… It’s how you said it.

Especially in the heat of battle, words come out stronger or with personal barbs that only inflame the situation. How you couch your criticism, training or instructions determines the way people respond to your requests, mandates or rants. Your assessment of the situation is probably correct, but your response is what makes the situation better or worse.

Our 70 employees present a wide variety of communication issues — language among them. But the greatest hurdle is keeping our workforce family working in harmony.

At our last weekly meeting, one manager asked if we could use a different loader for handling down cows rather than using the feeding loader (we had four in the shop). The feed manager abruptly replied, “Nope.” It stifled further discussion, and the first manager felt chastised, although his question was on target.

Another manager didn’t approve of the sequence the loader operator was using to clean alleys, and told the loader operator he wasn’t doing his job. The loader operator understood it to mean he was not a good employee, not that there was a better method. The manager’s assessment of the activity was good; his delivery was not.

Protocol questions came from the calf area manager when a new, but experienced worker was added to the area. Both workers had the same goal (healthy calves) but the approaches were different. We knew we were headed for potential confrontation as each battled to prove his points.

From the examples cited above, it is plain that we are continually working on issues. However, we have found that the following tools help improve the work environment:

1. Ask questions rather than make demands.

I watched a grown man at a major league baseball game yelling at a kid for supposedly sitting in his seat. He made a huge commotion, got the seating attendants there to throw the now-crying kid out of his seat, and all but physically removed the boy from the chair. The seating attendant politely asked to see the tickets, revealing that the man was actually in the wrong row and the boy was right. The man looked like an idiot.

It is so easy to wade straight into the perceived problem, only to find out that we are in the wrong stream. It is far better to assess the details — by gathering all of the facts — before making a judgment. And these details are easier gathered with questions than raised voices.

2.Practice “drive-through communication.”

McDonald’s has mastered the art of drive-through communication. If you order a Big Mac, fries and a Coke, they repeat back the order — a Quarter Pounder, fries and a Sprite. Then, you have the opportunity to clarify the order so you get exactly what you want.

This method helps clarify that your employee understood your directions the way you understood your directions. It takes more time up-front, but it beats getting the fence built on the wrong hill.

3. Use the “pre-meeting” approach.

Desired outcomes are better orchestrated if you have everyone already on board for the new policy, program or activity. Spending time in smaller, developmental conversations helps each faction get the picture individually without detractors muddying the issue.

Ask a lot of questions to get to the issue. Then, use drive-through communication to ensure comprehension on everyone’s part. Use this pre-meeting to create success in the bigger meeting. Since you have addressed many of the clashing issues in the pre-meeting, the larger meeting is more fruitful.

How people respond to others is critical in keeping your dairy working well. Remember, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Mary Kraft dairies with her husband, Chris, near  Fort Morgan, Colo.