Communication starts when your message is understood – Canadian Government Executive

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Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
February 28, 2014

Communication starts when your message is understood

Stop Talking Start Communicating
Geoffrey Tumlin
McGraw-Hill, 234 pages, $20.95
Governments monitor monetary inflation, and have kept it in check in recent years. But there’s another inflation, rampant, that isn’t monitored and walloping all of us: communications inflation. Technology allows us to connect – and communicate – in a host of ways not available to us just a few years ago, let alone a couple of decades ago.

“Just as an inflated dollar loses its buying power, our dramatically increased rates of communication have cheapened our messages,” consultant Geoffrey Tumlin writes in Stop Talking Start Communicating.

“We suffer from chronic transmission overload, pervasive distraction, and cascading communication problems as too many people weigh in on too many issues. As a result, it often takes more time and more energy to transmit even relatively straightforward messages. We need to regain the purchasing power of our words.”

This is especially important for government executives, who must communicate in multiple directions. Success in their job depends on their communications effectiveness, from marketing programs to presentations upward in the hierarchy to persuading a colleague in a chat to accept a suggestion.

While we might occasionally complain about the conversational frenzy that engulfs us, that may be a touch disingenuous. There’s a lot about it that fits our nature, Tumlin observes. We love to talk, after all, are action oriented, and love to solve problems. Technology allows us to have wide-ranging conversations, instantly.

But he argues we underestimate communication’s ability to create problems. We discount the number of problems that bad communications cause in our lives while exaggerating its problem-solving capabilities.

Speed and convenience rule. But that means we are failing at what he calls higher-order personal communications – those that require thought and deliberation. Such communications involve trying to understand the other person’s perspective in what might be a complex situation, with lots of ideas being considered and conversational meaning shifting, perhaps like quicksilver.

Instead, we have defaulted to lower-order communication, often asynchronous, with people taking part at different times and lags between their messages to each other. The bulk of our daily communications is quick and expedient, taking advantage, perhaps to our detriment, of the digital communications revolution. “Like other complex skills, the higher-order communication competencies deteriorate when they aren’t used regularly,” he warns.

He notes that the convenient mass communications we have been handed mask two fundamental communications realities. First, adding people always complicates an interaction and, second, interpersonal messages seldom scale up appropriately for a larger audience. It’s all quite fragile.

“Effortless mass communications gives us the dangerous ability to inflict wide damage in mere seconds with our hasty words. It took me over 40 years to build my network, and it’s the only one I’ve got. Today, I can give it a negative jolt in seconds…I can send an email that I’ll regret to every contact in my address book,” he writes.

As well, with the explosion of personal and mass communications in recent years, he feels our essential interpersonal communications skills have been left behind. We need to retrieve three guiding habits:

• Listen like every sentence matters: all interactions benefit from paying close attention to what the other person is saying. “When people know they are being listened to about an important matter, their words pour out in a flood. You would think that these people hadn’t been listened to for years,” he says. If you listen acutely you might be surprised to find out how well your colleagues and employees understand the problems and potential of your unit. He argues we need to restore the value of listening in our interactions. The digital revolution allows hypercommunication but ironically has made it harder for us all to listen amidst the clutter and noise.

• Talk like every word counts: our words can profoundly affect someone – a small conversation influencing somebody else for a lifetime. Tumlin tells of offering some nice words about a colleague to others at a planning session, and since that came at a challenging time when the individual was losing confidence, it turned around his career, which has since been highly successful. But we don’t know in advance when such moments will happen. Communication can be unpredictable. So be alert, making every word count.

• Act like every interaction is important: we also need to treat every opportunity for communications as if it’s important rather than succumb to the tendency to seek quick, easy communications channels. Instead of a terse email, walk down the hall and talk to a colleague, even if it might mean having to listen to a long, elongated soliloquy beforehand on some less than vital topic. It’s worth the effort because the conversation may also have an unexpected depth that points toward a solution to a problem you are facing, unlike a quick interchange over email.

Implementing these three guiding habits will help you to be more present in conversations and will improve your communications. But he stresses that you should remember these are only guiding behaviours: “Don’t twist yourself in knots, overthinking every syllable and trying to be a perfect communicator (which is an impossible goal because of communication’s imperfectability and unpredictability).”

Beyond those three guiding habits, he also warns you about five unrealistic expectations, which he bundles into the overall notion of inverting your expectations so you expect less from technology and more from people. The basic building block of human communications, he stresses, will always be two people talking to each other. Given that, watch out for these unrealistic expectations you probably hold:

Our new and powerful devices have made communication easier. In fact, communication is as hard as, if not harder, than ever. Communication is not just for trading information, after all, but for persuading, resolving conflict, commiserating, teaching, and motivation, higher order communications that digital can be weak at. “I create more conflicts than I solve when I approach a thorny, interpersonal issue with expediency in mind. I become a less effective teacher when I cram more information in less time. I’m less helpful as a supervisor when I give my direct reports performance feedback based on hasty conclusions drawn from distracted observations. And so on,” he states.

Better communication technologies mean better communications. In fact, he argues our communication capabilities have raced ahead of our communication abilities, and our communication is actually getting worse. Technology has fragmented our communication. Our mental bandwidth is scattered across multiple channels. “Today we face the distinct possibility that communication – the very glue of civilization, and a source of primordial connection and enjoyment – is in danger of becoming a net negative in our lives,” he writes.

What you want to say is the most important part of the communication process. In fact, what you want to say is only the beginning of the communication process. That’s because communication starts with our ego, what we want to say, but only will be fulfilled when the other person’s perspective is taken into account and you move toward shared understanding.

Communication to an audience doesn’t require any special consideration. In fact, adding people to a conversation makes communication harder. Individual and mass communication are different. Trying to multiply your message can be misleading. The most appropriate channel for your message is not necessarily the channel that can reach the most people.

We’ve communicated once we hit the send button. In fact, we have only communicated when someone understands our message. “The communication we want is only just beginning after we hit the send button,” he observes.

No doubt those ideas have made you view your daily communications practices under a different light. He stresses that he not telling you to spend your life solely in face-to-face communications. Sometimes emails and text messages can be helpful. But if you want to continue to rethink your communications, the book is not a bad place to start.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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