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The highway to good communications

Tuesday, 27 August 2013 | By Linnet Hunter

Overarching strategic communications plans. Organisational mapping charts for communications. Stakeholder buy-in. Asleep yet?


We’ve probably all sat through many lectures or meetings on these big picture strategies. And they have their place. We need a map, a plan a destination, a method.


But communication actually happens when two people talk to each other. In conversation. That’s where I focus my attention when there’s a communication breakdown. It’s not the freeway that’s to blame for the car stopping; it’s more likely something in the engine.


Not that people are engines, by any means. We are far more complex, and so are the conversations we have. Trying to simplify and categorise them is not helpful either.


But what can work is recognising what kind of conversation we are having. This can make sure that the whole shebang doesn’t drive off into the sunset via the verge from the beginning.


If you have had a miscommunication with a client, a colleague, a business partner or a supplier lately, chances are you skipped over the most important type of conversation there is when two people are trying to coordinate action together – the Conversation for Clarity.


Possibly you drove straight through the amber light onto Assumption Avenue. That’s the place where you do some guessing and mind reading without even knowing you are doing it.


So you think they meant they would do what they did last time, while they think you meant you would do what they were planning to do the other time.


Time spent in clarifying what is really going on will avoid the following:

  • Long production hold-ups
  • Loss of personal productivity
  • Rehashing
  • Arguments that start with; ‘But I thought you meant...’ ‘But you never said...’ ‘I wasn’t aware that…’ ‘You never told me that…’


In a conversation for clarity we share our interpretation of what has just been said.


This is quite different from active listening which often means little more than repeating back exactly what was said to us, like the robotic answering machine on the end of the help line. Listening is a generative act where the listener is working as hard as the speaker at making meaning.


The meaning the listener constructs may be quite different from the one the speaker was constructing in their head. The only way to check if they match up is by having a conversation.


Some hints to start are:


This is what I understood you to mean. My understanding is that we are going to do it this way this time. Is that your understanding? What do you mean by a few? That many? By a few, I mean 100 less than that. Oh…


So ask lots of questions, double check you have a mutual agreement on the meaning of key phrases, restate the understanding in your own words and ask for assent and then follow-up with a written summary.


This is still not a road map for certainty (has anyone got one of those handy?) but an incredibly useful tool when you want to prevent major traffic snarls and even collisions in the communications flow.