Internal Audit is a surprisingly people-focused profession. Sure, we audit processes and look for risk. But at the base of it all it’s people we audit, right? And if we’re auditing people, then we have to be humane in our approach. And to audit humanely, we need to show a degree of emotional intelligence.

Jill Schiefelbein is the author of Dynamic Communication and a collaborator with MISTI. She says emotional intelligence means, “recognizing everyone’s an individual. Everyone has different desires and different ways of processing messages being received. Thinking everyone is going to receive a message in the same way, is going to be wrong.”

In one section of her book, Dynamic Communication, Schiefelbein offers communication tips for bridging the gap of communication. As auditors, we can employ these tips when we communicate either in person or on paper.

Everyone Interprets the Same Information Differently

In audit, we have several different groups of people we liaise with: the audit team member, the audit director, the audit client and their management, the corporate executives, and the audit committee. Each of these groups differs vastly in their needs from internal audit. For example, when audit discovers an issue, everyone will want something different from the finding. For example,

  • The audit client will want evidence of the problem.
  • The management will want to know why the issue happened (root cause).
  • The corporate executive will want to know root cause and overall company risks.
  • The audit committee will want to know risk and any systemic root causes.

So we see that in varying levels and degrees that everyone wants something different from the finding. And you want everyone to be on the same page and resolve the finding or issue together.

How do you do this? One strategy is to develop what Schiefelbein refers to as “common communication denominators.” In other words, these are a few tactics to use to build a better relationship with your audit client and get everyone on the same page. These tactics are to leverage shared experiences, use synonyms, cut out jargon, and infuse your tone with conversational language.

Leverage Shared Experiences

Schiefelbein says, “Think of things everyone has in common. We all wake up in the morning, for example. We all eat, and each of us has a favorite drink and a favorite food.... Tap into the experiences that we all, as human beings, share, and you’ll get people on the same page” (Schiefelbein 103). For example, if you and the audit client all took part in the same company party or picnic or large meeting, reference those events. It seems like a small thing to do, but it can foster trust. “While experiences may have been different from person to person, everyone shared in the same space.” A shared experience can create equity between you and your client.

To build a better relationship with your audit client, try leveraging shared experiences, use synonyms when communicating, cut out jargon, and infuse your tone with conversational language. #audit Click to Tweet

Additionally, analogies are a great strategy to find common ground. The purpose of an analogy is to explain or clarify by making comparisons between two things.

For example, a common problem auditors have is that we like to explain everything in the finest detail; however, sometimes less is more for the end reader. In my trainings, I use an analogy to clarify how auditors can unintentionally communicate to the audit client. I say that auditors are like plumbers. They want to tell the reader all the plumbing, or how they discovered the issue when the reader just wants to turn on the faucet or know what went wrong and how to fix the issue. Hopefully, the analogy adds clarity to the situation.

Use Synonyms

When concepts or findings are difficult to understand, they can be intimidating. Auditors can either inspire or intimidate with their words, so choose to inspire.

You could be a person who typically uses large, exciting words (like obfuscate, which is the fancy word that means to confuse); however, the rest of us don’t use those fancy words. In audit, you might have audit jargon that has seeped into your everyday lingo, and you think everyone else knows those words too (but, they don’t). You also might write fancier words than you would normally use in your verbal language.

How often have you said, “I’m going to take a moment to go utilize the restroom?” You haven’t. You say, “I’m going to use the restroom.” However, maybe you’ve written something like, “The client does not utilize the appropriate resources.” For the love of all that is good in the world, just say and write the word use. Here are some other common buzzwords that could use a handy synonym instead:

Instead of

Say or write

ensure

confirm, determine, validate

methodology

method, plan, process

inappropriate

wrong, incorrect

expenditure

amount, value, cost, price

Words that are used over and over fade into the background. It might be helpful to start a list of frequently used words and list replacement synonyms. Even if you’re reporting the same thing, if you use synonyms then your reports will appear more dynamic.

Jargon and Acronyms

Along the same lines of using a synonym to improve communication is avoiding jargon and acronyms to also improve communication.

“In business, if you’re having an all-hands meeting and talking about a project that the entire room isn’t familiar with, make sure it’s fully explained. If you’re using industry jargon that not everyone in the room would know, be sure to use a synonym with it” (Schiefelbein 105).

Making difficult concepts simple is vital in audit reporting since your audit client might understand the concept, but your final reader (like the executive) might not.

Don’t assume that your executive understands IT, because 9 times out of 10, they don’t... and neither does the audit committee... and neither do I... does anyone outside of IT get IT? Better simplify it. An easy way to make sense of jargon is to use a simplified conclusion to connect the jargon to the reader. Or just use the simple conclusion and forget the jargon (if you can).

For example, an audit report might have an IT issue that looks like this:

  • Evidence: The SMTP service was running on 37/ UNIX/Linux-based IP addresses that permitted the VRFY, EXPN, and RCPT commands.

In this sentence, we have the perfect combination of everything that makes a head spin: we have numbers, slashes, all caps, and abbreviations. And if you’re an IT auditor, you probably completely understand this sentence. But no one else does.

So take the jargon, the acronyms, and the overall lack of understanding out of this sentence. Write what you want your reader to conclude from the piece of evidence listed above. For example:

  • Conclusion: SMTP configurations are not securely managed.
  • Risk: An attacker could easily identify the accounts that are on a machine without authenticating to the server.

To improve overall understanding, the quick and dirty tip here is to use short words, short sentences, and substitute acronyms and jargon with normal words.

Making difficult concepts simple is vital in audit reporting, since your audit client might understand the concept, but your final reader (like the executive) might not. #audit Click to Tweet

Colloquialisms and Conversational Language

When we speak colloquially, we use common words, such as slang, clichés, or an overall conversational style. The above section focused more on the written language, but simplifying language is also important in the spoken language.

“Many people think when they’re giving a business presentation that they shouldn’t be colloquial, and that’s flat out not the case. Of course, you need to analyze your audience beforehand but for your average audience situation you’re going to want to use language that shows you understand and relate to them, and sometimes colloquialisms help you do just that” (108).

Once again, an auditor can either inspire or intimidate. It’s important to present the evidence you have but engage together in a thoughtful conversation as to why the finding occurred. This can help the audit client take ownership of the issue and guide the conversation into developing positive solutions to a problem.

For instance, you could say something like, “We found x, y, and z. We wanted to make sure that the conclusions we’ve drawn from the evidence are correct, and if so, to engage in a conversation together on why this might have happened so we can solve the problem together.” This approach will show the audit client that audit didn’t come in to be the solution but is present to be a helpful partner in developing a solution.

Building Trust

Learning emotional intelligence and communication is not a learn-it-once sort of thing. Thankfully, we are each constantly evolving and learning skills to communicate properly with one another. Let’s all resolve to inspire a little more than we intimidate with the words we use. 

Interesting in learning more about similar topics? Check out one of our upcoming seminars, or take one of Sarah's upcoming training sessions on audit report writing found here. Jill Schiefelbein will also be speaking at our upcoming SuperStrategies Conference & Expo in Las Vegas.

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