Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What communication looks like

One of the hardest things to explain to people is that communication is at least a two-way process that involves both transmittal and reception. Simple analogy: if you try to call someone on the telephone and you get their voice mail, where you leave a clear message, there has not been any communication; that only starts when the other person checks the messages. If the message is not recorded (faulty machine, say) or is garbled (faulty connection, person speaking too fast, not enough time to record all the message) then the message will only be received at best in part. So, dont be content with "I left a message on your voice mail".

Communication is also about the fullness of the message (the sum of the parts, not some of its parts). Cases in point:

I am going to the hairdresser (partial message).
I am going to the hairdresser in Oistins (fuller message).
I am going to the hairdresser in Oistins this morning (even fuller message).
I am going to the hairdresser in Oistins this morning and then I am going to Chefette (even fuller message).
I am going to the hairdresser in Oistins this morning and then I am going to Chefette to pick up lunch for us all but wont be back before 2pm (still even fuller message, now with some interesting implications).

You get the point?

Some people also go in for what I call globs of information, not realizing that the disconnected pieces are not the same as the connected pieces. Another example:

I am going to the hairdresser tomorrow (partial message given the night before with no reference to location).
I am going to Oistins this morning (another partial message given on the day and not connected to the hairdresser).
I am going to Chefette to pick up lunch (another partial message given on the day, without any reference to "us").

These may all make a nice connected picture in the mind of the messenger, but as three separate pieces of informaton they give a different picture to the receiver.

What you pass on is in part a function of what you want others to know. The selectivity can be conscious or unconscious and it is hard to be critical of the messenger unless you know which side of that fence they are sitting. The fullness of the message also positions the recipients for their reactions; if you want less reaction you give less information. (We wonlt get paranoid just yet and deal with how information management can be manipulative, in organizations and relationship. Refresh your sentiments by reading George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty Four".)

In organizations, one of the constant criticisms of management is that "They don't give us enough information to make good decisions". Managers in their defence clutch at a range of straws: "I told you the company was in trouble...what do you think that means?" [so broad as to be useless] or "If you felt that you needed more information then why did you not ask?" [no acknowledgement that the persons concerned were blind to the real circumstances and did not know at the time that what they heard was really insufficient], etc.

People often say "I only told you the 'essential' as I had no more time". Try timing the different sentences above and see how long the longest takes and how long the shortest takes. Then calculate how many seconds are in an hour and then how many seconds there are in a day; work out some fractions then think about that 'essential' element argument again. Time is very maleable and gets sliced and diced to suit circumstances.

Who should you tell? The best communication is the most direct. If you are a football fan, that would be "route one" (English style, they used to say--get the ball from our end to the other end with the fewest passes so that we can get more chances to score). That is different to Brazilian or Italian football ("pretty football"--lots of passing, often in the middle area of the field; probing back, sideways, forward; not shooting even in front of goal, etc).

People who work in organizations often organize all their communication along the lines they use at work (where they spend most of their time so not surprising). If they work in hierarchies, they often forget that most of life is not hierarchical and fail to realise that a message passed to someone mentally designated as a 'line manager' is not a good way for the relevant person(s) concerned to get the message. Worse still, they will leave messages in 'in boxes' hoping that they will be found and checked.

Need an example? A business works with the managing director telling the department heads that X will happen; department heads inform division heads, who inform staff lower down, etc. When there are lots of people involved we can understand that to get say a workforce of 1,000 people in one place to hear the same message may be a difficult task. (Technology can now help, though, and e-mail, web or pod broadcasts could get everyone's attention with little effort compared to actually informing just as few people.)

Domestic situations can often flounder because of this organization-home confusion. Hypothetical example: I send a text message to my wife at noon that I am not going to be home for dinner. That is fine for me and the wife when she gets to read the message; but the cook and the butler were informed in the morning that we would be dining at home and geared up to cook and serve the Valentine's dinner. When my wife got the message she was at the hairdresser and did not read it immediately as she was having an extensive treatment. Her BlackBerry was in her bag on vibrate and she did not check her messages until after she got back to work and was heading to a meeting at 4.30pm, but did not contact the household staff as she was 'too busy' and thought that I had told them anyway. So Maude the cook and Albert the butler never get informed. They do all their preparations and when I return home at 9.30pm, I meet some sour-faced staff. So, one cold dinner sitting in a row.... It can go into the freezer; the roses will still look good in the morning; the champagne can still be drunk in the late evening. Maude and Albert are a bit miffed, but they are employees, so.... Given that both Maude and Albert have cell phones I could have texted them directly or better still texted my wife and them so that all the relevant parties were on the same page. My defence to my wife: I didn't have time to tell them and anyway I told you. Duh.

If you want to have some innocent fun, try playing around with these various styles for a few hours or even a day and note how people react differently.

As it's Valentine's Day I will now go and think about whether it's the same to have given one red rose each day this week to everyone in my house or to give a bunch today to my wife. Not quite the same issues but could be similar if I meant my wife to have all the flowers.

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