Communicating Effectively Is a Lot Like Washing Your Hair

shower-1027904_640By the time German inventor Hans Schwarzkopf introduced liquid shampoo to the public in 1927, people had been washing their hair with various mixtures for centuries. The earliest examples involved mixing soapberries, gooseberry, and other herbs and using the extract to lather the hair. Later, Europeans would take to boiling shaved soap in water. Herbs were still typically added to give the soap soup a pleasing aroma. But Schwarzkopf’s shampoo was the first to be sold in a pre-mixed, liquid form.

Shampoo works by removing some of the sebum from your hair. Sebum is secreted by our sebaceous glands and provides a coating that protects the hair from drying out and becoming damaged. Sebum also, however, attracts dirt leading to a build-up that makes hair unmanageable and unattractive. Shampoo works by introducing surfactants, compounds which bind with the sebum. When you rinse the shampoo from your hair, the sebum – as well as the dirt – goes with it. Shampooing removes the unwanted material, allowing your hair’s natural beauty to show through.

Communicating effectively is a lot like washing your hair. Over time, your team’s understanding of the goals and job functions they should be focused on gets dirty. Various bits and pieces of other information, from a variety of sources, start attaching themselves, making it hard to manage individual priorities day to day. Proper communication serves to clear away misconceptions and competing priorities, leaving behind clarity and allowing people to do their best work. To improve communication, all we have to do is follow the instructions on any shampoo bottle.

Step 1. LATHER. You only need to use a little bit of shampoo at a time, but it’s only effective when worked well into the hair. By massaging your scalp, you ensure that the shampoo makes its way below the surface, touching every part of your head. In the same way, small bits of communication, well applied, work better than sporadic rambling messages. Focus on communicating single concepts in a way that ensures people get the message. Don’t rely on a single email or memo to get the job done. Follow up with personal contact and check for understanding before moving on to the next step.

Step 2. RINSE. Applying the shampoo is only the first step. The real magic happens during the rinse. This is when the dirt is cleared away leaving behind clean, unobstructed hair. Effective communication works to remove misunderstandings and competing priorities. Make sure to clarify, as succinctly as possible, those things that are most important and should be retained. Allow people to voice their questions and provide clear answers to avoid uncertainty. Make sure that your communication clears up the ambiguous instead of adding to it.

Step 3. REPEAT. A single application of shampoo doesn’t always remove all the dirt. It might take another lather/rinse cycle to really clean things up. When communicating, be prepared to revisit complicated topics as necessary to ensure everyone is on the same page. Expect that, despite your best efforts, your initial communication may be misinterpreted, forgotten, or even ignored. Plan on putting in the effort to communicate effectively over time. Approach the topic from different angles to reach people with different learning styles. Communication is a process rather than a single act.[Tweet “Communication is a process rather than a single act.”]

I don’t know about you, but I wash my hair every day. It’s not even something I think about – I just do it. If I happen to miss a day, because I’m camping or ill, I really notice the difference. My hair feels gross, my scalp starts to itch. I find myself desiring that shampoo bottle. Washing my hair has become such an automatic part of my routine, that its absence is more conspicuous than its presence.

With practice, effective communication too becomes second nature. It’s the absence of good communication that gets our attention. It’s in those times when information is scarce and the way forward is unclear that we really understand the importance of clear messages. You’re never not communicating. Like it or not, you send out messages constantly. The challenge is to communicate in a way that brings clarity and focus to the team.


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