Friday, January 14, 2011

How to solve communication problems

A nonsense approach inspired by the Monty Python

  1. Sit comfortably in front of your PC/laptop/iPad or whatever equipment you’re using to access the internet
  2. Make sure you’re alone and you will not be interrupted for the next 2:15 at the very least
  3. Play this clip and
  4. Pay a close attention to everything happening in the video.
Finished the video? Ok, time to stop fooling around and move on to some serious business. I’m going to present to you a 4 step solution to all and any communication problem, and all thanks to this sketch. All you have to do is the following.

Step 1: Accept the fact
It's broken, accept the fact.
On the video, the gentleman reporting a burglary (played by Terry Jones) is a bit angry at first, kind of offended. But there’s a point where he realizes there’s a communication problem. Now the policeman (played by John Cleese) doesn’t give him any hints to what the problem is until the gentleman starts to despair. They both seem to be unaware that there is a problem.
So the first step to solve communication problems is to believe that there really is one. If you’re just told there’s a problem you probably won’t accept it, you have to believe it. Back to the sketch, if he didn't believe it he would probably find some other root cause for the problem and would never face it.

Step 2: Find a solution
Focus on the problem and not on who’s problem is it. Put yourself on the other side. Why don’t they understand the message you're trying to put through? What can be done differently? A different pitch? Louder? Different colors? Trial and error are a must on finding a solution. You have to be willing to fail first in order to get to a better situation later. Failing is part of the process. And the best way to keep seeking a working solution is…

Step 3: Two way feedback
Give and ask for feedback. This was the turning point on this sketch. Time after time we forget this. Remember the last time someone sent you an email asking you to do something and you replied saying “So what you want me to do is this and that?” Right, if you’re like me that was a long while ago… Give feedback even if no one asked for it. Things can only get better if you do.
Back to the sketch that's how they worked it out: a higher register now, and the gentleman would try a higher register.

Step 4: Problems can get worse
And they do many times...
And so the problem was solved using the first 3 steps alone. So why the 4th? If you remember what happens when the other policeman (played by Graham Chapman) enters to replace the first one - the problems start all over again. And again, as soon as they get the communication flowing things get worse again when the inspector (played by Eric Idle) enters the scene. But in the end you have communication flowing – the Monty Python way.
So don’t forget to keep the communication flowing and watch for more problems…

Impacts on Project Management
You might have heard that over 90% of a project manager’s time is spent communicating. So there you have the impact. And if you think a bit about your communicator role as a project manager there’s so much you can do to make it better. The real problem here is that in general we don’t accept the fact that there is a communication problem. We tend to think that the problem, when we detect it, lies with the others. “I clearly said the meeting was at my office, it’s not my fault he didn’t know we moved”. Like I said earlier, when was the last time you took the initiative to give feedback to clarify an email?

To conclude
This "4 step solution" to every single communication problem in the world is, of course, nonsense. But it worked for the Monty Python so why won’t it work for you?
Step 1 is the real issue here, I think. Sometimes you have to be brainwashed first if you want to accept the fact that you have a problem. This is, I believe, because it messes with people’s habits. And although it’s not the same kind of habit, it has some similarities to drugs and alcohol dependency and why it’s so hard for someone to break free.
Others can spot our communication problems a mile away but it’s really hard for us to do it for ourselves. Have you ever taught a class? Were you ever recorded on video doing that? If you have you know what I mean, it’s way too weird to see yourself doing and saying things that you could swear never happened. Maybe you should trust more what others hint you. Maybe when someone tells you something like “Why were you picking on Mr. X?” what they are trying to tell you is “You were way out of line with Mr. X, if you have punched him in the nose it wouldn’t have made any difference”
Just keep in mind that you should look out for communication problems and address them at once. It won’t be easy but if you do it…
…then you could be a better project manager.

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