Miscommunication, in my continuing experience, begins with the sender. This typically comes in the form of incomplete or erroneous information, and can be written or verbal.
Listening to a podcast with Eric Barker of Barking Up The Wrong Tree on the Art of Manliness with Brett MacKay, they were discussing the myth of how nice guys finish last and how the more aggressive, hard charging types tend to get the promotion, and the girl. Yet the long-term data referenced suggests that overall job performance for those types was poorer, and the relationships failed more often. The extroverts tend to get those jobs because they are better self-promoters, despite the introverts often being better suited for them.
The takeaway – you need to let people know what you want. You need to communicate your expectations.
Why Does This Happen?
The main reason that I have seen during my years in industry is that people tend to make assumptions. We assume that others have access to the same information, or that they share our same viewpoint. We assume they are invested in the end result to the same level that we are.
Often this happens when we are too close to the problem. If I have been working on a project for the past year there is a level of knowledge built up that somebody walking on site their first day could never have. Yet we rarely take the time to ensure that person is fully brought up to speed.
I act as Marine Warranty Surveyor on many projects which means that I attend briefly during specific milestones. The first time I am on those projects is often when it is already very far along, and the first time I’ve ever heard about it can be on that same day. While I try to get up to speed quickly before I attend this isn’t always possible. Sometimes I don’t get a chance to do as thorough a review as I’d like, sometimes the information provided is unclear or insufficient. The result is that I’m walking onto a job site with a different set of expectations and requirements than those who have been there from the beginning.
What to Do About It?
In my own example I have the advantage of not being shy about getting the information I need quickly. And because I am attending for a critical path milestone there will typically be a large number of people on site to which I have ready access to pepper with questions.
But this is not always the case.
The key point to remember is that clear communication requires two parties; the sender and the receiver. They each have a responsibility to ensure the message is properly sent and received. Of course, these roles reverse frequently as everybody’s needs and wants are communicated.
For the sender it is imperative that the Big Three, or Communication Triangle requirements are met. These are:
1. The Right Information – each person in the interaction has specific things they need to know, while other pieces of information are irrelevant to them. Take care that the right information – accurate and up to date – is passed along.
2. The Right People – much of the time there will be any number of people involved that need that correct information, especially in a work environment. This may take place over email or in meetings. Making sure that those people are involved, or followed up with after, is the senders responsibility. There is an axiom that those who need to know the most are often the last to know. This is how accidents happen and is the most common form of miscommunication, occurring through lack of inclusion. Make sure the right people get the message.
3. The Right Time – information is time sensitive. Getting the message a day late is as good as never getting it at all. Even just in time delivery isn’t ideal as people need time to process it and respond. Getting your message out early enough for reasonable action is important.
I recently completed a job where a heavy module was loaded onto a barge using motorized trailers called SPMT’s. The external dimensions were marked on the deck of the barge to use as a reference during final positioning, yet when the unit was onboard we discovered that the drawings did not reflect the actual dimensions. We were able to quickly modify the procedure and complete the job, but had this been communicated earlier it would have saved the time required to do so.
When the message has been sent and received it is the final duty of the sender to ensure it was both received as intended and that the information is correct. How do you do that? Just ask.
The Big 3 In Action
Another type of job I perform is vessel inspections for clients. These typically take a day or two depending on the size of the vessel and I go over the ship from stem to stern, both physically and through their certificates, documentation, and procedures. These can be intensive and input from the crew is required at all times, which takes them away from other duties they may need to be performing.
Sometimes I get the assignment on the same day it is required, but typically I have at least a day or two of pre-warning. Sometimes more. Yet while the vessel management is certainly aware of the pending inspection there have been more times than I can count that I’ll walk onto the vessel on the allotted day and the crew is fully unaware that I was coming. This despite people in both companies being fully aware of it.
To mitigate this I always try to contact the vessel the day before the inspection and confirm my arrival. While I do not always have contact info available I will always make the effort. This gives them a chance to prepare or change their plans for the day to accommodate.
Which segues nicely to…
The Responsibility of the Receiver
Simply put, it is the receiver’s responsibility to doggedly look for clarification.
Assignment not clear? Ask questions. Unsure what the other side means? Ask Questions. Missing a vital piece of information? Ask, ask, ask.
Because the sender often has a deeper knowledge of what is going on, it is common for them to assume that same level of knowledge in the receiver. So when they communicate they feel they have included all the required information, based on that assumption. That is why it is imperative that you ask for clarification as often as needed.
The sender is not doing this on purpose. It is an effective technique for filtering the information that we send, and reducing the message size so that we don’t send everything to everyone all the time.
Or sometimes the sender just plain forgets. No matter the reason don’t take it personally, just get it figured out.
I am working on a large analysis project as I write this and was getting bogged down with it. Looking to regroup, I realized that I had never received a copy of the original work instruction. I ask for and received it which narrowed my scope considerably and got me back on track.
Simple. All you have to do is ask.
Working From the Same Playbook
What then is the best way to demonstrate that the message has been received loud and clear?
Working at sea there is extensive use of handheld radio communication. In other words, walkie-talkies. Due to their sometimes limited power and range or outside interference these have a high potential for the message to be improperly understood. Think of playing the telephone game when you are a kid and how the meaning gets garbled. To avoid that, the protocol for using radios is as follows:
1. One party sends a message
2. The other party repeats that message back verbatim
It is the repeating of the message that demonstrates understanding. This can be replicated in other forms of communication by paraphrasing.
Paraphrasing is a repeated summary of what was said and it is the key indicator of understanding. It can be verbatim as in the example above, or put into your own words. If the intent of the original message is understood then this will come through either way.
Communicate Your Expectations
We communicate for many reasons; to ask for things, to let people know how we feel, to express opinion. If you feel you are not being understood, or maybe being passed over for what you want, ask yourself if you have truly communicated your desire and if it has been understood.
State it directly to your boss, your kids, your spouse. Follow up to ensure they understand exactly what you are saying. Miscommunication is at the heart of many misunderstandings that lead to hurt feelings so start with begin very clear about what you want.
If you don’t ask you don’t get.