When we were kids my brother gave me a mug with a message printed on. It said, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”
That about summed up our early attempts at mastering the art of communication. It also pretty well sums up communication at all levels in organisations of every size, purpose and description.
We don’t engage and we don’t listen; we tell people what we want them to know. Even then, we don’t check that they have heard and understood. I have spoken, therefore you have understood. Otherwise you might be suggesting that I don’t communicate clearly. Surely not?
Why is communication such a difficult and scary thing? So difficult that, at all levels, even when it is most critical, we tend to get it wrong.
We think no one will find out—the less said the better—or that people don’t need to know. Even powerful Presidents of the United States, such as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, who thought they had the power to make things go away, have discovered to their cost that there are no secrets. Your staff or your customers or your partner will find out sooner or later. Rather let them hear from you than from elsewhere, or pick up rumours that only give half the story—the worst half.
I recently came across an appalling piece of advice in a research document produced in December 2005 for one of the SETAs. The research was conducted on behalf of the SETA into the needs of a section of its constituency. It goes a long way to explain the frustrating lack of communication, let alone engagement, that many of us have experienced.
Under the heading “Making the Sector Aware of the Roles of the Seta”, the report states that there is “a need to develop a comprehensive communications strategy that explores ways of interacting more closely with the sector”.
Isn’t it priceless? You don’t develop a communication strategy to interact with constituents, but in order to explore ways of interacting!
It goes on,
“It is recommended, however, that before the SETA embarks on a communication campaign, that it has a clear set of defined strategies or services that it will be able to offer the sector….” (my emphasis)
Would it not make more sense to engage with the sector first to define the strategies and services that might be useful?
In its conclusion the report states,
“All of these factors…suggest that the critical step is for the SETA to consolidate this process, develop options for the industry and then engage with the industry in a manner that ensures the realisation of the agreed upon objectives.” (my emphasis)
In my ignorance I would have thought that engaging with the sector would have been the first step, which would have helped the process of consolidation and developing options. But, no, finalise everything then “engage” with the stakeholders.
Well, with respect to the no doubt highly-paid consultants, that is not engaging; that is dictating: telling us what you have decided in your ivory tower without any consultation and without any effort to discover what our needs might be.
But it’s not just SETAs; this sort of practice is present in all of our organisations, even those of us that depend on effective communication for a living.
Anyone else got communication insights?