It is not very uncommon to assume that the method of communication we use is the method that would easily deliver the communication to the individual we intend to communicate with. You have probably heard or read this and is not really anything new out of the hat. There was this hubby who had to catch an early flight out of town to attend an important business meeting. The husband and wife were not on talking terms that day after a little tiff they had had earlier. The hubby, not trusting the alarm and not intending to take the initiative to break the cold war, wrote on a piece of paper “Wake me up at 6”, put it conspicuously on the wife’s side of the bed and drifted off to sleep. He was aghast to realize it was 8 in the morning when he woke up and sure enough, he had missed his flight. Outraged and fuming, just as he was about to yell out to his wife when he noticed a slip of paper on his bedside that read “Wake up, it’s 6 AM’.
Well, the husband did communicate his need effectively and the wife did follow the instructions to the hilt. Jokes apart, the net result of this communication pattern was a complete failure of delivery of the desired result. It is surprising that while this was conceived as a mere humorous anecdote, of perhaps fictional nature, yet it is seen happening around us with an uncanny persistence almost every day. The seniors continually find their subordinates faltering in delivery despite clear instructions, the cab driver takes you to a wrong address, the domestic help does it all wrong despite your lengthy, careful instructions of epic proportions. The list is endless.
I suppose we can spare Charles Darwin the trouble of finding the missing link on this one. There are just three basic elements endemic to the Galapagos of effective communication. These are assumption, observation and understanding. Life does move at a break neck speed in this era of instant coffee, fast food, instant information and of course, instant gratification is now the hallmark of service and professional excellence. Reeling under the pressures of trying to keep pace with life, technology and rising expectations all around us, the basics of being a human have taken a back seat. We are so apt at communicating with our hi-tech gizmos, so engrossed in proving to the inanimate smart phone or tablet pc that we understand it, so obsessed with the wired and wi-fi that, ironically, we have transcended the human connection.
Communication between two people however still remains to be an intensely human aspect and shall always be so. At least until the mysteries of functioning of the human brain are unraveled in all their glory, until the scientists are able to transform all the emotions, feelings, talents, intelligence, characteristics of a human being in some form of crazy scientific equations. That would perhaps be the dawn of the ‘Avatar’ era where our brains would automatically connect with each other and perfect transfer of information will happen delivering perfect results. Until then, I suppose we will have to be content with being humans and personally, I like it this way.
Assumption or assuming while communicating, in my experience, is a serial killer of productive time in most working environments. We have all heard and read about the 7C’s of effective communication viz. clear, concise, concrete, correct, coherent, complete, courteous. It is very likely that you have attended a training session on effective communication. I have facilitated such trainings in my organization too however there are no exemplary transformations I can boast about. The emails, letters, reports floating around the organization did not metamorphose into text book examples of effective communication, people around the conference table did not suddenly become coherent or lucid in their deliberations. In fact I realized that the effectiveness of the training was as short lived as the first email sent after the session. This would certainly be déjà vu for you if you are the CEO or hold any authoritative position with a team of subordinates.
Not limiting myself just to the 7Cs or the topic in hand, I would be audacious enough to bring a majority of soft skill subjects, that corporates provide training on, within the purview of this argument. Having reviewed the content of most major topics like leadership, time management, problem solving techniques etc., I find that these are mere conglomerations of technically accurate facts that are impracticable from the trainees’s delivery stand point and sustained effects. The disconnect I have is with the delivery mechanism and not with the content per se. The way this truly remarkable information is delivered is not really conducive to effortless absorption and implementation by the trainees. I do not intend to, in any way, degrade or devalue the stupendous efforts of the scholars, gurus and researchers in development of these programs. Their work is remarkable and truly commendable.
