Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
Punch lines, ad-libs, and instrumental solos, even a single note on a Tibetan singing bowl, all depend on one thing…timing. Project Communication is also about timing and, whilst many people speak and opine with impunity the timing of written communication and converting possibly wild words into black & white can often mean the difference between collaboration and cooperation or resistance and antagonism.
The timing and the content of some communication are often mandated such as submission of reports, designs, records of meetings, and contractual notifications. The timing of other written communication depends on the situation but the tone, content and message being conveyed are voluntary as are the implications. ‘Paper never refuses ink’ they say and just because it’s written doesn’t mean it’s right…don’t blame the pen or shoot the messenger, it’s the writer who’s at fault!
There are many sayings about timing such as “think before you speak”, “a closed mouth gathers no feet” and Abe Lincoln advocated that “it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool rather than speak and remove all doubt”. This advice also applies to the written word; Earnest Hemingway apparently said “Write Drunk. Edit Sober”. Whilst not literally meaning ‘drunk’ it means tidying up one’s words and perhaps taking out some of the venom or disrespect.
According to John Maynard Keynes “Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking” but for every wild assault there may well be a counterattack. “The pen”, according to the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton 200 years’ ago, “is mightier than the sword”. However a sword can be double-edged and, depending on when or how it is wielded, this can make the difference between successful and unsuccessful communication.
The pre-emptive strike can be a bolt from the blue causing surprise, confusion and possibly anger. It can be one party’s attempt to get in with their version of the ‘truth’ first if something untoward happens. This first strike is often a move to control a situation or demand certain conduct from another party in anticipation of trouble.
It’s akin to “shoot first; ask questions later” and, once written the words become ‘facts’ in some people’s minds even if they are not (wholly) correct. And these words, like rumours, can go halfway around the world before the ‘truth’ has put its shoes on and answered back.
Rather than seeking to understand a situation one party will issue correspondence to which the recipient may well take offence. The resultant offensive action possibly as a consequence of a negligent discharge will start a battle of words. The same goes for the one-sided minutes of meeting where ‘history’ is rewritten by a would-be victor and the ‘defeated’ have no choice but to challenge.
The reaction to any attack is typically one of three things; flight, freeze or fight. In written communication the ‘flight’ is characterised by defensive action and being put on the back foot. These written responses merely rebut the strike but with no ‘teeth’. This toothless rebuttal is inevitably accompanied by reference to a swathe of previous rebuttals and a focus on semantics with little or no relevance to the matter in hand; this merely fuels the fire of thrust-and-parry between the parties.
If a response is not forthcoming the result is freezing. Such complete inaction is a rare event but it can and does happen until a barrack-room lawyer eventually surfaces to lead a late, and possibly belated and pointless counter-attack. However, if a letter is consciously ignored this is an act of passive aggression and an active fight will inevitably ensue.
Any fight typically falls between two extremes; reacting without thinking or a calculated response. The knee jerk reaction results in a mere rebuttal of every aspect of the strike coupled with a few random shots to gain, hopefully, an upper hand. Alternatively, a properly designed defence can be adopted and tact, possibly coupled with diplomacy may be deployed. As Churchill once said “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”
War & Peace
The initial exchange of words can quickly escalate into an all-out war. Attempts to win a war swiftly with a single blow amalgamating all of one’s arguments is akin to a poker player revealing his hand and any quick win can be easily lost. For the most part there are relentless exchanges of barrages of letters, reports and other evidence supporting each party’s position, right or wrong. The old adage of ‘never give in, never surrender’ has never been so true in a war of words. Positions are supported and, no matter how untenable the position, the war rages and the communication process becomes a metaphorical gun-barrel to force opinions rather than provide a means of understanding.
In the aggressive exchanges of written communication, the parties ‘dig-in’ and continue to dig rather than look over the proverbial parapet. If a party does risk trying to evaluate the real situation in an overt manner they may well be exposed to the covert sniper fire of an opportunistic opponent and their position may be compromised. Attempts at open communication can become futile as the parties alienate each other and blame becomes the order of the day. Brief skirmishes to resolve matters or peace envoys may ensue but each side stands off as they, metaphorically, shout at each other through the fog of war created by repeated and reactionary communication. And like many wars nobody really knows why they really started in the first place or what they were really about.
But as with any war there will inevitably be peace in one form or another and the elephant in the room over whom conflict was waged is finally identified. Amicable settlements, adjudications, mediations, arbitrations and even litigation are means of making such peace and all of these require communication. The communications from the conflict are reviewed until the peace-keeper(s) separate the potentially frivolous and vexatious chaff from the wheat of the truth. In the resulting understanding the truth is communicated, the rights and wrongs are determined as are the eventual winners and losers; unfortunately, the victims have already suffered.
Conclusion – Optimal Communication
The fifth of the late Steven Covey’s 7 Habits is “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”; this is essential to effective communication. Communication is not about beating the other party(s) into submission with copious correspondence, it’s about getting understandable messages through. However, it takes time to understand what other people want or what a situation has actually presented. Man, being an impatient species, has a habit of jumping to conclusions based upon incomplete information and this is all but uncommon.
Despite being advised to “strike while the iron is hot” or even “Just Do It” it’s almost always better to sleep on a matter and put one’s thoughts into tempered language rather than send them in a temper. Communication is about informing and attempting to influence others and conveying ideas, but it is also about express feelings and conforming to acceptable social norms such as being civil and respectful.
Some 2,600 years ago the Jain monk Mahavira said “Anger begets anger”. This ancient advice, if heeded, could well prevent the repercussions of writing an impulsive or contrived written communication, instigating a heated telephone or conference call, or sending a reactionary and perhaps reckless email. Taking time to understand a situation and reflecting on a primordial reaction to fight may well avoid an unwarranted and, most likely, an unwanted waste of precious time and effort; Think First. Write Later.
Malcolm Peart is an UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.