Conversation as communication

29/04/2011
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Communication is best achieved through simple planning and control; this article looks at approaches which might help you to do this and specifically at meetings, where conversations need particular care.

Most conversations sort of drift along; in business, this is wasteful; as a manager, you seek communication rather than chatter. To ensure an efficient and effective conversation, there are three considerations:

  • you must make your message understood
  • you must receive/understand the intended message sent to you
  • you should exert some control over the flow of the communication

Thus you must learn to listen as well as to speak. Those who dismis this as a mere platitude are already demonstrating an indisposition to listening: the phrase may be trite, but the message is hugely significant to your effectiveness as a manager. If you do not explicitly develop the skill of listening, you may not hear the suggestion/information which should launch you to fame and fortune.

AMBIGUITY AVOIDANCE

As a manager (concerned with getting things done) your view of words should be pragmatic rather than philosophical. Thus, words mean not what the dictionary says they do but rather what the speaker intended.

Suppose your manager gives to you an instruction which contains an ambiguity which neither of you notice and which results in you producing entirely the wrong product. Who is at fault? The answer must be: who cares? Your time has been wasted, the needed product is delayed (or dead); attributing blame may be a satisfying (or defensive) exercise but it does not address the problem. In everything you say or hear, you must look out for possible misunderstanding and clarify the ambiguity.

The greatest source of difficulty is that words often have different meanings depending upon context and/or culture. Thus, a “dry” country lacks either water or alcohol; “suspenders” keep up either stockings or trousers (pants); a “funny” meeting is either humorous or disconcerting; a “couple” is either a few or exactly two. If you recognize that there is a potential misunderstanding, you must stop the conversation and ask for the valid interpretation.

A second problem is that some people simply make mistakes. Your job is not simply to spot ambiguities but also to counter inconsistencies. Thus if I now advocate that the wise manager should seek out (perhaps humorous) books on entomology (creepy crawlies) you would deduce that the word should have been etymology. More usual, however, is that in thinking over several alternatives you may suffer a momentary confusion and say one of them while meaning another. There are good scientific reasons (to do with the associative nature of the brain) why this happens, you have to be aware of the potential problem and counter for it.

Finally, of course, you may simply mishear. The omission of a simple word could be devastating. For instance, how long would you last as an explosives engineer if you failed to hear a simple negative in: “whatever happens next you must [not] cut the blue wi…”?

So, the problem is this: the word has multiple meanings, it might not be the one intended, and you may have misheard it in the first place – how do you know what the speaker meant?

Rule 1: PLAY BACK for confirmation

Simple, you ask for confirmation. You say “let me see if I have understood correctly, you are saying that …” and you rephrase what the speaker said. If this “play back” version is acknowledged as being correct by the original speaker, then you have a greater degree of confidence in you own understanding. For any viewpoint/message/decision, there should be a clear, concise and verified statement of what was said; without this someone will get it wrong.

Rule 2: WRITE BACK for confidence

But do not stop there. If your time and effort depend upon it, you should write it down and send it to everyone involved as a double check. This has several advantages:

  • Further clarification – is this what you thought we agreed?
  • Consistency check – the act of writing may highlight defects/omissions
  • A formal stage – a statement of the accepted position provides a spring board from which to proceed
  • Evidence – hindsight often blurs previous ignorance and people often fail to recall their previous errors

Rule 3: GIVE BACKground for context

When speaking yourself, you can often counter for possible problems by adding information, and so providing a broader context in which your words can be understood. Thus, there is less scope for alternative interpretations since fewer are consistent. When others are speaking, you should deliberately ask questions yourself to establish the context in which they are thinking. When others are speaking, you should deliberately ask questions yourself to establish the context in which they are thinking.

PRACTICAL POINTS

As with all effective communication, you should decide (in advance) on the purpose of the conversation and the plan for achieving it. There is no alternative to this. Some people are proficient at “thinking on their feet” – but this is generally because they already have clear understanding of the context and their own goals. You have to plan; however, the following are a few techniques to help the conversation along.

Assertiveness

The definition of to assert is: “to declare; state clearly”. This is your aim. If someone argues against you, even loses their temper, you should be quietly assertive. Much has been written to preach this simple fact and commonly the final message is a three-fold plan of action:

  • acknowledge what is being said by showing an understanding of the position, or by simply replaying it (a polite way of saying “I heard you already”)
  • state your own point of view clearly and concisely with perhaps a little supporting evidence
  • state what you want to happen next (move it forward)

Thus we have something like: yes, I see why you need the report by tomorrow; however, I have no time today to prepare the document because I am in a meeting with a customer this afternoon; either I could give you the raw data and you could work on it yourself, or you could make do with the interim report from last week.

You will have to make many personal judgement calls when being assertive. There will certainly be times when a bit of quiet force from you will win the day but there will be times when this will get nowhere, particularly with more senior (and unenlightened) management. In the latter case, you must agree to abide by the decision of the senior manager but you should make your objection (and reasons) clearly known. For yourself, always be aware that your subordinates might be right when they disagree with you and if events prove them so, acknowledge that fact gracefully.

Confrontations

When you have a difficult encounter, be professional, do not lose your self-control because, simply, it is of no use. Some managers believe that it is useful for “discipline” to keep staff a little nervous. Thus, these managers are slightly volatile and will be willing “to let them have it” when the situation demands. If you do this, you must be consistent and fair so that you staff know where they stand. If you deliberately lose your temper for effect, then that is your decision – however, you must never lose control.

Insults are ineffective. If you call people names, then they are unlikely to actually listen to what you have to say; in the short term you may feel some relief at “getting it off your chest”, but in the long run you are merely perpetuating the problem since you are not addressing it. This is common sense. There are two implications. Firstly, even under pressure, you have to remember this. Secondly, what you consider fair comment may be insulting to another – and the same problem emerges. Before you say anything, stop, establish what you want as the outcome, plan how to achieve this, and then speak.

Finally, if you are going to criticise or discipline someone, always assume that you have misunderstood the situation and ask questions first which check the facts. This simple courtesy will save you from much embarrassment.

Seeking Information

There are two ways of phrasing any question: one way (the closed question) is likely to lead to a simple grunt in reply (yes, no, maybe), the second way (the open question) will hand over the speaking role to someone else and force them to say something a little more informative.

Suppose you conduct a review of a recently finished (?) project with Gretchen and it goes something like this:

  • “Have you finished project X Gretchen?”
  • “Yes”
  • “If everything written up?”
  • “Nearly”
  • “So there is documentation left to do?”
  • “Some”
  • “Will it take you long?”
  • “No, not long”

Before your fingers start twitching to place themselves around Gretchen’s neck, consider that your questions are not actually helping the flow of information. The same flow of questions in an open format would be: what is left to do of project X, what about the documentation, when will that be completely finished? Try answering Yes or No to those questions.

Open questions are extremely easy to formulate. You establish in your own mind the topic/aim of the question and then you start the sentence with the words:

Gerard M Blair

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