Communication and miscommunication affect projects and so much more. There are simple steps anyone can take to improve all communications
Most people have witnessed situations where two project team members start out talking calmly, then quickly escalate to a heated debate. Once the conversation starts, over time, the volume level increases, the participants start waving their arms wildly, and begin shouting at each other. Each person thinks the other person just does not grasp the message. They become louder as if somehow that will articulate their point more clearly. Often, the project manager is forced to resolve miscommunication issues that can affect the success of the project.
To those who observe these types of exchanges, it becomes obvious the team members have different understandings and perspectives on the topic under discussion. This misunderstanding is the cause of the confusion and may have come from an initial miscommunication. Each person believes he or she has the correct view. Unfortunately, many people do not recognize that a miscommunication occurred, and they become frustrated with one another and the project challenges may be increased.
Regrettably, miscommunication can cause arguments to begin, relationships to splinter, and friendships to end. Learning some simple, practical skills can reduce misunderstandings dramatically and clarify communications, and improve the health of projects. Providing training in these and related areas can reduce the challenges inherent in project management.
Miscommunication and Effects
It seems so simple: The purpose of communication is to convey information. Each person takes turns expressing their views, works to understand differences, and comes to a commonly supported view. Miscommunication occurs when the listener has a different understanding of the information compared to the speaker. When people do not resolve these misunderstandings, unclear communication can lead to wasted time, effort, and cost. Misunderstandings can also appear in the oddest circumstances
For example, some people believed the world was going to end on Dec 21st, 2012 based on the Mayan calendar. The Mayans created a very long running calendar that ended on the current calendar date of Dec 21st, 2012. People thought December 21st had special meaning. Except for Mayan scholars, it was not clear that on the Mayan calendar, December 21st was their last day of the year, similar to the currently accepted December 31st. The Mayan calendar was cyclical. Similar to a car odometer, once all the digits are used, the calendar resets. That reset date aligned to December 21st, 2012 on the current calendar. Unfortunately, this lack of clarity contributed to a level of confusion and enabled the opportunity for the calendar to be interpreted as though the Mayans were predicting the end of the world.
Even computers can have internal miscommunications, which are called “bugs”. A famous event occurred in 1999 when the NASA Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere. The problem was identified as a problem with the software controlling the orbiter’s thrusters. One part of the software calculated the thrust in Pounds-Force-Seconds, an English unit. The thrusters were controlled by a separate piece of software that assumed the data was calculated using Newtons-Seconds, a metric unit. Unfortunately, this miscommunication between the software components caused the Orbiter to miscalculate the thrust parameters and the $125M satellite was destroyed after its 9-month journey to Mars.
Obviously, miscommunication can have an impact that can lead to wasted time, energy, effort and cost. The good news is that it is possible to develop effective communication skills by learning some simple techniques. Yet, why do so many people struggle when communicating?
One reason is people do not learn the critical elements that lead to good communications. In many cases, people were forced to learn communication skills on their own and perhaps never learned healthy and best practice methods.
Sender and Receiver Can Improve Communication
One of the ways to learn better communication skills is to observe what great communicators do to share their ideas. The key for clear communications is to have both parties engaged so the message is received and understood accurately. In communication practices, these parties are termed the Sender, the person sharing the information, and the Receiver, the person receiving the information.
The Sender begins by encoding and sending information to the Receiver. There is a strong possibility the Receiver may either misunderstand or misinterpret the information based on personal experience. One of the leading causes of miscommunication is the lack of confirmation by either the Receiver or the Sender that the information is understood as the Sender intended.
One simple technique a Receiver can apply is to paraphrase the information back to the Sender. This allows the Receiver to test the understanding of the information and informs the Sender that the information is understood. The Sender also has an opportunity to confirm or correct the understanding of the information. By incorporating this iterative feedback loop into important or critical communications, anyone can improve understanding and retention in communication dramatically.
As a Sender, it is possible to ensure a message is understood. Ask the Receiver to repeat back his or her understanding of the communication to ensure that the correct information has been received.
There is an email variation of this technique called the three-email rule. If as a Sender there is a need to clarify a point for the 3rd time, do not send the email. Instead, pick up the phone and call the person directly. By calling the person, there is a much faster exchange of information, and misunderstandings can be clarified much quicker than in an additional email.
Another technique the Sender can apply is to improve understanding with the intended audience. Communication is much more effective when the Sender understands their audience and writes to them using language and terms that is free from confusing jargon. Somehow, some people believe that the more complicated the language used, the more impressive the Sender appears. This is a false assumption.
Complex Communications Lead to Misunderstanding
A famous example illustrates how easily people can be misled. A research group asked people to sign a petition to ban a horrible compound, called di-hydrogen monoxide. The group listed the many problems with the compound such as the way it caused erosion, destruction, and even deaths. Many people eagerly signed the petition after hearing all the bad things caused by this chemical. Later, the group reveals to the signers that di-hydrogen monoxide is the chemical name for H2O and that they just signed a petition to ban water. This shows how using more complicated, technical language does not always lead to further clarification. Instead, unfamiliar and overly complex terms can lead to more confusion, and may encourage people to unwittingly respond is a way contrary to what they believe.
The United States Government had a similar challenge with people using overly difficult language in government documents. These poorly written documents ultimately led to the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, and the establishment of a public plain language website, PlainLanguage.gov. The website’s purpose is to “promote the use of plain language for all government communications.”
One last technique is to keep the message short and to the point. This is a challenge especially for Project Managers. Project Managers have a tendency to write long status reports with meandering content. In general, the longer a status report or update email is, the less likely the recipients are to read the content in full. Therefore, Project Managers (and consulting services) must learn how to summarize data into meaningful knowledge for recipients. Doing so allows recipients to more quickly understand the health of a project, and then decide what action, if any, is needed.
Senders of communication need to ensure their message was received accurately and that the Receiver understands the message. Remember to keep the message focused on the intended audience, use clear and easy to understand language, and edit so that message is short and to the point. Following these simple steps will help ensure that miscommunications can be reduced dramatically.