What we’ve got here is… Failure to Communicate.
– The Captain (Prison Warden) Cool Hand Luke, 1967
There are a lot of factors that contribute to a “Failure to Communicate.” As we identified last week, one of the primary reasons is that people don’t finish the Communication Cycle. You might remember this image:
Included in that image is a graphic of a couple of wavy lines:
Those wavy lines don’t just represent the noise or static in the environment when communicating. It also represents the internal noise or static of the Communicator and the Receiver. A message has to pass through all of those items before it can be processed and understood.
For the moment, think of these wavy lines like looking at a body of water. Image you are standing on the shore of a lake or ocean. If the water is serene and settled, you can see to the bottom. Have you ever placed a stick in the water, and observed that the stick appears to bend or move in a direction that doesn't appear to be logical? That is because the water is refracting the light, which means that the objects you see aren't where you think they are, and might be closer or farther away from you than perceived, but you still have an idea of what is below. That is about as clear as clear communication can get.
|photo credit: Dominican Getaway via photopin (license)|
These descriptions are the extreme ends of the spectrum, the optical determination of water clarity is called Turbidity. The Turbidity is determined by the amount of suspended solids that are floating in the water, diffusing and refracting the light. For simplicity sake, let's call them Diffusers. Like the different ways that water appears, Communication can have its own Turbidity. What makes the Communication clear or muddy is the Diffusers that interfere with our comprehension. Below we’ll discuss some of the most impactful.
Let's start at the most basic factor, perception. A lot can happen to messages depending on the person's ability to perceive them. The most obvious example would be someone who is deaf or blind. A deaf person may be able to read lips, but can't hear tone, and won't perceive communication that doesn't happen within eyesight. A blind person will be unable to perceive even the largest visual cues. Body language and facial expression are completely useless to a blind person.
But Perception goes beyond that. What about a person who is partially deaf, has poor eyesight, or is color blind? These factors could easily impact how a person perceives the method of communication, causing barriers to understanding. In fact, I've learned this the hard way.
|Color Blindness Simulator: Example Picture (taken by Gaetan Lee)|
Although I have strong vision (thanks to eye surgery) what I didn't realize is that I am partially color blind. I married an artist, to which color is very important, but I wasn't seeing the same colors she (and probably most people) was. My colors are slightly off, depending on the exact color being witnessed. It could appear lighter or darker, and typically less saturated or vibrant. Once we bought a house we found ourselves constantly arguing over color. This continued until I went for an annual eye exam, asked the optometrist about it and learned I was partially color blind. Now I let my wife pick most of the colors (sometimes down to my clothes!) because I know my perception is contributing significantly to the problem (and happy wife, happy life, right?)!
All forms of communication are filtered through our experiences and background. The problem is that we don't all have the same experiences. When I need to build a graphic, I use PowerPoint (I know, I know, but that's why I married an artist!). My wife uses a myriad of tools. When I try to explain to her what I want to do with a graphic, she processes it in terms of Adobe Illustrator, or Photoshop or who knows what. So for a while our conversations ended in frustration until we realized the issue. Now we do most of our graphics conversations around a dry erase board and explain what we are thinking each step of the way.
Unfortunately, experience can be even more complicated. An old military joke could serve as an example:
How to Tell the Difference Between the Branches of the US Armed Forces:
If you give the command "SECURE THE BUILDING", here is what the different services would do:
The NAVY would turn out the lights and lock the doors.
The ARMY would surround the building with defensive fortifications, tanks and concertina wire.
The MARINE CORPS would assault the building, using overlapping fields of fire from all appropriate points on the perimeter.
The AIR FORCE would take out a three-year lease with an option to buy the building.
For simplicity sake, let's just not even mention the COAST GUARD...
For simplicity sake, let's just not even mention the COAST GUARD...
In this case, the same word is used, but because of profession, the word means different things to different people. This happens a lot when you are dealing with people across multiple career fields. Someone in IT may have a different understanding to a word than a Civil Engineer.
And let's not discount life experiences, which can be vastly different. Think about it. Does the person like camping or is he / she a city socialite? The terms used, the metaphors referenced, the type of vocabulary used could all be different.
Now all of this together could impact how the tone, body language, volume, and even word choices used to communicate are received or interpreted. When I first joined civilian life after 5 years in the Army, I soon realized that my brusk, no-nonsense style of communication bred contempt in my coworkers, where it once bred confidence. My coworkers didn't need to change. I did!
Also coming from Experience, but must be treated as a separate category is:
Where a person grew up, with the social norms and language of that location can significantly impact communication, especially if the communication is happening across cultures. It is very easy to offend if you aren't aware of the social norms. A German would be upset if you were late to a meeting, but a Latin American will probably arrive after you. Clearing your plate in one country is a sign of satisfaction in some areas of the world, in others it is a sign that your host didn't give you enough to eat. Don't even get me started on what would happen if you happen to be left-handed in the Middle East!
