two cocktails on a bar

Some of you got excited when you saw cocktail in the title above, didn’t you? You figured, “Finally, somebody agrees with me—a little liquid social lubricant can go a long way to getting people to loosen up and talk…” 

Slow down there, Norm. We’re not heading for Cheers. That’s a different conversation. 

But I’ll give you this much: like a good cocktail, good communication has to be balanced. If your drink doesn’t have the right mix, well . . . you ever ordered a cocktail that was just so sweet you might as well have been sipping straight fruit syrup? Or one when the bartender pours heavy, and it feels like you might as well have ordered a Scotch neat?  

Not a successful cocktail. 

So pull up a barstool, and let’s see if we can’t get your communications into exactly the right mix for success. 

cocktail ingredients on a table

First and Last: Balance 

A successful cocktail begins and ends with balance. No matter how many ingredients, no matter what flavors you add, if the mix is out of balance, the drink won’t be good. 

The same goes for communications. And the worst part? Like that cocktail you’re not enjoying, you may not be able to put your finger on exactly what’s off in your communications—you may even try to blame it on your own individual preferences. But the reality is, it’s off because the elements aren’t properly balanced. 

And no amount of flash is going to fix it. Just like those drinks they set on fire, stick stuff all over the rim, and hang a plastic toy off the side of—does any of that make it taste better? Of course not. And a lot of tricks and buzzwords and flashy stuff won’t improve your communications when they’re out of balance. 

Now, to understand balance, let’s start by understanding what the ingredients are. 

The Right Ingredients 

In a cocktail, you’re trying to balance liquor, sugar, and bitters/sour. In communication, you’re balancing discussion, dialogue, and clarification. Like the cocktail, when that balance is out of whack, it’s not good. 

Since you’re probably already familiar with what goes into a cocktail, I’m not going to linger there. Let’s get right to the three ingredients of communication: 

  • Dialogue – Dialogue is a talk where people engage each other to build understanding. There’s no pressure to be right in dialogue, and no penalty for being wrong because there is no right or wrong, just inquiry into ideas. Dialogues are a two-way conversation, with the ebb and flow the exchange taking those involved wherever it may, like a slow running stream. Consider it simply as thinking together. 
  • Discussion – Discussion is talk that has a purpose—often, that purpose is to make a decision. The word shares its roots with percussion and concussion, all coming from a Latin word that literally means “to hit or shake.” I look at discussion as when each person thinks they already know the answer, so each is pushing their own thoughts and biases as they go back and forth. Discussion, then, is like artillery, heaving ideas at each other and seeing how they land. Discussion is for examination and investigation, like in a court trial—and remember, in a trial, there’s a winner and a loser. 
  • Clarification – Clarification is the process within a talk where a listener makes sure he or she understands a speaker’s message. It involves the listener summarizing what the speaker has just said, in order to verify if his or her perception of it is correct. Typically done at the end of a conversation, it can also be done throughout it, as a sort of check as the conversation proceeds. Rather than for explanation, judgment, interpretation, or to offer a solution, clarification promotes understanding. 
man mixing a cocktail at a bar

The Right Mix 

For cocktails, the magic proportions are 2:1:1—that’s two parts liquor, and one part each of your sweet and bitter/sour (Don’t believe me? Try mixing up a daiquiri with these proportions using white rum, simple syrup, and lime juice and then get back to me). For communication, there’s a little bit more magic for you to work to find the balance, and it will vary by the players involved and where you are in the process. 

For instance, here’s a situation I once faced that’s a prime example of imbalance created by emphasizing too much of the wrong kind of communication at the wrong point—in this case, too much discussion upfront and too little dialogue further in. 

My client was preparing a presentation to give to a large group of stakeholders who were the actual users of the client’s system. The leaders wanted to present at a very high level, while the delivery folks implementing the project wanted to present all the details. 

Right at the beginning, a discussion ensued about the right way to proceed (remember, this is artillery). Lines were drawn, and ideas were launched in volleys—“We should give high-level details!”—this was too little for the people actually doing the work. “We should dig deep into the details!”—this was overwhelming for the leadership team. 

The leaders, you see, were concerned that going into too many details would lock them into expectations they wouldn’t be able to meet. And the delivery folks feared that with too little detail, they might spend time doing things not in alignment with leadership’s vision. 

