New year, new us, right? My goal for the year, among other things, is to really double down on being a better communicator. Easy to say, hard to implement, because a lot of being a good communicator is keeping your emotions in check and swallowing your pride, two things I am, personally, not a big fan of. But for the sake of my professional and personal relationships, on set and off, I’ve compiled a few guideposts so we can all more successfully collaborate, delegate, and network amongst ourselves. This is a long article, so buckle up.
Before we begin, an important note: this is an article about communicating with your filmmaking team when you are not in danger. In no way do I advocate maintaining an even tone when talking to someone hurling racial slurs at other teammates or if a physical alteration has arisen. If you ever feel unsafe, or if someone isn’t willing to meet you at this article’s level, fire their ass and move on. We’ve even got an article about that!
One of the hardest parts about being a good communicator is maintaining expectations. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, you need to be consistent about the method you communicate, the frequency with which to communicate, and, naturally, tone. Let’s break that down:
Method. If you normally use Facebook Messenger to let people know about upcoming shoots and meetings, then all the sudden use email, people are likely to miss that message, because that’s not where you’ve subconsciously taught them to keep an eye on. Your team isn’t on the hook to be constantly vigilant about all possible communication methods- that’s not efficient, and things will inevitably fall through the cracks. It’s on you to set an expectation about where people should go to find updates and information and stick to it.
Frequency. Similarly, even with only one app or website or carrier pigeon nest to check, if you send messages erratically (ex: once a week for two weeks, then nothing for six months), it’s your fault if one gets missed. You’re the one being inconsistent about when you’re communicating, not taking into account that other people live full, you-less lives.
Tone. This one is hard, whether you’re in a leadership position or are simply an equal member of a team. Filmmaking is incredibly stressful, even in best case scenarios, and especially if you’re working with friends or more inexperienced crew members, tensions are going to flare. It’s no one’s fault (except for the times that it definitely is), but regardless, the way you speak to other people needs to remain, to the best of your abilities, the same as if you’re discussing your favorite vegetables.
Think to yourself- has someone being passive-aggressive or just straight up aggressive ever been a good way to deal with a mistake, or a miscommunication? The answer is no. Your job as a member of society and especially as a person in a leadership position is to recognize that, if your goal is truly to communicate something, your frustration, anger, disappointment, and/or sadness is not productive nor is it relevant. What’s relevant is that you need to communicate your needs clearly and make sure the person you’re speaking to understands. Communicating your anger gets you nowhere except a short thrill of justice, but justice in everyday conversations is a falsehood. Justice isn’t being served because you got to yell at a PA for messing up, or because you landed a great zinger on a director who’s having trouble visualizing a shot.
Here’s the great thing about remaining consistent, to the best of your abilities, with your tone: people trust you. People feel comfortable talking to you about problems or mistakes because they aren’t afraid you’ll fly off the handle. You’ve proven you can be mature and cool-headed in a conflict and therefore are actually included in problem-solving when something goes wrong. That’s a much more useful position to be in, versus people avoiding you at all costs. Filmmaking is collaborative, so collaborate, don’t alienate.
Listen and respond rather than react
You would not believe how much quicker conflicts get resolved if you actually listen to the people you’re talking to. Follow these steps to make sure you’ve actually understood what’s being communicated with you:
- Don’t interrupt. Even if you think you understand where they’re going with this, or you’ve heard it before, do not interrupt people. They’ll get frustrated, and even if you’ve understood them completely, they will feel like they haven’t been heard. Communication isn’t just one-way; both parties need to feel like an interaction was successful for it to actually be successful. If you think someone is rambling, put up a hand or finger to indicate you’d like to respond, or ask, calmly, “may I respond?” at the end of a sentence.
- Get concrete context. Make sure you understand what’s happening. Is the problem that the production designer is late, or is the problem that the production designer isn’t coming in? Is a prop missing or did someone break something? You need to know what exactly the problem is before you can help fix it.
- Ask for response parameters. What does the other person need from you in this moment? An idea to solve a problem? Permission to perform an action? A sympathetic ear to vent to? This person came to you, so the ball is in their court, and trying to take it to yours too early makes it seem like you don’t trust them, and that the validity of their input started and ended at getting you a message.
