Matt's Articles

The Muffled Voices of 2020


As we approach the end of a year that we collectively won’t miss, I think it is worth reflecting on the thing that I believe has been affected the most by all this disruption: communication. Many of our jobs and livelihoods revolve around this very human activity. We learn how to do it at an early age, we improve upon it over time. If we are really honest, we realize how much we all stink at it. I think I can safely say that every company and every organization that I have worked with has told me that their main problem is communications. How can that be? This is a strength of human beings, not a weakness. Yet we all note it as a fundamental struggle or deficiency. Let’s reflect on communication and the causes of communication failure:

  • We fail to listen.
  • We spend too much time thinking about ourselves.
  • We assume too easily that people understand what we mean.
  • Organizations don’t appropriately recognize the degradation of a message as it filters its way across and down through the hierarchy of people.
  • We don’t spend time or emphasize improving our communications.

We fail to listen.

For all of my extroverted friends, communication doesn’t start with speaking. To be heard we need to construct our statements in a way that the listener can truly hear us. This means we need to understand their frame of mind, mood, interest in our topic, and their use of language. This can be gained by asking questions and listening to the answers. This all takes time and it also requires that we hold back our own need to get our message out into the air. It is hard to do. But trust me, you will have a much better chance of someone hearing you if you start by asking questions and listening before you speak.

We spend too much time thinking about ourselves.

I have this tendency of hearing what I “need” to hear or hearing something that spurs another thought and my brain goes off in a completely different direction. When I come to and realize that the person is still talking I find that I have missed, what is likely, some important component of what the person was trying to communicate. Communication is a two-way street; if I am selfish in the interaction I am sure to miss something important. Worse, I may think I heard the things that confirm my viewpoint and mentally moved on when in reality we are not actually completely aligned. Does this sound familiar? I see it all the time. As a consultant, I step in and ask questions to check for real alignment. (The value of those listening skills comes into play here as well.) As the perpetrator of this problem, I have deliberately worked to become better at stopping my mind and my own thoughts, breaking into the conversation, and admitting my own distraction. It can be embarrassing at times, but it’s honest and it helps me to do better the next time. Not to mention, it allows me to make sure that we have a real agreement, rather than just assuming that I heard just what I needed.

We assume too easily that people understand what we mean.

There is a bias, especially in the United States, towards an agreement. People will often nod their heads even when they don’t fully understand what was just communicated. I see a lot of this in my work, I often find myself asking the person on the other end why they didn’t ask more questions or just say they didn’t understand. I think it comes down to embarrassment or not wanting to cause a stir or a desire to keep the conversation moving. In the short run, it keeps the conversation moving and in the long run, it creates confusion and disappointment. Both sides need to improve on this one. First, as speakers and writers, we need to find opportunities to check for understanding. Silence is not agreement, often it is the opposite of agreement. At best, silence is a sign of processing and if it takes a while for people to process it probably means that they do not fully comprehend. On the listener side, we need to get over the fact that people say things in ways that we don’t always understand, especially in our complex business world. Slow the speaker down; don’t be afraid to be the one that asks questions. Oftentimes, another listener is struggling in the same way that you are and just failing to speak up.

Organizations don’t appropriately recognize the degradation of a message as it filters its way across and down through the hierarchy of people.

This is the organizational version of the telephone game. Management has a meeting. The managers pass information to supervisors, then supervisors relay the information to other associates, and critical components are lost in translation. The company strategy, which is hard to express in the first place, is a frequent victim of this problem. I feel for executive teams, but it comes down to skip level discussions and other methods to check for understanding. It may be uncomfortable to go around levels of management, but it is the only way to really understand the ability to transmit a message down and across the organization. It is absolutely critical to creating an aligned and successful operation. The bigger the company, the bigger the challenge.

We don’t spend time or emphasize improving our communications.

We learn writing skills in grammar school, we take classes on public speaking, and we spend our modern lives immersed in different forms of communication. Unfortunately, none of this assumes that we are good at, or good enough at it. Yet, I think we are all a bit afraid of admitting this and getting some real training on the subject. I put myself in this camp and have now invested in some training and coaching on communications. It requires time as well as practicing some uncomfortable conversation techniques with people, but the discomfort means we are learning. It pays off!

In closing, and here at the end of a year where our typical modes of communication have been severely disrupted, we should all reflect on how we might improve our communication. This disruption will continue in 2021. This is an opportunity to recognize the need to make sure we are truly hearing the muffled voices and improve our communications skills. Let’s make sure our organization is effectively communicating so the ability to get big things done does not degrade while we are working from home and communicating over Zoom calls.

Thank you for reading these articles. Happy Holidays from Chalmers St. Consulting!