Friday, December 16, 2011

Listen with 4 ears

Picture your wife or husband driving you to the airport. You stop at a red light. After a while the light goes green and so you say: "The light is green". What is your wife's or husband's most likely reaction? It will probably fit in one of the following general directions:
  • She/he resumes driving
  • She/he says "It's not my fault you forgot your phone and we had to go back to get it"
  • She/he says "Calm down, I was paying attention this time, the light turned green just now"
  • She/he says "Don't worry, you'll be there in time"
And now you may be thinking: "Wow, that's right... how can this simple statement get such different responses?" or maybe "Why should I care?". In either case, you'll get an answer for both questions in this article.

This article is about the filters set by the people involved in a communication - the one sending the information (sender) and the one receiving the information (receiver). These filters are part of a communication model best known as the 4-ears model (or four-sides model or the communication square) You can check more on this model on Wikipedia - it's always a good starting point. Basically, the 4-ears model explains how someone says "Nice job" with an angry tone and everyone hears "You messed it up". It is relevant for Project Managers because, in general, Project Managers communicate a lot and deal with lots of people.
The filters involved are made of the basic following types:

The fact filter
This is the filter that allows you to communicate (send, receive or both) just the facts, filtering out everything else. There's no criticism here, this is not good or bad, it's just the way it is, sometimes it's appropriate and sometimes it's not. Just like the example before, the communication consists on the fact alone that the light is green. Period. There's no further interpretation or second meaning to it. It's just like we imagine a computer would communicate. So in the previous example, the person driving just drives once she/he knows the traffic light is green.
As a sender, it may sound like a good idea to focus on this filter when you're presenting something like a project status report on a Steering Committee. The truth is that many times you have to make use of other tools to really make people understand what's going on and its impact. Same cases where this is particular important include Change Management and you can read more about it here.
As a receiver, the fact filter sounds most useful dealing with a crisis: you just need the facts to get to a solution, anything else is just noise. Or isn't it? Sometimes solutions are just laying there apart from the facts - like thinking outside of the box or focusing on interests instead of positions when negotiating.

The self-revealing filter
The best example I can think of is a romantic one, like when you say something such as "It's been a pleasure talking to you" but the rest of you (tone of voice, touching hands or whatever) complements it such a way that it really communicates "I'm in love". Mothers know how to apply this filter better than anyone else. The communication somehow reveals something about the sender (intentionally or not) that gives another meaning to the actual message being communicated.
In the previous example, both the sender and receiver know all about the context of the situation - that the sender remembered he forgot his cell phone at home when they were half way to the airport - and that turns the communication into another dimension. In fact, the sender is saying that he's desperate to get at the airport in time and he/she can use any help available. And the receiver answers him/her accordingly.

The relationship filter
In an extreme, this is the filter you use when you feel so comfortable with someone that you can be at ease together without saying a word. Have you ever felt that way? It makes use of past shared experiences to give another meaning to what's actual being said.
In the previous example, the person driving is always distracted with something, and both of them know it perfectly well. So when one says "The light is green" what he/she actually means is "Wake up! You can keep driving now" and the receiver is defensive and says "Calm down, I was paying attention this time, the light turned green just now".

The appeal filter
This is the filter applied when a statement is in fact an order or a request. Some people use it when they say the time when they actually mean it's late.
In the previous example, the message is in fact "Hurry up or I'll lose my flight" and it's answered accordingly "Don't worry, you'll be there in time".

Why should you care?
This hopefully answered the first question "How can a simple statement get such different responses". The next question is now easy to answer: why should a Project Manager care about the 4-ears model? Project Managers communicate a lot, both as a sender and a receiver. So the odds that they bump into a mismatch of filters is significant.
So when you act as a sender, be as explicit as you possibly can about the filters you're using: just say you're stating the facts when that's what you intend to communicate; or make an explicit request when that's what you want. Just make it as explicit as you can, possibly using feedback in the process to make sure that the communication did take place as you intended (remember George Bernard Shaw's words: The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place).
And when you're the receiver, try to capture what people really meant when they talked to you. This is particularly difficult for me as I'm a facts filter heavy user, but it can be useful even after the communication took place, maybe when you're walking the dog. It has proven useful time and time again to me - even when you don't respond immediately to what people are saying to you. It's a case where the expression "better late than never" applies.

In conclusion
The messages you send and receive have filters, one of them being the actual facts being transmitted. But there are other 3 - just don't forget about them. Even if you try to recall conversations at a later time (when you can't do it live), you can still understand better what people are trying to tell you if you just remember this. And if you remember this you can communicate a lot better when you need to pass a message to someone else. Keep this in mind on the next status meeting or the next email you write to your project team, will you?
It can make a real difference and even make you a better Project Manager!

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