The Messy Art of Communication

We are creatures of communication, we do it so naturally that many of us barely think about it, in most situations, or so it seems.

True communication is a two way activity, it requires transmission and receipt sadly something that we regularly forget. We all know the person who uses 1,000 words to say nothing at all. Likewise I suspect that we all know a person who is a lean communicator who uses very few words, but every word is golden.

We flick between communication modes throughout our days – words and pictures, vocalised and written, fact and fiction, formal and informal, emotional and intellectual, simple and complex. We are communication omnivores.

The reason that we communicate is normally for a purpose – we want to induce a reaction, a response, an action.

In my head, communication is a simple process. I have an expectation of how things work that regularly leads to frustration and I don’t think I’m the only one with this expectation. Let me illustrate from the perspective of written communications in a work context but I think it also applies in other contexts.

How I imagine we communicate

In my simple process something is created, people read and understand it. They provide feedback in a sensible way and then they act upon the contents. In six simple steps we have communicated in a way that results in action.

Anyone reading this who’s ever produced anything in a work context will recognise that this isn’t generally the reality. We don’t communicate like computers, we communicate like humans and that’s a far more fluid thing.

How we really communicate – this is also a fiction

While my simple process had a single entry point, the reality is that there are many entry points, people are joining the conversation from a vast array of perspectives and desired outcomes.

Just because I’ve started by writing something doesn’t mean that I have created what’s needed; it’s likely that people don’t know what they need to be created and that creating it is part of gaining understanding.

Meetings provide mechanisms for responding and reacting, but they also provide opportunities to debate and reconsider. They also provide opportunities for people to divert and disrupt, sometime deliberately but more often not. Meetings also create a fertile ground in which to spin off other meetings, discussions and actions.

Information gets created, rehashed and recut many times to help people gain a comprehension of what can be complicated subjects. The words that I use are likely to be different to the words that they use. The analogies and metaphors that I use speak to some and not to others. A single question can be asked in a thousand different ways and each one can elicit a different answering. We need to help people cross the chasm of understanding and that can take many, many words, diagrams, analogies, metaphors, graphs and numbers. The inevitable duplication that this brings should be both celebrated and cautioned against.

In many organisations there is still the culture of the template straightjacket; outlines of content that needs to be completed before a phase or activity can be regarded as completed. This leads to high levels of content duplication making version control an impossible task. Duplicated content would be far better as referenced content, but that requires people to think outside the template-document-mindset. The template-document-mindset being that way of thinking that transacts at the document level and hence requires all of the content to be in the document for the transaction to take place. I once deliberately putting an error in a glossary of terms to see whether anyone read it, they didn’t, years later I read a document that had a familiar looking glossary of terms in the back – yes, including the deliberate error. I hate to think how many trees had died to create that useless glossary.

Let’s spend a bit of time thinking about content and the questions people ask. How many times have you said the words “It’s in the document” or “It’s in the pages” only to give up once you’ve realised that people aren’t going to the content? I have done this many times and I still do it although now I have a new way of doing it. As most meetings are online I now point people to content by sending them the link in the meeting chat. It’s no more successful than telling people that there’s content available, but it feels less frustrating.

Once content has been created I love to see it evolve as people review and contribute to it but this is such a rare experience. In far too many situations people want to play at editing and contributing. It’s helpful to know that I’ve got the wrong their, they’re or there but it’s far more helpful if you tell me that I’ve overcomplicated something that could be done in a far better way. I’m not arrogant enough to expect my ideas to always be correct, but the number of times that people have fundamentally changed something that I have written are very rare – that’s not a good thing.

If communication is a science then it’s a complex one with many aspects, I prefer to think of it as a messy artistic endeavour that we all get to play our part in.

Header Image: This is Dunham Massey which is a local National Trust house with gardens to visit, and a deer park. I’ve never been in the house, the deer park is always wonderful.

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