level. And vertical communication happens between people at different hierarchical levels.

Two-way communication between individuals is the lifeblood of business. But the nature of vertical communication, particularly between boss and employee, can bring problems.

The most basic form of management, transactional leadership rewards people for doing set jobs and reaching set goals. Employees do their work, but there’s no feedback and motivation to go above and beyond or develop. The communication is primarily task-based. Bosses tell their subordinates what’s expected and step in and criticise when mistakes happen. And that’s it. But as we all know from life outside work, successful two-way communication is based on continuous dialogue. And we all want fulfilment in our work.

Do You Really Want to Go Back to the Commute?

The pandemic meant millions of office workers had to carry on from home in the lockdowns. Some big companies are now giving office-based workers freedom to choose where they work and talking about transitioning to flexi-businesses.  And the drive for sustainability is making others question making employees commute to work. Working from home has reduced the impact on the environment, saved companies’ fuel costs and taken cars off the road. But many businesses have gone back, maintaining the most effective two-way communication is interpersonal, face to face.

2-way, face to face communication is all about giving and receiving information and feedback:

  • Focusing on the eyes of the person speaking.
  • Making eye contact.
  • Watching body language.
  • Responding appropriately with comments, questions and paraphrasing.
  • Summarising to confirm the main points and understanding.

Verbal communication makes conveying our thoughts faster and easier and is the most successful method of human communication. There’s no mention in this list of taking notes and confirming agreed details, but clearly, that needs to happen too. Since the pandemic started, face to face communication has continued with Zoom and Teams. And though we can’t see each other, there’s always the phone.

Warning:  Vertical Communication Can Damage Your Business’s Health

Groups of wooden figures in a triangle formation

Whichever way you communicate in your business, the dynamics of vertical communication between people at different levels affect the process.  This is because differences in status between individuals impact the quality of their communication. Commentators talk of leaders casting shadows when they influence their followers to think and behave unethically. But people with authority over others also cast a shadow, by having them pick up their bad leadership habits. And this particularly applies to communication.

What are the Signs of Good 2-Way Communication?

  • Things go smoothly: Information passes effectively in both directions and the receiver responds.
  • There’s acknowledgement: The receiver takes the message on board and acknowledges it, and as appropriate gives feedback and advises their decision. This increases the likelihood of achieving mutual commitment, support and understanding.
  • Things are made clear: Two-way communication allows team members or external partners to ask clarifying questions.

There are plenty of instances of vertical communication in business, where one person has more authority than another:

  • Leaders and managers.
  • Bosses and employees.
  • Line managers and team members.
  • Customers and suppliers.
  • Clients and agencies.

How Does That Make You Feel?

In each of these relationships, the difference in status is clear.  The person leading is typically the one with the higher rank, or the one with the money. Reducing the subordinate person’s perception of the distance between them makes vertical communication feel more like communication between equals. Giving feedback to people lower in the hierarchy needs to be friendly, and not flag up your different ranks. Or there may be side-effects.

Watch out for these symptoms of poor vertical communication:

  • Low productivity.
  • Team members feel disengaged and undervalued.
  • A culture of blame and shame, not nurturing.
  • Stress at work: People become anxious if they think they’re going to fail and not get the job done.
  • Withdrawal from engaging with fellow team members.
  • More time off sick.
  • Absenteeism and presentism, not doing the job they’re supposed to be doing.
  • Mistrust of leaders and management.

Suspicion and distrust among team members clearly inhibits them from doing great work. But if you as the leader make your vertical communication feel more horizontal, it has major benefits:

  • Engagement.
  • Empathy.
  • Rapport.
  • Motivation.
  • Greater productivity.
  • Outperformance: surpassing expectations.

Getting the communication right achieves what Stephen M. Covey refers to in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as Co-creation. ‘2 + 2 = 5.’ The sum of the whole is greater than the parts.

There are More Benefits of Good Vertical Communication, As Well

Benefits in wooden alphabet letters isolated on background

This list includes the benefits to customers and suppliers, and clients and agencies:

  • Clearer objectives and goals.
  • Greater trust and understanding on both sides.
  • Improved interaction.
  • Stronger working relationships.
  • Better creative thinking and innovation.
  • Enhanced customer service.
  • More effective joint business planning.
  • More productive staff assessments.

What other benefits can you think of, in your business?

We Can’t Go On Like This…

Looking at Daniel Goleman’s leadership styles, authoritative, coercive and pacesetting leadership all have their place in moving a business forward. But if these styles become the default, it can contribute to negative company culture. Things could grind to a halt if leaders and managers constantly exert authority, rather than listening and being democracy leaders.

So What Goes Wrong in Horizontal Communication?

We said at the start the best form of communication is horizontal, between people at similar levels. But that too can go wrong. Business is about connecting and co-operating. But differences will arise between colleagues, and when people don’t see beyond their individual perspectives, misunderstandings happen.

