How we provide business communication to senior management is different from how we communicate with our peers. Our language reflects the way we see the power related to our relationships. Communicating “with” someone subconsciously reflects a relationship of equals. Avoid this trap for better results – after all, you work for senior management.
Communicating “with” is the politically correct way of communicating. “With” reflects more friendly, two-way communication. In fact, most software grammar checkers will recommend changing “to” to “with” to be less aggressive.
Communicating “to” someone certainly reflects a linear, one-way communication pattern. Talking “to” someone is more likely to imply a reprimand. From a compassionate executive perspective, communicating to your subordinates can be misconstrued as not listening or not caring.
But is the concern the same for the subordinate communicating to the superior? No, it is not. In fact, to assume two-way communication is present is a form of arrogance and disrespect.
The Big Difference
In linear (one-way) communication, there is a sender, a message, and a receiver. The burden is on the sender to make the message clear for the receiver to understand.
In interactive (two-way) communication, two important elements must be present – a feedback loop and comparable knowledge. Herein lies the limitations and where the sender (subordinate) should understand the difference to obtain better results.
The receiver (superior) controls whether there will be feedback or not. If there are no questions from the decision makers, then there is no discussion. If the subordinate asks the superior a question, the superior can elect to answer it or not.
The receiver (superior) usually does not have the same knowledge as the subordinate. As a technical expert, providing special insight was why you were asked to make the presentation. Your charge is not to make the decision. Your charge is to provide information that will be used in some weigh-of-evidence approach for making the decision.
The subordinate (technical specialist) does not control the feedback loop, nor do the superiors (decision makers) have compatible knowledge. From the subordinate's perspective, the communication is one-way. You are communicating “to” the person who asked you to give a presentation.
Are You Smarter than the Decision Maker?
Most technical specialists are smarter that the decision makers, at least in their field of technical expertise. However, decision makers are there to allocate resources, which with big decisions means balancing multiple technical, social, and economic factors.
Who is smarter has no relevance. The roles are different.
Technical specialists work for decision makers.
Applying it with FINESSE
FINESSE is a linear, cause-and-effect approach for effective communication in the presence of complexity and uncertainty. When we communicate technical expertise like reliability, risk, and resilience, we communicate "to" decision makers, not “with” them. To get your boss’s boss to understand, you must respect that they hold the power of the feedback loop and that their knowledge will never be comparable in your area of specialty as yours.
The role of senior management is to make decisions, not to be technical experts. Better results are the product of doing what it takes to get your message heard on the terms of senior management. Do not arrogantly or disrespectfully assume otherwise. Communicate with FINESEE!
Founded by JD Solomon, Communicating with FINESSE is a not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.