Communication

Excerpt from Paper #6: "Recognizing and Understanding Human Behavior to Improve Systems Engineering Results"

Merriam-Webster dictionary (www.m-w.com) defines communication as 'a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior'. A problem we should be very aware of is that the information we think is exchanged, often is diluted, distorted and misunderstood, if it is received at all.

Witnesses tell a story they made up in their mind. We hear a bang behind us, we turn around, and we see the scene of a traffic accident. That very moment, our grey cells start constructing a story of this accident. It is based on the basic concept of traffic accident, which was constructed earlier based on what we saw on television, or on earlier experienced accidents. We make up how the accident came about. We didn't even see it happen, but we assume how it may have happened, and what will happen afterwards. We mold the standard concept of traffic accident in our mind with what we see, hear and smell, into an instance of this particular accident. Because different people start with different concepts of accident and see different elements of the scene, every witness tells a different story (men may notice that there is a garage at the corner, women may notice that there is a fashion shop right behind the demolished car). Witnesses don't lie about it, it's just that every person has a different history to start with and sees different details, and hence composes a different story in his mind.

Throwing sounds to one another. The same happens with words we use when we try to communicate: we throw sounds to each other and hope that in the mind of the other person the same concepts emerge as we have in our own mind. Because we all have different histories and different interest in details, the concepts we try to activate in the minds of others are probably different from the concepts we think we are conveying.
"But I told you!"... Well, did the other person 'receive' the sounds we threw? Was he really paying attention or was he dreaming? If he received the sounds, how were these interpreted? "You nodded in agreement!"... Well, may-be he just moved his head to look into another direction and we only assumed that this movement was an acknowledgement. May be the other person lacks some concepts in his mind, so that he even cannot imagine what we want to say.
The more distance in descent, the more difference we may expect from the interpretation of the sounds we exchange. In one family we may already have differences in interpreting the same word. In our work environment the differences are probably greater and if we try to communicate between people from different cultures (think about off-shoring) the differences in concepts in our minds caused by the sounds we exchange are even greater, especially if we try to communicate in a non-native language.

Our mind is quite happy with fuzzy thoughts. An additional problem with communication is that the concepts in our minds are rather fuzzy: we think our thoughts are clear, but in reality they are not. If you ask somebody "Do you have a plan?" the answer may be: "Yes I made a plan". "Where is it?" "It's in my head!" Then ask: "Can you write it down?" "Why should I, it's completely clear what I'll do". "If it's so clear, it shouldn't be too difficult to write it down, so that I better understand what you'll be doing. Can you still write it down?" Now, if the person tries to write down the plan, it suddenly becomes clear that the plan wasn't all that clear in his mind. He starts writing it down, starts changing, adding and moving the order of things. "And you thought it was all clear in your mind?"... Our mind is quite happy with fuzzy thoughts. That's probably a survival strategy: Fuzzy thoughts may create errors in our thoughts and if we suddenly recognize something new in an erroneously generated thought (this usually happens in our sub-consciousness), we call it creativity. But in communication it is a risk when the receiver interprets the message differently from what the transmitter of the message wants to say.

Explain it to a colleague. Did you ever encounter that you were thinking about a problem and got stuck? You go to a colleague and start explaining, and suddenly you say "Ah, now I see!" Because you tried to tell what was in your mind, you had to unfuzzy it for the other person, at the same moment unfuzzying it for yourself. The other person didn't even say a word. He may even still be puzzled about what you were going to say...

Explaining it to paper. In order not to bother our colleagues too much, why not explain to paper what's in our mind? Explaining to paper is called documenting. Thinking along these lines, it becomes clear that documenting is not in the first place for others, but rather for ourselves, to unfuzzy and hence understand our own thoughts better. Now we can also understand why most people don't like to document: When we have to write down what seemed so clear in our mind, it proves to be so difficult. It's easier to skip the documenting and stick to the false feeling of clearness in our fuzzy mind. It's a risk that the unresolved fuzziness will cause a problem later. If it does cause a problem later, we conclude that 'to err is human', as if it's just fate and that we couldn't have done anything about it. Once we recognize that the fuzziness can be reduced by documenting what's in our mind, we understand that it's not just inevitable fate. Many mistakes can be avoided by proper understanding why we are making them and then doing something about it!

If we write it down, it can be discussed and changed. What we don't write down, we cannot discuss because other people cannot see what we are thinking. If it's written down, we can discuss and change it. "But I cannot yet write it down because it's not yet clear enough!" Then the advice is: Write anything down, even if you know it's incorrect. When you write it down, others can see it and start helping you to make it better quickly. And again: by writing it down, you may see a solution yourself easier as well. This is why we need large whiteboards in every meeting room. Do you have large whiteboards in your own room and in your meeting rooms?

In any meeting with more than one person, we use a projector. In meetings people scribble notes. The problem with these notes is that many people don't write clearly, so that later they cannot decipher half of their scribbling any more. If we compare the scribbling of the various people in the meeting, we will see that they all write things differently and that there are inconsistencies in what they have written down based on their perceptions of what has been said. Furthermore, while people write down their scribbling, their attention is distracted from what is being said, so they miss part of the discussion. This poses a risk that people start working inconsistently or on inconsistent things. When this is found out later, people may have to repair the inconsistencies. If this can be avoided it saves time. Therefore we use the rule: "In any meeting with more than one person, we use a projector, with a computer connected to the intranet." Now, instead of everybody scribbling his notes on a piece of paper, we have a centralized place where things are written down legibly and saved for all involved, easily to turn to later. We use as second rule: "The owner of the text writes it down." If the person responsible for what is written down doesn't write it down himself, we see that that person may nod in agreement "Yes, that's about it", but there is no real commitment. If the person writes it down himself, we see a greater responsibility for the correctness of what he writes down. This causes a better commitment for what is being written. Instead of being distracted while scribbling, the other people now can keep their attention to what is being written and react on it. If they don't understand or disagree, they can ask for an explanation. This provides better communication. The cost of the projector is regained quickly because people work more efficiently. The commitment for what's written down is also very much enhanced because we all saw it in big size projected on the wall. That has psychologically a lot more impact that if we have seen it on paper or on a monitor screen.