But these norms impact nearly every part of communication. What words are appropriate, how to phrase the communication, and even tone of voice could be misinterpreted across cultural divides. Also, as most of my readers are from the United States, I would like you to consider the impact of growing up in different parts of the country. The North East speaks and even acts very differently than the South or Mid-West, and vise a versa. In some areas of the country, dialect can be so different that understanding (or being understood) is almost impossible. Try taking a New Englander to the back bayou of Louisiana or the mountains of West Virginia and watch what happens. You will be entertained!
Which takes us to Language. Dialects are one thing, but a different language can directly impact communication. We already touched on the dialect issue with Louisiana and West Virginia. Another example would be the UK and the USA. Both countries speak English, but you better watch out for terminology. Lift / Elevator, Chemist / Pharmacist, Dual Carriageway / Freeway, even Mac / Rain Coat are some of the more innocent items that can cause confusion.
But what happens when both of you speak a different first language. People from the United States have it easier (honestly) because most of the world is learning English, but the grammar and word choices can still cause offense. As an example here is a link to an article about being from the country, and how it was meant as a compliment, but originally construed as an insult. This was a mix-up due to social norms, but was exacerbated by language. While I often try to learn some common phrases for places I am attending, I also am very careful about what I say and when to try to avoid similar incidents (although, in some cases, you just have to experience and hopefully learn from them).
Culture and language are important, but there is something even more basic that could affect communication:
Genetics has a huge role in how communication is perceived. Not just by the Receiver, but also from the Communicator. There are articles abound about how a woman with an aggressive, no b.s. presence is bossy, while a man is confident and commanding, not to mention the perceptions associated with the different races within a culture and how people can be judged simply by these factors These basic genetic factors are exacerbated by the Culture and social norms identified in number 3, but at the most basic level, genetics needs to be taken into consideration for communication. Simply put, there are too many ways to get into misunderstandings or trouble if you don't consider this factor.
People are working living and working longer today. In fact it's completely possible that you might have up to 5 generations in the work place:
- Traditionalists, born prior to 1946
- Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964
- Gen X, born between 1965 and 1976
- Millennials, born between 1977 and 1997
- Gen 2020, born after 1997
Wait, with everything already covered, you mean there’s more? Of course there is! Each person on your team has a different Personality. Now a lot of the items discussed up to this point contribute to the makeup of the personality, but even people with remarkably similar backgrounds can have dramatically different personalities.
There are a lot of different standards out there for personality tests, from Myers-Briggs, to DiSC, to who knows what in between. The problem with a lot of these is that each member of the team would have to take an assessment in order to identify the personality. This may not be the most comfortable thing for your team (although a lot of companies do it).
However, there is a way to get a baseline without paying for testing and analysis. Several years ago I discussed a book called People Styles at Work. The book describes 4 types of personalities that a person will deal with: Analytical, Driver, Amiable, and Expressive, as well as how each type of personality likes to receive information / be communicated with. In addition, there are steps to determine not only your own personality, but that of the people you interact with (with the warning that your assessments should not be static as new information becomes available the assessment should be refined). Finally, the book describes how a person should “flex” their own communication style to more closely resemble the person you are trying to work with. This reduces the noise of communication (those wavy lines) and makes it easier for both sides to be understood.
What I want to make clear here is that the book teaches you to flex your style. Quite simply, as described in so many self-help books, you cannot change someone else, you can only change yourself. If you want to be an effective communicator, then you need to adjust your style to be easier to be understood.
It is said that time is the great equalizer. However, it is also the great confuser and nullifier. Methods of communication can have inherit delays. In fact, in one of my speeches, I tell people to turn off their email notifications, because if it was important, the sender would call you (that speech is about limiting distractions, rather than communication). In addition, a person may not listen to a voicemail, nor check texts nor emails until possibly days after the message was sent.
This can have several impacts:
- The information will become stale - Something will have changed and the person will not have the pertinent information.
- The person will not understand the information - Aside from the other items that might interfere with communication (1-6), Too much time will have passed and the references will not mean anything to the person receiving.
- The opportunity will pass - What you were communicating was time sensitive, and the recipient didn't receive, process, and implement what was required before the opportunity expired. This is becoming more and more pertinent in today's rapidly moving environment.
While the above 7 Diffusers reflect items that could muddy the comprehension of Communications (the couple of wavy lines) it is not a complete list. This is why it is up to the Communicator to confirm understanding. As stated in the previous blog, so often most people will throw-up information on the intended recipient, but won't make sure there is comprehension.
As a leader you can ill afford a lack of comprehension. Whether in a combat zone, working in an office environment, or anywhere in between, Communication is critical. Participate in active listening, seek accurate feedback from your Recipients (don't accept "I understand" type responses), and flex your communication style as best you can to account for the 7 Diffusers to ensure your team is on the same page and actioning in the same direction. No wonder Communication is so hard!