Someone once said that all business problems are communication problems. When I was in graduate school many moons ago, I heard something similar said about relationships, that all relationship problems are really communication problems. I suspect that just about any problem involving human beings comes down to communication in one way or another.
In my years working as a business consultant, I have certainly seen conflict play out between internal units, between supervisor and subordinate, between customer and supplier, between alliance partners, and between business entities and regulators all come down to communication. I have seen all kinds of communication courses come and go, all attempting to improve this apparently difficult thing to do – to communicate.
As an educational psychologist, I spent a lot of time wondering about the source of conflict and miscommunication. Whether in one-to-one counseling situations, working with groups, or trying to build teams, I have seen the communication issue rise over and over again. I must admit that before I really understood the problem, I spent a lot of time trying to teach people all the various active listening skills from unconditional positive regard over to how to paraphrase and seek mutual understanding.
As you are probably sensing, I don’t think the problem lies in various listening skills. However, before going too far into my thoughts on the issues, let me underscore that effective listening skills are an important part of the solution. It has certainly been my experience that people don’t know how to listen very well.
I suspect that part of the listening problem stems from how much emphasis we place on the ability to make a point, to advocate a point of view, to argue for a position. If we have been trained in the art of making a strong case for our point of view, many of us then learned to listen not so much to understand the other as to be able to offer a counter argument.
There is an old Buddhist saying that goes something like: “Are you listening, or just preparing to speak.”
There is quite a big difference between conversing with someone who is listening to understand and someone who is listening to argue. I’m sure you have experienced the difference! We have all experienced the person who listens solely so they can counter whatever you have to say, even without having a point of their own to offer. For these folks, the main point of conversation isn’t even about a good debate (my point is stronger and more well thought out than yours); it is more about discrediting the other, finding holes in their logic, or otherwise appearing superior through the ability to find fault.
Have you ever been on the wrong end of a conversation with someone who has been through one of those effective listening courses? In this instance, I am not referring to someone who is seeking to listen and to paraphrase before carrying on themselves; rather, I am thinking about the person who has mastered the art of what I call “malicious listening.” The malicious listener has mastered the are of listening with a not-so-hidden motive. This person listens to prove you wrong and uses your own words to make their case. They can quote you (“you said . . . .”) and quickly follow with a retort, rejoinder, or snide comment about how wrong you are.
These are examples of problems we have all encountered from time to time; in fact, we may have even been the one presenting the problem to another. However, the kind of communication challenge I am thinking about is of a different stripe. Play along with this one and see what you think.
Most of us don’t even know what the word means!
The game I want you to play with me is a word game. It starts with my assertion that most of us don’t know what the word communication really means. Now, of course you know what the word means in once sense; however, my experience suggests that most of us don’t really know the purpose side of the word’s meaning. So, here goes!
Let’s pretend that the word communication is actually made up of several words and our job is ferret them out, put them together, and then discover what the word actually means. Starting with the letter “C”, what is the first, little tiny word you can find inside the word communication.
Co: what does “co” mean? Together, with, part of, all come to mind. And these put us on the trail to meaning. Clearly, communication has something to do with together.
How about the first compound word, with two or more syllables? Starting with the letter “C”, we come up with “commun.” What does “commun” suggest? More about together, part of, etc. You can see the “commun” in words like community and, well, commune. More about togetherness.
Does “commun” look like another fairly ordinary word, just slightly misspelled? How about changing the “u” to an “o”? That leaves us with:
The suggestion here is that communication has something to with togetherness and “in common.”
Take the last five letters in the word – “cation.” Does that look like another fairly ordinary word, just slightly out of order? How about reversing the “c” and the “a”? That leaves us with:
In fact, just about any word in English, French, Spanish, Italian, etc that ends in “ion,” “tion,” or “ation” means “requires action. More on that later.
So, put those two together, and what do you get?
With this little word game in mind, we then have the word communication meaning something about acting together or acting in common. The keys are action and in common.
And who is always stuck in the middle? Ok, not the best of humor, but you probably have been there, haven’t you!