We’ll talk later about the ‘NEW LEAF’ acronym. ‘N.E.W. L.E.A.F’ stands for Nurture – Explain – Warmth – Lead – Encourage – Appreciate – Feedback. Bosses, colleagues and people working with external partners can all improve communication, using this acronym.

Why Don’t Colleagues Always Get On?

Two-way communication between colleagues can go wrong for various reasons:

  • People are competing for recognition or position in the hierarchy.
  • Workplace diversity and differences in temperament and working styles can spark conflict.
  • Colleagues may have conflicting perceptions and communication filters, so they understand things and react differently.
  • People literally judge each other at face value and have biases about particular people. In our diverse society, we’re getting better at this, though we all have work to do. Some businesses give leaders and managers bias training, to recognise their unconscious biases in staff selection.
  • In multi-generational workplaces, each generation will have its own perspective.

These problems in horizontal communication happen, quite simply, because we’re human. We are more predisposed to like some people more than others. Also, from childhood, we’re used to people having different status and learning to jostle for positions. Parents tell children what to do, and expect obedience. Then, older children take it out on younger ones by bossing them about. Schoolkids in Reception start equal, but as they move up, the stronger children identify the weaker ones, the quiet ones and those who are ‘different.’

We learn to stand up for ourselves and interact with people, but our experience leaves its mark. At work, there’s the same jockeying for positions as at school. And if people see weaknesses in colleagues or subordinates, left unchecked they can make their lives unpleasant.

I’m Having a Difficult Time Here 

Businessman crouching in a corridor with head in hands

When we’re having personal problems, we can become distracted at work and find 2-way communication difficult. We lose focus on the moment and have poor communication with colleagues and worse, our managers and external people. Next, we can’t keep on top of our work, and our communication deteriorates. As our performance declines, we experience anxiety and stress and inappropriate behaviour. The only way out is to leave or take ourselves in hand.

One way to improve your status in the communication hierarchy is through performance. Do a good job and be recognised. When we get back in the game, our work improves, and so does our 2-way communication.

First Among Equals: How to Improve Your 2-Way Communication

If you’re finding 2-way communication difficult with someone, work on these areas:

  • Empathy: Negotiations and client and customer relationships generally call for cognitive empathy. This helps us understand what the other person may be dealing with, and why their communication might be affected. If you don’t hear back from someone, you may not be their first priority for a host of different reasons. Yes, they’re not responding, but not necessarily because it’s you!
  • Self-awareness: If you think others are manipulating or attacking you, talk to a sympathetic colleague. See if they think it’s really happening.
  • Mindfulness: Take a moment with breathing exercises to stay focused and present in the moment. No one will notice you doing it…
  • Window of Tolerance: This is useful for when the fight to stay focused on 2-way communication gets harder, because you’re feeling triggered. Use the tried and tested soothing and grounding tips in this article to increase your available mental bandwidth.

And Finally on Two-Way Communication: Turn Over a ‘New Leaf’: Remember Gratitude

Close-up of beautiful fresh new shiny leaves

Acronyms can be helpful as aide-memoirs, in taking steps to bring about change. Base your two-way communication around this one, ‘NEW LEAF’, and you could transform how you work together:

Nurture your working relationships, and help team members and colleagues find fulfilment in their work. Think of that as the purpose for your communication, not just the actions to complete the present task.

Explain: Make your communication as clear as possible. Set out what you want the other person to do, and what it will help you achieve collectively. State the deliverables you want, and by when and invite questions and answer them. Clarify any possible misunderstandings.

Warmth: Keep the communication not just firm, but friendly and reasonable. Set the tempo with your language and tone of voice, especially with people working remotely. Think about how you come across, in emails, texts and phone calls. Where possible, use emojis to reduce the other person’s perception of your difference in status. Because, sure, they know you’re the leader, but make working for you something they enjoy.

Lead the exchange and ask for the specific response you want, but remember to be compassionate. Respect the other person. Check in on progress, but don’t hassle or micromanage.

Encourage the other person to raise their game and do their best.

Appreciate their efforts, and give praise when appropriate.

Feedback should be prompt, full and fair. If there needs to be improvement or work has to be redone, say what’s required and how to achieve it.

Thank You, You’ve Been Great!

Gratitude can get overlooked in two-way communication when we take people’s contributions for granted. Working evenings and weekends and attending meetings at the last minute is often part of the job. For example, sales and marketing people work late on pitches, and go to events and set up exhibition stands. Also, they do it without question.

We all have busy lives, and time is of the essence. But the human interaction of keeping staff motivated and working together with colleagues shouldn’t be neglected. A quick email or text to thank someone for putting themselves out for you doesn’t take a second, and it doesn’t cost anything either. But the recipient will feel good about themselves and about you for appreciating them. Pass it on!

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