Why is communication so hard?
(Hint: It’s not if you care)
It’s never been easier to communicate, even during Covid.
We have text, email, DM, IM, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and of course, a phone or two in our pockets, often linked to our watches or cars.
We spend over seven hours a day looking at a screen, per DataReportal.com. We send and receive alerts, push notices, reminders, and a constant stream of news and information.
At work, internal communications inundate employees with messages, blogs, vblogs, and “news you need to know.” Managers and employees are trained in how to communicate and get dinged — or should — if they’re bad at it.
In life, we’re bombarded with advice about the importance of communicating with loved ones, and how to do it best to show our love.
So, it’s mystifying how so often communications fail and make bad situations much worse, when communications are often the easiest part of the solution — and can even make bad situations much better. Examples:
· On this January 6, when a massive snowstorm hit the Washington, DC, region, hundreds of motorists spent the night stuck on I-95 in the freezing weather with little information or guidance about what was happening, how long it would last, what and when help was coming, and what to do and not do.
As The Washington Post opined, “Stranded motorists said they received no push notifications from the authorities on their phones until Tuesday morning — after many had sat snowbound on the highway for a dozen hours or more.
“Problem №1 was a failure of communication.
“Virginia’s Department of Transportation said its messaging, urging drivers to stay off the roads ahead of the storm, was clear and consistent. But how visible, audible and urgent were those messages? Were warnings transmitted visually, on electronic billboards, at busy entrance ramps? Were they broadcast promptly starting Sunday, when the National Weather Service warned that the storm might dump several inches of snow in the D.C. area?”
The J6 Capitol riot
· On the previous January 6, a lack of communication was blamed for the failed police response to the Capitol riot, while police officials blamed communications breakdowns between intelligence agencies.
“There’s a history of garbled law enforcement communication during threats to the Capitol,” NBC News reported shortly after. “From 9/11 to a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn, communication issues between Capitol Police and other law enforcement have hindered threat response before.”
· You assign a team member a critical project with a tight turnaround. Along the way, you check in (respectfully) for status (because your boss wants to know because her boss wants to know, and so on) and whether any help is needed.
You receive perfunctory replies and sometimes none, but you don’t want to over-manage and disrupt your team member’s focus and work. Finally, you receive the work. It’s way off base, a nonstarter.
Maybe your instructions were misdelivered or misunderstood because of George Bernard Shaw’s warning that, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Either way, now you’re now managing a crisis that could have been averted if the team member had responded to your check-ins to make sure they’re on the right track.
· Meetings often demonstrate how people can communicate for hours without communication taking place in terms of accepted and understood information, decisions, actions, responsibilities and accountabilities, the “news you need to know.”
I’ve sat in long meetings packed with top executives, policy experts, and $800/hour outside consultants strategizing major, market-moving announcements and offering wise, priceless insights.
At the end of the meeting, the CEO turns to me, the writer sitting along the wall taking notes and the only one there responsible for something tangible, like a speech or statement, and asks, “do you have everything you need?”
I say “sure,” while screaming inside, “No! I don’t have anything I need! What are we actually doing?!”
· Emails — can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
They’re either too long with too much information, or jumbled and confusing, or the point is buried or at the end, or obliquely stated as to require postmodern sub-textual analysis. Or the emails don’t answer the question. Or they go unanswered or even acknowledged.
Also noncommunicative is when emailers respond with text abbreviations that assume common knowledge because they know them, such as NVM, RN, TBF, THB, OOO, TIA, LMGTFY, or worst of all, TL;DR.
If you don’t know these, then LMGTFY.
Techies versus tech users
· A Fortune 50 corporation emails its employees, most still working remotely, that it’s switching online access to DaaS (“Desktop as a Service”) and disabling access through company-issued laptops (“end-of-life devices”) in two weeks after mandatory training.
Techies may hoot — which is part of the problem — but the notices did not offer DaaS for Dummies, explaining in simple terms what DaaS is, and why it’s good for employees, productivity, and IT security. Or even how to prepare personal PCs, laptops or other devices with the required internet connectivity, browser type, Microsoft Office version, or cache-clearing. The link to the FAQ was broken.
Naturally, the training session was a cat rodeo as the trainers tried to march through their slides in the 90 minutes allotted but had to stop repeatedly as many participants struggled to keep up and make the software work. “I use my Kyndryl laptop and get a screen ERROR: you have attempted to access a page for a tenant that does not exist,” one participant posted on the MS Teams chat for the meeting.
Granted, I’m a uniquely stupid end-user. But as the customer, I shouldn’t have to bend to the brilliance of techies and painstakingly learn how to use their amazing software and systems. The best are intuitive and user-friendly, so it’s possible for all of them to be.
The communications gap between techies who create, implement and train systems and software, and people who need to use them, seems to be widening with both sides yanking out their hair in frustration.
How can we close the communications gap in the Communications Age?
Revert to real communication.
You know, asking questions, listening, truly hearing, and trying to understand one another.
That means exercising our EQ muscle and social radar, picking up on how our communications are received and perceived.
How about this: Pick up the phone and talk, for God’s sake! Or meet face-to-face when that’s possible again. Don’t email a colleague from across the room. Walk over and talk.
Respect the importance of communicating.
At work, this means putting communications professionals at the table alongside leaders so they can sense and reflect on the impact and shape decisions and plans as they are made. In other words, having communications in the kitchen making the dish rather than taking bad orders to deliver.
In life, if you care about someone, never make them wonder what you’re thinking or feeling. If you’re close, they can probably tell anyway. If you love them, tell them. If you’re irked by them, find a constructive way to address the issue.
Anyone can be a good communicator if they care about people.
If you’re trying to climb the career ladder, you’ll rise higher faster if you make communicating with people who put their work lives in your hands a must-do, not a nice-to-do.
The best leaders I’ve ever worked with knew or learned that.
As for mates, kids, parents, neighbors, friends and others who matter in your personal life, you’ll win and ensure their respect, forbearance, and even love for your humanity if you own your flaws and communicate in a loving way.
Let’s use our incredible Communications Age tools to truly connect with one another, inform one another, respect one another, and knit us closer together.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.