Communication – what can go wrong?

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“I’m starting to think that this is the biggest problem of humanity” – my colleague said. I’m overwhelmed by communication issues too. Sometimes I wonder – it just can’t go well when we do it so poorly! But we don’t even see it! It reminds me of a model…

Communication model

How does communication look when analyzed piece by piece? The first thing coming to my mind is the Shannon-Weaver model of communication. I remember it from telecommunication lectures during my IT studies. If we enrich it with psychological elements to better reflect the nature of communication between people and not machines (oh, if we were so logical … it would be boring), then we get something like the picture below.

 “The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it happened.” G.B. shaw

What can go wrong?

Wrong recipient

It is nicely seen at work and in all relationships between people. Do you have a problem with somebody? Who do you talk to about it? You complain about this person to your teammates drinking coffee in the office kitchen, behind the person’s back. When you have a problem with your boss, you tell everyone about it, besides your boss. When a colleague annoys you, you talk to everyone else, but not to him directly. When you get annoyed because of your aunt, you tell about it your mother, sister, and brother-in-law. You talk a lot, but not to the person you should have. Effect? You lose your time, energy, wind up in conflict with this person, and you imagine their alleged evil intentions. And the problem? Well, there is no chance to solve it, since you sent a message to the wrong recipient.

The second form of the wrong recipient’s problem is that you think the person is the right one, but it’s not. “Mother, go and tell my father that …”. Such issues are also clearly seen in companies. You think you have been talking (so the communication has occurred), but you have been talking to a person who has no power to do what you want. You complain to Scrum Master about Team Leader, Director, CEO or a specialist on matters X, instead of going to a person who has the knowledge and capabilities to give you the right information or can help you.

As the other recipient’s failure, I see that you address demands or expectations to someone while you should direct it to yourself. You complain about an inefficient meeting while you could moderate it better by yourself. You grumble that someone did not tell you something, although you did not ask. You blame others for what you are responsible for. The boss didn’t take care of your raise, while you’re the first person to take care of it. When your partner did not praise you, did not entertain, did not make you happy, while you are the one responsible for yourself.

Wrong intention

Why are you talking? Your communication may be ineffective because your intention is something that your recipient cannot be expected to solve. Or even better – you do not have the clarity of what you want precisely. If what you really want is to prove to someone that he’s an incompetent idiot, the changes to solve the problem lowers. In fact, you are arguing whether someone is or isn’t an idiot and not about how to settle the topic. If your real intention is that your partner would feel bad because he does not care enough about you (in your understanding), then agreeing on taking the garbage is not the true topic here. Even if the garbage is taken out, you still won’t get what you needed.

What do you really care about in the long run? Not on winning the discussion, but probably on cooperation, good atmosphere, relationships? Communicate, keeping this in mind. The “Crucial Conversations” book will help you find your true intention and correct it during important conversations.

The worst thing is when you are not clear what you really want. Then talk to yourself first and settle it. Be honest. A list of feelings and a list of needs from Non-Violent Communication (NVC) will help you. Give yourself a moment of silence and reflection so that you could hear your thoughts.

Wrong message coding

Which words do you use? How do you phrase what you want to say? The list of problems is long.

Do you talk to business people in IT slang? Classic. The more technical, the more professional, it may seem. Only the business people don’t understand what you are saying. Are you angry at managers making stupid decisions? But have you made sure that they have received high-quality information to make them? You say, “It doesn’t detect a second server” or “Load balancing doesn’t work,” instead of “We have 30% risk that sending critical information to customers well be heavily delayed”. It can be life-threatening. We need 2 days to investigate the cause. This means a delay in delivery to customers. Are we delaying delivery and working on a problem?”.

The opposite situation is equally compelling – business talks about strategy, values, marketing, regulations. A programmer sits and waits for this babbling to end, and some concrete things he is supposed to do, will appear.

Speak so that the person you are talking to would understand. You don’t speak Polish to a Chinese person. You don’t talk to your child about money with investment terms. Similarly, do not use words that someone in their role hears as indefinite gibberish. And present the consequences – what is this really about?

  • A seal broke.
  • And?
  • The pipe is leaking.
  • And?
  • It will flood us in an hour! We must evacuate! And call for help!
  • Then why didn’t you say that right away!!!

How to speak? We have many ways to build effective messages, but there will not be enough space to describe them all here. It’s worth mentioning that we have assertive messages and for example, non-violent communication (NVC – Non-Violent Communication) messages. Try them out.

However, words are only 7% of the message that a recipient reads. We will not believe if they conflict with the way we speak (38% of the message). Posture, gestures, and mimics say the most – 55% of the message. Something doesn’t fit when you aks: “What has happened?” and hear “Nothing” with a pout and an angry attitude. You don’t believe when someone is shouting at you that he/she is not angry at all. It’s not persuasive when someone wants to convince you of something with uncertainty in his/her voice.

Wrong transmission channel

It is said that the most effective way of communication is a direct conversation, preferably with visual aids, e.g., drawing on the board or paper. However, we often choose other channels – mail, SMS, messenger, telephone, document. Each channel has its capabilities and limitations. Some introduce interference – noise, interruptions, delays. You probably have more than one story in your mind, when someone got angry or offended because the message came late, incomplete, or not at all?

Some channels carry video and audio, while others are limited to voice or text only. What with the information we haven’t received by the limited channel? We imagine the tone of voice with which a person could speak words from an SMS. Sometimes we give them a negative character (“she wrote it angrily”), although this is not the case. The same words read in a joyful or caring way would be received in a completely different way.

Wrong message received

Just because something has been sent, it does not mean that it has arrived. The question is, whether your recipient a) received the message, b) received it in the same form in which it was sent (see deaf phone – beware of channel interference). If someone did not hear everything clearly, then you need to retransmit the message or straighten it out. In any case, before you start to fight against misunderstanding, make sure that the recipient has in mind the same message as you.

Wrong interpretation

This is a black hole. The same message can be interpreted in a million ways. The idea of four ears of Schultz von Thun are worth mentioning:
1) self-revelation ear – Who is the sender? What do they say about themselves? What do they feel?
2) factual information ear – What do they communicate? What are the facts?
3) appeal ear – What do they need? What do they expect?
4) relationship ear – What do they think about me? How do they treat me?

When Jacek says: “It blows from an air conditioner.” it can be interpreted in different ways, depending on which ear we listen to:
1) self-revelation ear – e.g., Jack is cold, it blows on him,
2) factual information ear – e.g., Jack says that the air conditioning fan is on,
3) appeal ear – e.g., Jack probably wants me to turn the air conditioning off,
4) relationship ear – e.g., I think he is angry and blames me for being cold.

The interpretation of the message depends on the person’s experiences (associations, similar situations from the past), their perception of the world, personality, context, mood, etc. And here we enter the impenetrable jungle. The better you know the person’s way of thinking, experience, history, the more effectively you can predict how he/she will interpret a given message. But one thing is certain – you can never be sure. Just think about your family, partner, friends. You know each other so well, but you are still cached surprised by something. What about the people you work with and you don’t have that reliable insight? And since you can’t be sure of the interpretation passed through so many very complicated filters – you just have to check what have they understood from the communication. It is useful to paraphrase, ask to repeat this message it in their own words, and explain what they understood.

Good luck with your communication

So that’s a quick overview of the sources of communication problems. What bothers you? What are your ways to solve your communication problems?

If you liked this material, please let me know.

Are you interested in communication topic? Is there anything you would like to know more?

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