The thing is, they all just wanted to make sure everybody was on the same page. 

But they got focused on Discussion because they were under pressure to make a decision—remember, Discussion gets results, like artillery. But what they needed at that point was Dialogue—which takes you places, like floating on a stream—in order to explore together what amount of detail would be necessary. This would have sounded more like, “I wonder what it would look like if we presented this part at high-level” or “What if we broke the presentation out into sections?” or “What do you think about changing who’s going to be in attendance?” 

If they’d given themselves time for dialogue, they might have arrived at better possible solutions to discuss. Instead, almost immediately they got out of balance. 

Too much lime juice, and not enough rum. 

Another way you can end up out of balance: Not enough Clarification. 

Remember, good communication is speaking in a manner that your message cannot be misunderstood. The scary part of that is realizing that you have to take responsibility for all communication—especially miscommunications. The way you do that is by Clarifying. As you proceed, when you hit certain key points, repeat back to the person you’ve been listening to what you understand they’ve said: “So, in other words, you want…” or “What I’m getting is that you need me to…” Doing this, the other person gets the opportunity to adjust the message when you’re not quite getting it. 

“But you said I’m responsible for my communication being understood,” I hear you wondering. “How do I make sure the other person is clear on what I’m saying?” 

That’s easy—Ask them. 

Throughout the conversation, invite their clarification. Particularly when you’ve made a complicated or crucial point, stop and say, “So, tell me what that sounds like to you.” or ask, “Now, how in your mind are you picturing that going?” Doing this, you’re taking ownership and making sure both sides are clear. 

But again, remember there’s balance in this mix. If the whole exchange is just you and the other person taking turns announcing “So, I hear you’re saying that…” you’re not getting anywhere. And your drink is nothing but a big ol’ glass of straight simple syrup. 

Nobody wants to drink that. Seriously, even your kids will grind their teeth and shiver after taking a sip. 

group of men and women discussing

You Have to be Ready to Adjust as Needed 

Unfortunately, unlike our favorite cocktails, I can’t give you hard-and-fast proportions for every interaction. You’re going to have to feel that out and fine-tune on the fly. But you’ll know it when you hit upon it. 

Think of yourself as a bartender, and sometimes you’ve got to adjust the way you’re making drinks for the people you’re making them for. That elderly couple at the table? They probably want their drinks a little lighter on the liquor and a little heavier on the sour lime. The bachelorette party in the corner? Chances are, they want their’s sweeter and a little heavier on the rum. 

So when you’re communicating with your team, like in the first example, a lot’s going to depend on where you are in the process. Are you at the start? Then you’re going to need more Dialogue to get a sense of where everyone is and how to get them where you want to go. But as you start hammering things out and the planned path takes shape, you’ll need more Discussion as you approach the goal and need to show results. And through the whole process, you’ll also need Clarification, to ensure everyone understands the plan and their part in it. 

Same thing for customers. Customer communications can get a little trickier in terms of the details you provide. And you need to be careful what you share—certain details can cause customers confusion, overwhelm them, or erode their trust. As with your team, though, in the actual interactions, you’re still looking for balance. Upfront, you may be more in Discussion as you explain what you do and how that solves problems for them. But you’ll want to be ready to pivot to Dialogue, to be sure you’re learning where they want to go. And again, through the whole process, you’ll need Clarification, to make sure you’re both understanding each other. 

group of men and women with cocktail. Cheers!

Get Out There and Mix It Up 

Just like in mixing cocktails, getting the proportions right is key to your communications. Each ingredient plays a role, enhancing and complementing the others without overwhelming. And although you may have a ratio that you find generally works, the trick is getting the balance right for the individual circumstances. Just as for some people you need to make their drink sweeter or stronger, when communicating, for some people you need more dialogue and less discussion, while others will require a lot more clarification.  

Unfortunately for those of you wanting hard-and-fast rules, there’s art as well as science in all this. The good thing is, you can learn and get to know what proportions work in different circumstances with different people. 

The best way to get good at it? Whether for cocktails or communications, practice. So start mixing drinks and talking with people, and I’ll see you next time. 


For my previous thoughts on workplace problems and a drama-free workplace, see People are the Problem, Solve it with Structure, and The Real Problem Isn’t The One They’re Complaining About.