Why is it that no matter how clearly, simply or concisely you communicate your expectations, there will be times when what you get back bears no resemblance to what you were asking for? Is it your communication style, a training issue, or a lack of focus on the part of those who should be following your instructions to the letter? The simple fact of the matter is that while what you are communicating may seem clear as day to you, there are a multitude of factors that could influence the receiving party’s perception of your directions.
As even the slightest of misunderstandings could have a significant impact on a major project, we felt it important to highlight the need for effective communication throughout the life cycle of any large contract relationship.
The problem with perception
Some years ago I undertook a course and one of the tasks we were asked to perform was a visualisation exercise. We were all told to close our eyes and think of ourselves standing in a meadow. We had to imagine ourselves looking around to see what there was to see, and then to find a gap in the treeline that surrounded the meadow through which we were to walk.
There was much more to this 15-minute exercise, but it is the meadow that’s most relevant to the question of perception, because, when we were asked to open our eyes and share our experiences it struck me that the others in my group had such a varied view of what a meadow actually was.
For some it was an overgrown field covered in a lush blanket of daisies and buttercups, for others it was a simple grassy area and for one it was a ploughed field – though I have no idea how they got to this. Then there were the objects that people had imagined they could see as they looked around themselves. Trees, tractors, cows, and even an old ship (I can’t remember if the ship came from the same person who thought a meadow would be ploughed…).
I was stunned by the variety of versions that those in the group had imagined when simply asked to picture a meadow, and by the fact that only two others had actually pictured something similar to my view of what a meadow would look like. This experience helped me appreciate that the problem with perception is that a lack of detailed, clear and easy to understand instructions will allow for almost as many and varied interpretations of what’s needed to be done as the imaginations of those you are communicating with.
Double doors or double Dutch – the art of on-project communication
Many years later this experience literally saved my reputation when I found myself on a large building project talking to the team about the doors we should install for the datacentre.
Discussions were well underway, the plans were being marked up, and there was lots of nodding and agreement going on. However, I started to get a little unnerved by some of the questions that were being asked as they seemed to be slightly ‘odd’. As the hour got later I remembered the meadow exercise and asked if those in the team could just define for me, in simple terms, what they meant by ‘double door’.
Of course, my question was initially seen to be amusing. I mean “a double door is just a door frame with two doors, a left one and a right one” isn’t it, or so I was told. But humour turned to confusion as one team member said that they thought the double door was going to be just like the ones used in the corridors downstairs with one large width door and one narrow width door, then another piped up saying that he had thought it was a single door with an upper and lower portion which could be independently opened like a stable door, while another said he thought it meant a fire safety door system with one door followed by another. It took some time, but once we had agreed on the correct double door type the plans were hastily adapted and we could move on from the rather embarrassing affair.
Had I not recognised the potential for confusion and asked the question, we could have ended up with door frames that didn’t fit the doors that had been made for them, a change control nightmare that would have cost a small fortune to correct and my reputation in tatters. I was responsible, so I would have been to blame.
Why the confusion, and how to avoid it?
If you’ve ever played ‘Chinese Whispers’ when you were younger, you know how a simple phrase that travels from one person to another is open to many factors that can change it – misunderstanding, unclear communication, lack of attention, preconception, communication style, summarisation, embellishment and so forth – so what you end up with is a very different phrase from the one you started with. However, what you are saying does not need to pass through more than the air between you and the person who hears it, or the ether between your computer and their inbox, for its meaning to change.
So what can cause the confusion?
- Ambiguity. The oversimplification of a concept, or leaving gaps in instructions, can allow for the listener to fill those gaps themselves, coming up with a very different idea to your original. Always make sure that your ideas are communicated in a clear and concise way so that all can understand them and have enough information to complete the tasks set for them.
- Clarity. Before you can communicate your requirements and needs you need to fully understand them yourself. Half-baked ideas are most likely to confuse, so make sure that you are clear in your own mind of both the information you are looking to communicate and how it could be viewed from all angles.
- Personality. Different people consume information in different ways. Some work better with the briefest of facts, while others need a blow-by-blow account of what’s needed in order to get it right. Seek to understand the personality types of those you work with so you can adapt your communication style to minimise the risk of misunderstandings.
- Summarise. Once you have discussed the details, summarise them to review the entire requirement once again. The aim here is to underline the listener’s understanding or identify where potential misunderstandings lie.
- Confirmation. It is not good enough to simply transmit your ideas and information in the hope that they will be fully understood. It is important to confirm that those you are talking to will understand what you were looking to convey. Ask whether they are clear on what they are being asked to do, use ‘open’ questions that encourage discussion to confirm understanding or highlight confusion.
- Encourage questions. Make yourself available to answer questions and encourage those you are communicating with to ask them. Make it as easy as possible for them to do so, as the right question at the right time can identify issues – with your concept/plan of action, or their perception of it.
How technology can increase the risk of miscommunication
While advances in technology have allowed us to communicate instantly over vast distances from wherever we may be – via computers, tablets, smartphones, and through email, social media, Skype, conference call technologies and a mass of other means – they have also diluted the meaning of our words. Studies from the 1960s showed that the vast majority of the way we connect with those we are talking to comes from non-verbal communication – hand gestures, facial expressions, i.e. body language. So when you next send an email or speak to someone on the phone, think about that missing portion of your communication and compensate accordingly to avoid the risk that your needs will be misunderstood.
Something for you to try in the office
If you have team members who believe that they communicate perfectly well with those around them, I have an exercise that you can carry out in your office to see whether their confidence is justified.
For this exercise you will need two pieces of A4 paper and two sets of pens in four different colours – and a plate of humble pie (just in case!).
Pair members of your team off and sit them back to back. One should draw a picture that includes at least four different shapes and use all four coloured pens. They should explain what they are drawing as they do so in order that their partner can attempt to recreate what they think is being drawn by the person behind them. Ask them to date their masterpieces, then compare drawings.
It’s interesting how difficult it is to accurately convey things like size and shape, what form the shapes take and where they are placed on the page.
This is a simple exercise that should highlight the importance of clarity in all forms of communication to even the most sceptical team member. Every tiny difference in their drawings indicates the potential for a very costly mistake on a project where poor communication issues are left unchecked.
So, be clear about what you need to say, communicate it in a way that those you are talking to are most likely to understand, compensate for the lack of body language and tone when communicating digitally, summarise to repeat your message in a different form, and continue to monitor understanding throughout the project for the best results.