So, if the purpose of communication is “common action,” then what does that mean? My suggestion is that the only time we ever bother “communicating” with another person is when we want something from them. That something could be such things as approval, cooperation, support, agreement, encouragement or just plain companionship. What happens when you don’t want or need anything from the other person? In most instances, we don’t bother saying anything at all!
If we are looking to “act in common” with another, what do we both need to know before we can “act in common?” If you are looking for approval, support, cooperation etc, a good question might be “approval, support or cooperation” in service to what? If we are going to act together, we probably need to know something about what we are acting together for – some kind of sense of direction. Or purpose. Or outcome.
Taking this one step further, then, we have the word communication looking something like this:
(Acting in Common)
(a commonly held)
Now, think back to the last time you had a “miscommunication” at home or at work, and I’ll bet you can find that you and the other person (or team) had differing versions of the purpose, outcome or goal. If this rings even slightly true, then I’ll also bet that your actual conversation was more about the action (who is going to do what) and less about the purpose, outcome or goal.
The problem, of course, is that whenever a human being takes some kind of action, it is usually toward some kind of outcome (or purpose, or goal, or result, etc). If we don’t take the time to make certain that we are both on the same page in terms of overall purpose and outcome, we are then quite likely to taking actions toward something slightly, even hugely, different.
And then what happens when we notice that one of us failed to meet the other person’s criteria of “good outcome.” One of us might feel like the other person “screwed up.” Or didn’t understand. Or didn’t explain it very well. Or didn’t try hard enough. Or. Or. Or.
From there, it can become even more comical, perhaps even pathetic. How often have you experienced some kind of miscommunication or failed outcome, and then found everyone focused on the “action” part of the equation? “Tell me again what you heard you were supposed to do (action)?” “Tell me again what you did.” “Let’s review the action plan one more time.”
The assumption in these kinds of “review” conversations is that someone screwed up at the action level. “Do it again, harder” becomes the mantra of improvement. And maybe it is just a question of doing it again. However, we all know the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.
It is probably painfully obvious by now where we are heading with this. There are times when reviewing the action plan or action sequence make sense; however, before going over the actions taken or not taken, we would suggest that the first order of review would be to go over the intended purpose and outcome, to make certain that everyone was on the same page to begin with. If both parties have different versions of good outcome right from the get go, you can pretty much predict disaster, or at least disappointment, downstream.
Start any “communication” with a discussion (discuss for action) with an understanding of purpose, outcome and goal. Make certain that both of you can explain the desired outcome in terms that the other can both repeat and visualize. “What do you imagine the outcome looking like?” “What will be produced?” “What will it be able to do?” These are some of the kinds of questions that will help you both be clear that you are on the same page in terms of outcomes.
Then, spend some time on action steps and responsibilities. Who will be responsible for doing what? What are the deliverables that each person will be producing? What are the timelines or milestones? What are the consequences for missing a timeline or milestone. What should we do if one or the other is in danger of missing a milestone, or actually misses one? What impact will that have on the desired outcome? What should we do if one of us needs help?
There are any number of questions you can imagine asking and our intent here is not to provide a definitive list. Rather, we want to underscore the value of being clear on the outcome as well as the actions required to produce the outcome.
Communication then, is the process of defining a commonly held purpose, outcome or goal along with commonly agreed upon actions to get there.
Personal note: if you want to see how this can play out in a “somewhat” humorous way, pretend you were the proverbial “fly on the wall” observing a couple planning for their “relaxing” vacation in Hawaii.
Him: “I sure could use some time to unwind and just relax.”
Her: “Me too. Hawaii would be great.”
Him: “Hawaii. What a great idea. Warm, sunny, relaxing.”
Her: “Perfect. Beaches, pools, scenic vistas. Just perfect.”
Him. “All right! Hawaii it is.”
Her: “I can’t wait.”
Now skip ahead to the days before they leave. Watch them pack for the trip (taking action).
Him: “Golf clubs, tennis rackets, snorkel gear, hiking boots.”
Her: “Sun tan lotion, collection of books, swim suits.”
Do you see the potential for conflict? I have certainly seen it play out in real life. “But I thought you agreed this would be a relaxing trip – just time to unwind and let go?”
His version? Unwind equals: run around, hit balls, exercise.
Her version? Unwind equals: down time, soak up some rays, enjoy doing nothing at the beach.