Communication (Or Something like it)

Matthew Heusser's picture

Two consultants walked into a company that made bar stools ...

Believe it or not, no, that's not the opening to a joke. It is, instead, the beginning of a story. 

The company was having performance problems, or at least, the perception of performance problems. Morale seemed to be lower than it should be. At the very least, HR could tell you that turnover was higher than industry-standard, which meant that people wanted to "get out", and that the percentage of time spent training was higher than it should be, which also meant the percentage of time spent doing was lower than it should be.

Enter our two consultants, hired to figure out the root cause of the problem and, if not fix it, at least tell management the problem so management could have an opportunity to fix it.

The consultants did what consultants do, performing an assessment, conducting interviews, benchmarking the company against its peers, building a powerpoint deck, and so.

Just like Weinberg pointed out twenty years ago in Secrets of Consulting, the problem was obvious within about five minutes of getting on site and actually talking to people: Communication was totally lacking.

So the consultants told management that there was a communication problem, and left. Management took the issue to heart, and started talking more to the employees, with a monthly newsletter and a weekly All-hands-IT meeting, opening up the company's strategic plan (and the departments "how we will help the company accomplish the strategy" plan) document to every employee to read. HR even created webinars to explain the vision.

Six months later, things were worse than when they started.

So they brought back the consultants, who took a look at this, and, within five minutes, knew the problem.

"You misunderstood", the consultants explained, "the problem wasn't that you weren't talking enough to the employees. The problem was that you weren't listening enough to the employees."

The Trouble with "Communication"

Communication is an umbrella term. It means a lot of things. Here are just a few:

* Conveying a message in words (Speaking skills)

* Conveying a message by writing things down (Writing skills)

* Recognizing when a message isn't getting through (Feedback, non-verbal messages, tone of voice)

* ... and changing your style to match (Visual, Tactile, audible learning, sensitivity)

* Conveying a tough message in a way it can be received (Sensitivity and humor)

* Receiving messages (active listening)

* Conveying Your understanding of the message (Restating, paraphrasing, feedback)

* Creating an welcome environment for feedback (Seeking feedback)

* Giving Criticism ("Positive" Criticism)

* Receiving Criticism and Adjusting to it (Receiving feedback)

* Deciding which medium to use, eg verbal, email, web, etc. (situational awareness/knowing the audience)

There's a lot more here than I could cover with a bulleted list; it almost begs for a diagram with sender, receiver, and the message.

The great irony of telling someone they need to work on their communications skills is that, every time we do that, we are not doing a good job explaining what to actually telling them what to work on!  ("You need to work on your communication skills", is, itself vague and poor communication!)

It leaves the other person, like management, guessing what to do. 

We do this all the time.

An Exercise

Consider this video from this year's Eurostar conference, which was a simple "floor poll" of what the most important skill is in testing. The term communications comes up over and over again -- gosh, it must be the most important thing in testing. But listen carefully to what the speakers say when they talking about communication. Each one has one or more things in mind,  often from the list above ... but they are all different!

So, if you like, watch the video, and try to figure out what each one means.

It's a bit muddled, isn't it?

Again, the term communication is a latin-root word and is very abstract. It stands for a bunch of stuff; it is sort of an umbrella term.

If you want to get better at communication, here's a place to start: Drop the word entirely. Instead of the placeholder, talk about specific skills. Borrow my list above or invent your own, or perhaps invent your own diagram. Assess your skills in each area and consider where your opportunities are. That is, the areas where a little effort could go a long way. You might also look to your strengths and see how you can "play" to those strengths, finding ways to structure conversations to be more successful. (Another option: If you are bad at something, you can compensate. You don't have to get good at email if you force yourself to have your risky emails reviewed by a friend before sending ... though that process might make you better.)

In the Final Analysis

At the very least, I hope you get today's main point: The word "Communication" is vague and risky. In many cases, we'd be better off dropping it and getting specific.

Also, if you've ever heard me rant about writers who use long, latin-root words ending in '-ion', or '-ize', I hope you understand a little bit better why.

I suspect that's enough for now, though I may come back to this in another post.

In the mean time, if you take this post to heart and actually do some practice, please tell me about it in the comments or blog it and link to it.

User Comments

Justin Rohrman's picture

Nice post Matt, it is crazy how much stuff happens between having a thought and the final resting place of that thought in another persons mind. In regards to this being diagrammed, you're in luck! This has been done, and pretty well, too. Virgina Satir created the Satir Interaction Model to describe how communicating can work.

Here is the wikipedia article for that:

March 10, 2014 - 12:11pm
bindu pulikkottil's picture

i really like it. It is very descrptive manner mentioned.I can analys where is am lagging.

April 15, 2014 - 5:16pm