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How the Talking Stick Rule Applies to Internal Communications

A long time ago, a former boss gave me some sound advice: Seek first to understand, Then to be understood.

Do you recognize it? I call it the Talking Stick rule, but some of you might recognize it as Habit 5 of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People“.

I love the whole purpose of this phrase. To understand and to be understood. And what better mission for any internal communicator? It’s easy to go “through the motions” of listening, selectively hearing only “certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc.” (Stephen R Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).

Likewise, in internal communications, business communicators tend to selectively hear their employees — and this is expressed through how we deliver and filter content based on business needs as opposed to employee needs.

Employees are feeling increasingly overloaded with information, which negatively affects their satisfaction with communication. Although employees report feeling informed about key business issues, they’re not sure how these issues relate to the work that they do every day.

It’s time to put the the talking stick back into the hands of your employees.

In today’s world, I don’t think that internal communications is overlooked — but I believe it needs to be more finely tuned. “Developing sound internal communication processes and evaluating these processes on a regular basis is the same as making sure your car runs smoothly and is serviced regularly.  If the many different pieces of your car do not fit smoothly together, you will not get where you are going very quickly, if you get there at all.  Similarly, if the people that make up your organization do not work together effectively, your will not achieve your objectives as  fast, if at all.  An effective internal communication strategy is the key to ensuring a cohesive organization focuses on achieving its goals and objectives.” (, Internal Communications Toolkit).

All companies need effective, long-term internal communication that is maintained with the use of different success techniques. Using the right strategies, policies and modern technologies are important ways to build stronger communication links between the organization and your employees.

Team Bond

Clearly laid-out internal communication policies will boost the overall morale of employees and improve their workload. Employees that go to face-to-face meetings regularly and actively collaborate with their colleagues will get more work done as opposed to doing all their tasks separately. Employees that have a good idea of the company’s current and future goals should share tips with each other and function more as a unit. An effective internal communications scheme can increase the focus and motivation of your workforce.


Internal communication is important for a company that wants to set goals and maintain a certain identity. A business has to make a list of goals and strengths before dealing with customers or stakeholders. Not only do employees have a desire to know where the company plans to head in a certain time span, but they also need to understand how these goals are tied to their day-to-day lives.

Seek First to Understand…

Part of the problem is that communication, in its current form, is not designed to meet the needs of its employee audience. Instead, it’s shaped to appeal to our internal clients — senior executives. This means that communication to employees is more often than not written in language that is more suitable to your senior leadership team or board of directors: strategic big-picture pronouncements supported by a lot of data.

For example, last year, my company gave “life event scenarios” (e.g., having a baby) to a group of HR Business Partners and asked them to find the corresponding content on the Intranet site. Only a small number of them were able to efficiently find the content. The biggest reason? Because the content was organized to meet business need rather than understanding the perspective of the employee. To see if this is the case at your company, run a quick reading-level test of your communication. If most content is at the 12th-grade level—with complex sentences, long words and many complicated terms— then there is the chance some employees may not understand your communication.

Employees don’t want to reject communication — they just resent how it is now prepared. Employees want information, but only if it’s fresh, candid and personally relevant. They want to learn about the company, but they want that information presented in context, relating to what’s going on in the world, to what customers tell them and to the work they do every day. Most of all, employees want to control their communication experience by asking questions, adding comments, learning other employees’ perspectives and even creating their own news. (Davis & Co, Can Social Media Revitalize Employee Communication)

Seek first to understand your employees so that your business goals can then be understood

… Then to be Understood

Once you understand what your employees’ need, then you have define the best ways to get your business goals to be understood.  You will have to figure out the communication methods of the employees that work best for them. Significant factors that influence delivery style include age, education and work style. Employers will have to look at current problems and request advice from employees. Basic communication steps are important for employees such as effective listening, relevant questioning and feedback. So how do you balance understanding with being understood?

What’s in your toolkit?

Every successful internal communications plan needs a framework. Components of this framework should include your business goals, employee needs and be flexible for change management / business transformation. It should also standardize your communication methods as well as define your delivery channels based on available technology and measurement tools. The goal of your toolkit is to help improve efficiency and effectiveness through processes that create a cohesive organizational culture. If you need some direction, then check out this Internal Communications Toolkit from

Reshape current communication programs

In reshaping your current programs, does that mean you must also adopt social media? Not necessarily (for now anyway). But you should also realize that, in general, we do not communicate the same way we used to and social media engages employees in ways that traditional programs cannot.

While in some ways, you will be able enhance your current programs with a social layer, in other ways you will need to look at  totally revolutionizing your internal communication so that social media becomes a core strategy that changes the role of employees from spectators to active participants.

  • Employ communication channels that solve a business need
    Both employees and employers have needs to meet. Employees have families, events and outside work activities they consider important. Organizations have products and services to deliver to customers and obligations to investors and stockholders. One of my biggest rec0mmendations to any client is to make sure that you are reshaping your current program to solve for a specific business need. That is, don’t just implement social technology for the sake of doing it. It would be better to take a year to diligently assess your needs and the proper social platform that becomes highly utilized rather than launch something in three months that doesn’t fit a business or employee need and consequently doesn’t get utilized. There is no win nor ROI in that for anyone.
  • Create an intranet that employees S.E.E.K (Social  interactivity, Enterprise collaboration, Employee Engagement, Knowledge management)
    Employers should create an intranet system so employees can exchange information quickly and effectively. Since many companies prevent access to emails and certain websites, intranets work to connect staff members in a fast, authorized way. A company can also strengthen communication strategies, especially during the onboarding process.For the U.S.-based consulting and accounting firm Deloitte, social media took hold because it responded to a compelling employee need: making connections with other employees. In a firm of 46,000 employees, many of whom spend a considerable amount of time at client locations, it’s not practical to hang around the water cooler to network. In fact, 25 percent of employees who were leaving the company cited the sense of isolation as a primary reason for their departure.Whether you’re like Deloitte and building a complete social intranet, or if you’re still stuck with the one you have, there are methods in which you can create an intranet where employees can learn, plan and do their personal and work lives.
  • Use social technologies but understand that social media is a moving target
    So much of the paralysis surrounding social media is based on the fact that communicators feel they not only have to choose the right application but also have to make it work right away (no glitches, high usage, etc.). After all, part of the reason that the employee communication programs have become stagnant is because there’s an expectation for them to be perfect: no errors and no angst.But social media requires a different mindset. It’s evolutionary. It starts small and gradually builds an audience. It morphs, often in unexpected directions. (Davis & Co, Can Social Media Revitalize Employee Communication)

Internal communication procedures involve sharing communication methods within a company of leaders and employees. Developing the right communication methods is crucial to maintaining long-term success. has resources that can help business improve their services and reliability. Internal communication is just one way they can reduce confusion and improve the output of employees and leaders.

Follow these guidelines and utilize these resources, and you will find that you, as a organization, employ the rules of the Talking Stick. That you seek first to understand your employees so that your business goals can then be understood.

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