In my last post, I talked about communication within an organization. Towards the end, I alluded to a few ideas about a similar, but distinct topic – communication for individuals.
Designing communication tools – whether levers, shared vocabulary, or merely a culture of investigation – as an organization requires one look at generic approaches. All of these techniques largely gloss over the specifics of what’s being said or who the listener is, instead opting to give high-level suggestions about how one craft their approach to communicating something. But as an individual, communicating to another individual, we have the opportunity to dive deeper than these aggregate, statistical methods, and actually think about who we are talking to and what we are trying to say.
I titled this post “communication is a team sport,” and I’m not just trying to be theatrical in that analogy. You can philosophize all you want about the perfect soccer team – but when actually handed a population of real people to choose from, that theory will be a guidepost at best. The reality is that, when you need the best possible performance from a small number of people, those people have to mesh at a deep level, not merely fit into neat categorical boxes. In the same way, when communicating among individuals, the techniques for organizations can be a useful guide, but you have to actually make the effort to understand the specifics of the person you’re speaking with in order to truly succeed.
There’s another key reason I call communication a team sport. A soccer team wins or loses together. It doesn’t matter how many times the goalie blocks a difficult shot – if the offense can’t score, the whole team still loses. When the team wins, it’s fine to say that the goalie contributed a great deal; but when the team loses, there’s no reward nor credit to be split.
This same thinking applies to person-to-person communication. The only metric of success is that the listener leaves with the understanding the speaker wanted to convey – there is no partial credit.
You stating your beliefs in a way that feels truthful doesn’t earn you any points.
You not daring to say anything that doesn’t feel sufficiently kind doesn’t earn you any points.
Being mean, or lying, certainly doesn’t earn you any points.
The only way to earn any points at all is to ignore everything about how you perceive the words you’re saying, and find the right way to actually ensure the person you’re speaking to understands what you wanted to say.
When interviewing candidates for Modulate, sometimes I’ll ask them about their experiences giving difficult feedback. I won’t give away the best answer I’ve heard, as it dilutes the value of the question, but I think it’s okay for me to reveal the worst answer I’ve yet come across.
“I tell it like it is. If they don’t get it, that’s on them, because all I’ve shared is the truth.”
Let’s put aside the obvious issue that this candidate can’t possibly know they aren’t missing something, and are in fact in the right.
Let’s even put aside the fact that this phrasing indicates a clear lack of respect for their teammates.
But even then, this answer is terrible, because the candidate is completely ignoring that the original goal of giving feedback was to communicate with the other person! Good feedback-giving requires being able to help the listener understand where the feedback-giver is coming from. “Speaking the truth” might be helpful if you can do that, but if you can’t it’s irrelevant at best, and an excuse to be lazy or hurtful at worst.
Now, there’s a danger to this mindset. If everyone in the company tells themselves “oh, it’s completely on the feedback-giver to make themselves understood to me,” that enables a serious sort of intellectual laziness. So I need to be clear that what I’m saying does not mean “it’s 100% on the speaker.”
What I actually want to say is “it’s 100% on the speaker and 100% on the listener.”
OK, that’s obviously mathematically untrue. But what I actually mean is that communication is, once again, a team sport. If two people agree to try to communicate, then they have a mutual goal – for the listener to learn what the speaker intended to express.
If they walk away without that goal having been met, they both failed. Just as the soccer team all loses together, regardless of how much one team member believes they did “their part”.
Of course, this doesn’t only apply to feedback. When, say, designing the specs for a project, the same logic applies. If various people leave the meeting believing different things about what the spec was, everyone failed to meet their goal. Great communication isn’t just about everyone leaving the room happy – it’s about ensuring everyone clearly lays out their beliefs, so that any disagreements can be identified and resolved, and the whole team can be in sync on their beliefs. In other word, the hero is the person who ensures the team wins as a whole.
This post probably deserves a caveat. Communication is nuanced and complicated in a lot of intricate ways, and one consequence of that is that there are many ways to successfully communicate an idea to a given listener. So I want to be clear that there’s a further piece of logic here – that the greatest hero is the one who not only ensures the team wins, but who takes the extra step of communicating clearly while maximizing the respect shown to all teammates while doing so. This is an incredibly crucial point, and ensuring that your team doesn’t merely stop at “communicated” when they haven’t reached “communicated politely from a place of genuine respect” is the difference between creating an efficient but toxic grind, and an actually positive culture.
But if you’re not actually able to communicate your ideas, no amount of respect can rectify that error on its own. It can ensure your teammates are loyal enough to give you a second chance, and even a third, and can help ensure everyone still wants your team to win. But ultimately, it’s still on you – whether speaker, listener, or even facilitator – to make sure that the conversation ends with everyone understanding what the other meant to say.