- Don’t be dismissive. Before you respond, give yourself a moment to understand why you’re against an idea. Is it because you want to do something else? Because you don’t trust the person presenting it? Because you’re annoyed or angry at having been dismissed earlier? Or because you actually don’t think it’s a good idea, and don’t think it’s even worth talking about? If it’s the latter, you still owe the other person an explanation of why, even a brief one. And be open to the possibility that they might have a response prepared for that explanation, a response that is owed just as much consideration as the initial idea. Basically, don’t make up your mind too quickly, and be brutally honest with yourself about why your first reaction was to dismiss something.
- Use “we” language, especially if someone messed up. 90% of the time, they know they messed up, so what’s the point in litigating it now? Even simply asking “ok, so what should we do?” lets people know that this isn’t the moment for blame or anger, it’s a moment to work as a team and puzzle this out. You’re inviting them to be a part of a solution, and solidly placing yourself on their side, the project’s side. You’re all in this together. We will fix this.
Know when it’s appropriate for a public or private space to talk
Times to work something out in private:
- If a problem has arisen once or twice. Being publicly shamed for a first-time offense is rarely, if ever, an effective method of curbing behavior.
- If the problem is attitude. Again, publicly shaming someone for a bad attitude almost certainly will make the problem worse, because when confronted with an identity accusation in front of people you have to work with, your first reaction is likely to be defensive.
- If you’re in a fight. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it ‘til I die: DO. NOT. FIGHT. ON. SET. (or in public in general)
Times to work something out in public:
- If someone is being consistently disruptive. The first or second offense you should take them aside, because they might not know they’re doing something wrong, but if a behavior is repeated, that’s a choice, and you need to get them to knock it off.
- If someone has been openly cruel or violent towards another person. There’s no excuse for that kind of behavior, and it’s important the rest of your team knows you’ll stick up for them. You should also probably immediately fire the cruel or violent person, and that should also probably happen in public. Zero tolerance.
- If the solution to a problem involves more than one person. By keeping your tone consistent and using “we” language, the person to blame won’t feel called out or ostracized and you’ll actually be able to figure out your next steps.
Know when to apologize, and learn to mean it
First up: sometimes, you don’t need to apologize, and you should learn how to tell the difference. There’s a possibility there’s a whole article there, but for now, I’ll leave you with:
- Don’t apologize for asking someone to do their job. It makes you look weak, makes you less persuasive because of the perceived weakness, and is a waste of breath and time. It is their job- they SHOULD be doing it. Just remember everything else in this article- the point is not to accuse someone for not doing their job out of a bizarre sense of justice, the point is to get them to do their job.
- Don’t apologize for doing your job. If I never hear someone say “sorry, I just really need to get your schedule” again, it’ll be too soon. Why are you apologizing for asking for a necessary thing to do your job? Why do directors apologize for needing another take, why do DPs apologize for asking an actor to move slightly to their left, why do actors apologize for asking a question about their character? You’re doing your job! What else are you supposed to do??
There are a lot of times, however, that we all do need to be better about apologizing. We’re human, and to be human is to be problematic. Even I, the Perfect And Always Right Bri Castellini, can’t 100% of the time keep my tone or communication frequency consistent. I’m always going to have moments of unproductive emotion bubble up unexpectedly, and I’m going to accidentally hurt people’s feelings. But you know what I can guarantee? That if I am in the wrong, whether by realizing it myself or being presented with the reasons from someone else, I will apologize and try to do better. Here are some tips from a previous Stareable Film School article about effective apologies:
Some advice about apologizing:
- Do it because it’s the right thing to do, not for forgiveness. Trust me, people can tell.
- “I’m sorry you took it the wrong way” is not an apology, because you’re essentially putting the onus of resolution on the person you’ve upset.
- An excuse is not an apology. Pairing an apology with an explanation is fine, but only if it makes sense and can paint a fuller picture of the circumstances. A good example of doing this badly might be, and I’m just spitballing here, blaming Ambien for your racism.
- Try pairing your apology with an action plan for the future. “I’m sorry I was late for set today- in the future, I’ll make sure to leave a bit earlier and check train delays beforehand so I can plan ahead instead of being caught off guard.”
- Actually try to enact your action plan, whether you mention it or not. Your apology is meaningless unless it is accompanied by action and a concerted effort to never have to apologize for the behavior again.
I’m almost certainly missing something, because human communication is a minefield of cultural differences, differences in upbringing, regional slang, secret sociopaths, insecurity, and being or not being neurotypical. But this is a start. As I recommended in our Forget The Box season 2 finale episode last week, just be thoughtful.