Scientists say that a substantial part of our normal conversational communication is actually non-verbal. This, it follows that your audience may actually get more information from how you say something than the actual words you use.

But that’s just in a one-shot setting of verbal communication.

Now, think about the context of a project: Every time you speak to someone on your team, it’s in the context of potentially hundreds of other communications, not to mention the deep context of a shared enterprise and possible past relationships. They hear what you say through a filter of all those past communications.

The message they receive will be significantly influenced by every message they’ve received from you before. Been evasive or unhelpful? They’re still thinking about that. Been trustworthy before, and now you’re making a withdrawal on that trust? Maybe you’ve got a chance.

It’s the tremendous depth of meaning potentially present in any communication that makes it so important to base your professional identity on character and good habits. So how do you send a message within a message?

360 Degrees Communication

It’s as important to communicate downward as upwards – and don’t forget laterally, either. Some companies very much have a personality where people only want to communicate upwards so they can impress their boss. If that’s what your team sees you do, it sends a message that they’re not very important to you.

Make Communication Important – Schedule It

Communication within a team, or between team members, is always important. Prove it by putting it on the schedule. Set up time to meet one-on-one with your team members so you can hear their concerns and ideas. Not only do people like to be heard, you may see a number of other benefits from this less formal communication.

Make Respectful Choices

How often have you had a meeting planned with your boss or your client, and had them cancel your discussion? How did that make you feel? While you might have accepted it happening once or twice, by the third time you probably felt like you weren’t very important. That’s not a trust-building event.

As a project leader, you won’t always be able to avoid scheduling conflicts, but it’s what you do next that’s important. Apologize. Don’t assume this had no impact on the person you were supposed to meet with. Make it up to them by letting them set the time for the replacement. Show that their time is as valuable as yours.

Make Up Your Own Mind; Don’t Use Somebody Else’s

Quite often you’ll get advance warning about somebody you’ll be working with, i.e., maybe it’s a team member who isn’t a good performer. Or maybe it’s a thoughtless boss or a confused client. It might seem wise to use any intelligence like that to prepare yourself for a rough time of it.

I’d agree with preparing yourself, but in a different way: Try to put yourself in their shoes. Think about how you can communicate with them to establish your own relationship with this person, rather than re-living someone else’s. You might find yourself building a positive relationship with the person where others had failed.

Don’t Avoid Communication

Work is hard. You’ve got a lot of it to do. What you don’t need is having to deal with people you don’t like or simply don’t click with, right?

The fact of the matter is, you don’t get to be choosy about who you communicate with. If someone’s connected to your project and its success, you’re going to have to work with them. When you avoid someone, you lose all the benefits of communication. What’s worse, they may notice that you’re not talking to them. Are you hiding something? Does your avoidance mean something? Maybe they’ll decide they shouldn’t like you, either.

As a project leader, you should push yourself to seek out communication in a case like this. Try to learn more about the person. Make sure you listen to them. Make sure the lines of communication are open.

You may never want to invite them to your house for dinner, but you need to at least be on civil terms with them.

Set Expectations on Communications

When you join a project, you should establish expectations around communication.

For example, every time I start a project I discuss communications with my boss or primary stakeholder. Should we have a regular time to meet? How often do they want to receive communications from me? What form should our communications or interactions take? I’m not just trying to make it as clear as possible that communication is important to me. Every part of the message is that I will communicate in a way that meets their preferences. I want them to consciously set their expectations of our communications.

One thing to watch for is situations where restrictions on communication may come up. A classic is where a manager or team lead wants to protect their team members from “walk-ups.” They may ask that all communications from outside their team go through them. It may make all the sense in the world, and under some circumstances, it may be the right answer. However, it creates a communication bottleneck and implies a lack of trust, so make sure it’s temporary, at most, and that other steps are taken to ensure people can get the answers they need.

Watch Non-verbal Communication

Things such as tone and posture are known issues with communications. Your words say one thing, but your body says another. This is difficult to observe in oneself but worth paying attention to. You might ask for feedback on this from someone you trust.

Non-verbal or non-message communication can show up in other ways. Suppose you go to someone’s desk to talk. You’ve asked if they have a moment to talk, and they said yes. Now you’re talking, but they’re still looking at a computer screen or their phone. What message are you getting from that?

Sometimes there’s a sub-message in the words you use (what I just called non-message communication). That is, the sentence said one thing, but the words gave a secondary message. For example, you can say, “I really need that report on my desk by noon; is there anything you need to help make that happen?” Or you can say, “Get that report on my desk by noon. I don’t care what you have to do.”

Another sub-message lies in courtesy words. Does a person say “please” and “thank you?” It may sound unimportant, and often it is – right up until the moment you notice that a person never thanks you for anything.

I also have a personal principle that the first thing I say to any person on a given day has to be unrelated to work. This is usually just “Good morning” and a sincerely intended “How are you?”, but it’s better than, “I need you to do something for me” or “Where’s that deliverable you were supposed to finish?”

Watch for What’s Left Unsaid, or, Don’t Draw Attention to Something by Ignoring It

Remember what I was saying about how much context people have to filter your communications? Here’s a classic consequence: People notice when you’re not saying something.

Imagine you’ve got a problem on your project. Rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, note it as a risk. Ask for suggestions on mitigation. Explain that the issue has been recognized and that it’s being addressed. Don’t get dragged into gossip or whining, but acknowledge the issue and encourage everyone to focus on solutions and things within their control.

The Medium is the Message

Learn what tools people like to communicate with, and use them. Your stakeholders may use email, your teammates use the instant messaging tool which came installed on the company laptops and your incredibly hip development team uses an esoteric web forum full of macros and in-jokes. You may want to set a project standard for some kinds of communication, but respecting people’s preferences and habits goes a long way.