To ‘assume’ is inherent to human nature. Behind most communications that eventually prove ineffective, there is assumption as the root cause. Assumptions happen at both ends, sender and receiver ends, and assumptions happen continually. A manager assumes his subordinate would understand what he needs when he sends out an email asking for some important data, a subordinate similarly assumes he knows what is required by his boss. More often than not, after the data is submitted, the manager would have to go back and forth with the subordinate to finally get exactly what was required. Déjà vu again! While the manager would be trained in the 7Cs and so would be the subordinate in all probability, yet this communication is non-fulfilling. The reason is quite simple. It is not really practical for anyone to be putting a check mark on a list of 7Cs in their minds every time they communicate. If the issue of effective communication is dealt with more at a human level, addressing and focussing on bringing about a change in the basic tendency to ‘assume’, the results would be far more sustained and satisfying. It is much easier for us to remember and learn “do not assume” than to be able to recall all the bullet points in a powerpoint presentation. If our thought pattern is accustomed to ‘not assume’, the 7Cs automatically fall into place as a corollary. This is the human connect, the missing link. A change in thought pattern that obviates the need to retain and recall a list of points, do’s and don’ts. Since thoughts precede all actions, if the thought is for not assuming, what follows would be in sync with the principles of effective communication whether or not the individual is trained in the aspect.
I once sent out an email to the heads of department informing them of the dwindling levels of basic disciplinary aspects like punctuality, dress codes etc. and asked them to sensitize their respective spans on the issue. As the heads of department went about their individual ways to act on it, an email sent by the Manager Training to his team caught my eye. He had articulately brought out the subject and had gone to the extent of mentioning excerpts from company policies on arrival time, mobile policy, dress code etc, and had clearly set out his expectations from his team vis.a.vis the company policies. Impressed with the professionalism and somewhat speculating that he was following what he preaches (being the Manager Training), I sent him an appreciation email and also forwarded his email to all the other heads of department citing it as an example of a great communication. Later when I had a chance of asking him as to what prompted him to include the policies in his email, he replied “I was not comfortable in assuming that my team was aware of the policies and hence included the details after consulting HRD.” Needless to say his team met his expectations better than the rest.
Observation and Understanding
The aspects of observation and understanding go hand in hand. In his book ‘Tribal Leadership’ Dave Logan describes the five tribal stages and how managers can create a thriving culture by understanding the language people at each stage speak and transcend the tribe to the next stage through this understanding. These tribes are formed involuntarily and automatically whether you are in a queue to renew your driving license or at a music concert. Basically people form a tribe when there is a conformity of thoughts or feelings or goals or any combination of these. Dave Logan gives a rhetorical description of the dyadic, triadic relationships and the language people at each cultural level speak. On a more pragmatic front, you would have observed that people form groups at functions and often these groups generally have the same set of people at every gathering. Well, these are your tribes and these tribes form because these set of people speak the same language, understand each other and are able to communicate effortlessly.
Communication is the predicate of all human interaction and a precursor to everything that gets done in an organization. Also, whatever might be the form, communication is always between people. Any communication, written or spoken, is also prone to misinterpretation. I am sure you would be able to recall a myriad of instances where you were misunderstood or misinterpreted. Mathematically speaking, the probability of a misinterpretation is inversely proportional to level of understanding between two people. In simpler words any misunderstanding or misinterpretation stems from the lack of understanding between people and lower the level of understanding, higher is the probability of misunderstanding.
The dyadic and then triadic relationships suggested by Dave Logan as a tool to transcend people from one tribal stage to the next is a quintessential way of creating a level of understanding between people where they are able to communicate effortlessly and their relationship becomes transformational. When a person who believes in ‘I am great (you are not)‘ is in contact with those who advocate “We are great” form of thinking, a transformation from ‘I’ to ‘We’ is most likely to happen through the observation and understanding that develops via the dyadic or triadic relationship. A move towards developing meaningful relationships in the organization would let people observe and understand others and make it much easier for them to be speaking the language that is understood by those they are interacting with. In short , effective communication is an assured outcome of developing meaningful relationships and a ‘relationship’ is a typically human aspect.
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