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Communication 101: Following Up To Follow Through by Leslie Juvin-Acker

April 2, 2015

Have you ever been in mid-conversation or project and the person who was supposed to help you follow through completely fell off the grid? Time goes on and still no follow-up. Irritating, isn’t it?

One of the biggest complaints my clients have is a lack of follow up from others, but communication is a two way street so it’s best to work on our own communication skills first than to wait for someone else to be the bigger person.

What Is Follow Up?

Follow up is a communication and leadership skill that often goes neglected and under exercised.  Follow up is the act of following something through until its completion and is done by clearly updating or closing conversations  so that all parties involved can take away a mutual understanding. Sounds simple enough, huh? Not always.

Follow up can either be the fuel that keeps work going or the door that closes so that others can open. When used constructively, follow up keeps people informed and helps others feel as if projects and situations are properly handled and progressing, if not concluded. Proper follow up shows consideration for our relationships and for others’ time, acts of kindness, and resources. Follow up, as a behavioral tool, keeps us focused and relationships on track (or properly concluded). It says, “Enough of what we were doing before. Let’s change speeds or stop this completely.”

Why Don’t People Follow Up?

Failure to follow up happens for a variety of reasons: We intend to respond but get so buried in our work that we forget. We don’t have the answer to what someone’s asking us and rather admit ignorance, we ignore requests instead. We don’t want to help people out because of some conflict of interest and don’t know how to say no so we just hope the conversation dies out. Some highly specialized individuals lack the social skills to properly respond to communications or notice cues. Or, we’re just self-centered, lazy, and self-important jerks.

Whatever the reason, it’s our responsibility to get over our hangups, awkwardness, forgetfulness, or rudeness and follow through with people. It sucks to have to say no or confront someone, but it’s better to get over the hump and get the uncomfortable discourse over with than to live in denial and regret… and be forced to deal with their consequences later on.

What Happens When We Don’t Follow Up?

When we don’t follow up with others, we can throw projects off their course and send mixed social signals. Not only that, it appears rude, arrogant, and inconsiderate of others’ time and situations. The operative word I hear is, “Douchey.” Others can interpret it as self-centeredness which displays a “what’s in it for me” attitude, leaving people feeling frustrated, angry, and even confused by our lack of communication. There is very little to justify a lack of follow up and, more often than not, makes things worse than making them better.

How Can I Ensure I Follow Up?

Timely follow up is key. As soon as we receive a note, get more news, make progress or learn of any problems, it’s our job to let others know what’s happening on our end.  It’s tempting to procrastinate, but then the opportunity passes or the acceptable time window closes and then things get awkward when it comes time to explain why we dropped the ball. Just follow up as quickly as possible.  Follow up doesn’t have to take much time – just a few minutes, at least – to continue or finish conversations.

Mutual understanding is the fundamental purpose of follow up and not about being a slave to emails and the whims of others. When it comes to updates, either positive or negative, context trumps content because the focus isn’t entirely on what’s being said as how and when. Focus more on the timing, the general attitude of the message and allow the facts speak for themselves.

When it comes to a tough project or situation that has slowly progressed, give others a heads up so they’re not left wondering what’s going on. If we get pissed off by a rude email or conversation, it’s ok to take some time to cool down and think about ways to respond politely and constructively. But wait too long and it shows that we’re sulking. Choose to do and be better than the default of doing nothing or too little.

Remember, the point of following up is to either create endings or make steady progress that everyone can clearly understand. Our lack of follow up says more about us and our ability to handle issues than the situation at hand. When done right and practiced regularly, following up is an essential skill to resolve problems, maintain strong relationships, and communicate ourselves clearly and positively.

Questions To Ask:

- When was the last time someone left me in dead air in the middle of a conversation or project? How did that make me feel and affect me? What perspective do I have now as a result of this experience?
- How many projects have I been a part of that have stalled or just completely stopped as a result of a lack of follow up?

- How time sensitive are my communications? When does my input expire before others move on without me?

- What keeps me from following up (procrastination, awkwardness, confusion, lack of clarity)? What do I need to do or know in order to move forward?

- How important are my relationships to me? Do I follow up and show that others matter to me?

- How can I clearly and succinctly follow up without having to constantly go back and forth?