Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
George Bernhard Shaw once said, and it’s now been written down and put on posters and the like: “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.
In this ‘Information Age’ we have access to, receive, generate, and send more information than ever before. People can suffer from infoxication as a consequence of ‘information overload’ and decision making has, we are told, become more difficult as a consequence.
First coined in 1964 by Bertram Gross the term ‘information overload’ became a theme for many articles and books but the general consensus is that we need to manage information, but how? Communication!
Information about almost anything may be accessed from anywhere. It’s rammed down our throats by the news media as well as other purveyors of information who sell it, or even give it away with impunity and vigour. But the mere sending or receipt information does not necessarily mean it’s been communicated properly resulting in confusion and uncertainty, unless its deliberate of course. With such uncertainty “what we’ve here is failure to communicate” as sagely said by the Captain in the Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke”.
Most of our problems spring from a ‘failure to communicate’. With the amount of information, and disinformation available we need to expend effort ensuring that the right information is delivered to the right place and right people, at the right time, and in the right medium. But all too often we hear a ‘but’ explaining why communication should have happened, but didn’t.
But we had a meeting…
How often do we finish a meeting and in a following discussion realise that the people who attended the same meeting have a completely different recollection as to what transpired or what was recorded or even what was decided? For on-line participants the attendees may even be a mystery.
Meetings include for briefings, resolving issues and formulating decisions which is achieved through active dialogue and, possibly more importantly, actively listening. Such ‘listening’ is a conscious effort in seeking to understand rather than the biological function of the ear drum reacting to air being vibrated by somebody’s vocal chords and the brain registering sound.
Meetings are not political rallies where a singular point of view is choke-fed to the attendees in jingoistic fervor by a despot, or to hear a cacophony of opinions from all and sundry. It’s a two-way exchange where participants may understand what is being communicated, resolve misunderstandings or concerns and allow decision making; dialogue rather than dictating.
But I sent you a report…
How often do people revert to providing a report rather than dialogue. And rather than seeking to understand they provide a multitude of references with a plethora of attachments in an attempt to force-feed their point of view. Even the most avid and courageous reader can be stultified. This is particularly true if time is of the essence and a decision needs to be made quickly; the report instigator can bamboozle a decision through information overload.
The mere preparation and submission of a report is not communication and it needs to be read if the communication ‘loop’ is to be completed. How often are we faced with a tome that is unstructured, cobbled together and far from succinct. If it’s rejected then more time and effort is spent on its defence and, insultingly, communication still hasn’t happened.
If a report can’t be read it will prove Churchill’s observation that “This report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read”. If the report is eventually found to be wrong it will certainly be read and the repercussions for the reporter, as well as the intended reader may well come to roost. Communication is not a competition but good communication is about quality rather than quantity and keeping the right people informed so the right decision may be made.
But you’re ‘in the loop’…
The ‘loop’ was the feedback loop of ensuring military orders were passed down chains of command and situation reports were passed up. Nowadays it’s about ensuring that people are kept informed. How often is this now carried out through the ubiquitous smart-phone; constantly with us, a constant means of receipt of information and, as well as a constant distraction it’s a constant source of ‘noise’ in the classical communication model.
SMS texts, Instagram, Wattsapp, Messenger and Twitter all allow the sharing of snippets of humour, arranging social activities, giving opinions and the like but are also used for business. These communication media are awash with TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations) and a multitude of emoticons including ‘hand clap’, ‘thumbs up’ and ‘OK’s. These ‘communications’ convey a message and we can we be certain that these ‘messages’ are received by all and sundry, but can we be certain that they will be understood and, most importantly, will they be acted upon correctly.
Communication is important and while social media can reach ‘everybody’ easily (and our politicians are all too aware of this) its viability as a ‘communication medium’ is questionable. After all, if ‘everybody’ is made aware of something then the risk of ‘anybody’ doing what ‘somebody’ should have done but ‘nobody’ did is highly likely. Alternatively, perhaps, a ‘phone call to the ‘nobody’ in question rather than a text to ‘all users’ could be a better and more certain medium.
But I thought…
Telepathy… although not a generally recognised form of communication is applied by many of us without even knowing it. How often is it assumed by somebody that they know what other people are thinking without recourse to even asking. “I know what you’re going to say/do” is not an unknown statement and while it may be believed it is just a guess, or even just a hope.
Thinking is important but ‘knowing’ is better. Rather than invent an answer to a problem or second guess somebody else’s thinking it’s sometimes better to ask first. That’s one of the reasons for having meetings. Rather than working in splendid isolation and trusting to luck about another person’s thoughts or intentions we should consider the idiom “shoot first; ask questions later” and then apply “ask questions first; act later”.
An idle mind can be the Devil’s playground and as information becomes more accessible, time for interaction becomes less, and we ‘assume’ rather than ‘ask’. Communication based on effectively guessing what another person was thinking, or will think, is incomplete. This creates doubts, confusion and uncertainty which ultimately leads to some degree of conflict. The telepaths among us may need to think harder when communicating in future.
But…But me no Buts”
“But me no buts” goes the saying to put an end to people’s objections or excuses that communication hasn’t happened and also their belief that it had. If a transmittal of whatever nature is not understood or results in actions that are wrong, then good communication has not happened.
Communication is a two-way street and if only one party believes that it has communicated then this belief is merely a myth. Like all myths they will be either proven or disproven. If we find that communication has happened all is well and good but, as Shaw professed, if the myth remains then the communication was merely an illusion.
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.