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Investigations in the Workplace – Why effective communication skills are essential

In a 2015 survey by the CIPD, almost 40% of UK employees reported some form of interpersonal conflict at work.  The problem could have been a one-off incident/dispute or an on-going difficult relationship, the conflict most commonly occurring with their line manager. Although informal approaches to resolving conflict are used more frequently, one in ten cases will follow a formal procedure.

The effectiveness with which an organisation manages employee conduct can have a significant impact on the culture of respect and trust within the workplace, individual and collective productivity, organisational reputation and, ultimately, the organisation’s bottom line.

One essential aspect of resolving conflict, either by informal discussion or through a formal investigation, is that of practical communication skills.

“Communication works for those who work at it.”
John Powell

For communication to be effective, it has to be a “two-way street” as it involves the ability to both send messages to others as well as to understand the messages that are being relayed.  It sounds simple, but, in reality, it’s a complicated process with many potential pitfalls.

Applying four primary principles of communicating will reduce the chances of a misunderstanding and igniting the conflict further, while also increasing the likelihood of a resolution.

The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t being said.”
Peter F. Drucker

Four principles of communicating

  1. Intent v delivery v impact
    In the heat of the moment, especially if we are feeling emotionally charged, the message we intend to convey isn’t the one we deliver. To complicate matters further, the actual message delivered isn’t necessarily the message that the recipient hears.
    The way to overcome this and ensure that effective communication takes place is to ask the other person for their understanding of what was said.  If their feedback doesn’t match what you thought they said, invite them to have another go until you can both agree what was said matches what was heard.
  2. Communication is so much more than words
    As anyone who grew up with a parent able to silence them with ‘that look’ knows, there are many other forms of communication than verbal. Unspoken messages can be ascertained by acknowledging someone’s body language, the tone of voice they use, their facial expressions, and even the level of volume used to deliver their message.  One of the issues that the onset of electronic messaging has highlighted is that people are often confused at the messages they receive.  Misunderstandings happen as there are none of the non-verbal cues we are used to interpreting during face-to-face communication, leaving us with a less than complete communication.  So, it is worth remembering communication consists of both the words we use but also the feelings and emotions with which those words are delivered.
  3. Know where you want to get to
    Focusing on the endpoint will help guide the communication to help achieve its purpose and keep it on a relevant path. Hand-in-hand with this is the ability to be flexible and adapt when listening to the responses received, trying a different approach if your first attempt isn’t helping to steer the communication in the required direction.
  4. Situational and environmental context plays a part
    Where communication takes place has a role in how effective that communication will be.  Other factors will also play a part, for example, the time of day the communication takes place, the noise levels around and the comfort levels in the room.

Understanding some principles of communicating is just one aspect of effective communication skills, an essential part of conducting formal investigations.  This is why we often agree with course organisers to include this topic when they are looking to provide our How to Conduct Professional Investigations in the Workplace training for staff members.  This course has been designed to give participants the confidence to conduct effective investigations in a fair, professional and timely manner, aligned with policies, procedures and best practice.

As trainer Snéha Khilay explains,

‘Conflict is an inherent part of the employment relationship. A certain degree of healthy conflict – for example, fair competition between individuals to excel in their roles – can be a good thing, and can help to create innovation between teams. But sometimes tension can lead to discord and thereafter create negative conflict. It is when the initial disagreement is pushed under the carpet and not managed properly that the situation can fester and the conflict escalates. It is vital to conduct effective investigations and this can only be achieved by understanding the investigation process, to take into consideration what is involved and ensure fairness and objectivity in the process. To get the investigation process wrong can inadvertently cause more harm.’


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