Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/03/12

The opposite of communication

People think that the opposite of communication is silence. Not so. The opposite of communication is miscommunication. Why? Because people are funny and they will make up stories to patch over the parts of life that you chose not to help them understand.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet you $10 that someone, somewhere has made up a ridiculous theory to explain something you did in a way that is not very flattering to you. They didn’t do it to be mean, they did it because they are constitutionally incapable of permitting “I don’t know” into their lives.

When I was three I was standing in the front yard with my dad and a jet tore across the afternoon sky, leaving a bright white pencil-thin contrail in its wake. Moments later, it began to rain. For years, I thought the loud noise of the jet engines shook the clouds and caused the water to fall. In absence of a better theory, I made my own.

Time and again I talk to brilliant people who complain that they are not getting the recognition that they deserve, at work. When I ask them how well and how frequently they are connecting with their stakeholders, that tell me that they don’t have “time for all of that” because they are too busy doing “actual” work. As a former martyr, I appreciate the sentiment.

Amid the stresses and strains of a workday, it is a chore to keep track of all of the stakeholders for our projects, much less bother to consider their needs, prejudices and preferences. So we are silent when we ought to speak. The obvious result of our silence is that feelings get hurt and problems, when they occur, fester.

The less obvious result is that we are squandering regular opportunities to stand out from the crowd. Let me put it this way: If you are knocking it out of the park and your clients, customers, fans or co-workers aren’t aware because you failed to tell them–you get no credit. None.

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Responses

  1. Former martyr. I like that.

  2. Nice post. I have seen a lot of projects go south because of poor communication.

  3. I’m going to disagree. I would argue that miscommunication is a byproduct of silence. A lack of communication prompts our creative brain to come up with the why’s, even if that happens subconsciously.

    I will agree though that communication is my responsibility. And in this information age there are more than enough tools out there to help us share our successes & failures. More and more our personal PR is a part of the “real work.” As a former martyr (love that) you clearly already have internalized that. Yet, we still withhold valuable info because we don’t feel it’s a big enough deal to share/interrupt others with.

  4. @Steven

    Great point. I should have made that a little clearer. The pattern I have noticed is:

    No Communication –> Silence –> [other party makes up a theory] –> yields Miscommunication.

    You explained the middle part much more clearly! Regarding your other point about when it worth interrupting the other party–I tend to view it from a project management point of view. I am curious about your opinion, as an expert in team-building, specifically:

    What advise can you give team members on how to balance good communication with respect for the other team member’s time?

  5. @Doug

    The balance of communication is an interesting one. Ultimately your team must decide where the importance threshold lies (http://bit.ly/aM5fm5). Actively share what will be useful and important to your team members; and make all other information available but not obstructive.

    For example, in some team environments the workload can be shared between team members. If one person is having a slow week it may be valuable to share that information with the rest of the team and help to fill in the gaps. Yet it can feel presumptuous or self defeating to announce to everyone that you don’t have a lot of work. But for the sake of the team this information may prove to be very valuable. This may be something you would share with your team during a morning status meeting or by using an online tool. While it may exist below the importance threshold, and not valuable enough to stop someone in the hall about, it still can effect a team’s success.

    In my opinion clear open communication is vital to team health; the trick is the non obstructive part. If your team can find a tool that allows you to make that “non” important/interruptible information available to the rest of they team you are more likely to operate efficiently.

    Here are a couple suggestions:
    If you team is a little more tech savvy use a tool like Yammer.com and agree to once a day share a honest status update. Don’t force it on any one. Don’t tag it as a reply, don’t attract attention to it, just put it out there. Make the info available.
    If your team prefers the face to face contact, implement a morning status meeting or conference call. Keep it quick and focused. Only allow each team member 1-2 minutes to share their current status and any other pertinent, but otherwise bellow the “interrupt” threshold, information.

    Again, actively share what will be useful and important to your team members; and make all other information available, but not obstructive. This especially applies to any information that could be open for misinterpretation. Proactive communication is by far more cost, time and relationally effective that trying to untangle the mess of miscommunication. Most of the time, reactive communication will never be able to repair all the damage. It’s not worth it.

    Share what is important, and make everything else available.

  6. We’ve been using Wave for just this purpose and it’s perfect (aaand free). Also, I like to note info and release it all at regular meetings.


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