A commenter on my blog sent me this little morsel:

A project manager was running a piece of work with a geographically dispersed team. The team leader was tasked with communicating some bad news to the team members in another city, so he phoned them all and had a conversation with them.

A couple of weeks later, during a tele-conference with the whole team, this piece of bad news was raised. There were gasps of surprise and protest from the remote team. Apparently, this bad news was news to them!

The PM asked the team leader why he hadn’t communicated the news in advance. He insisted that he had and cited all the phone calls. So the PM asked each team member in turn whether they had received the information. One by one, the said they hadn’t, frequently being interrupted by the team leader, who insisted over and over that he had delivered the information.

While the team members were speaking in turn over the speaker, the team leader scribbled “I DID communicate it!” on a sheet of A4 paper and held it up for his peers and his manager to see.

You say you did communicate it. Our survey says… “Eh, ehhhhhhhhh!” (Family Fortunes reference, in case no one gets it).

Phone

While this is a situation than many of us can immediately identify with, I found it very interesting. This example; of poor to non-existent communication on the part of the project manager, who thought he was doing a bang-up job; neatly illustrates the number one problem I have observed with human communication. Why does person-to-person communication fail all the time? Because one of those people has assumed that communication has taken place – when in fact it hasn’t.

If you want the right action to take place when you communicate something important to another person, three C’s have to happen:

  • Comprehend – the person has to understand you.
  • Concur – the person has to agree with you. [This can be over-ruled to some extent in hierarchical environments, but it's generally better if there's buy-in.]
  • Care – what you are trying to communicate has to matter to the person.

So simple. A gerbil could do this. Why does it go wrong? How does it go wrong?

“I absolutely understand what you are saying and I totally agree with you (and the unspoken kicker) but I just don’t give a damn about that particular problem.” Result – no action.

“I absolutely understand the problem and I care p-a-s-s-i-o-n-a-t-e-l-y about it, so I’m going to take action on it right now (unspoken) but I don’t agree with you.” Result – wrong action.

“I’m making that problem my number one priority and I totally agree with your ideas; I’m all over it!” Result – wrong action, because you didn’t make yourself clear and the person thought they understood what you were saying … but they didn’t.

In a recent American Management Association survey, 90% of senior managers rated themselves as “effective” or “highly effective” communicators. And the score awarded to those senior managers from their subordinates? 30%. Hmmm – I think I can see a problem here.

The majority of the human species are … well, average. At almost everything. In order for clear, effective, actionable communication to take place, a number of simple elements need to be in place:

  • Empathy – the parties need to understand each other’s disposition. If I can read you, I’ll know when to talk, when to shut up, when to ask questions and when to leave you alone.
  • Listening – extending out past empathy. When I listen – really listen – to you, I can rapidly assess your level of intelligence, confidence, knowledge of the topic, and viewpoint. I can ‘hear between the lines’ and know when to ask a question to get you to open up further. Good listening, in short, will ramp up the level of of communication between us.
  • Advocating – when I do open my mouth, what comes out of it? This is the element that most people associate with effective communication – the gift of the gab, the silver tongued devil – and if I am deficient in this capacity, it is unlikely that I am going to gain a reputation as a great communicator.

Not exactly rocket science now is it? And yet you can probably only think of a handful of really top-notch communicators in your circle of acquaintance. Why? Because in order to be considered exceptional, you need to be genuinely exceptional in all three of those areas, plus you have to be sufficiently self-aware and sufficiently confident in yourself to apply those skills in your day-to-day dealings.

Thoughts and comments from gerbil-lovers everywhere will be welcomed and appreciated.

Rowan Manahan is The Insultant. He blogs at Fortify Your Oasis. Apart from roaring (occasionally) helpful advice at his clients, he has written the best-seller Where’s My Oasis?. He also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines and runs Fortify Services – an Irish-based careers consultancy.

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