Monday, August 12, 2013

Communication Hacks 3 [Lucy Freedman]

Much as we may love what we are working on, our effectiveness depends on how well we communicate about it.

This is the third in a series about ten “syntax errors” and hacks that will fix them. The errors are based on the understanding that human communication has a syntax, or structure, which determines the quality of the outcomes. SYNTAX is a system that can be used to debug interpersonal communication.

Each short blurb in this series includes something specific you can do to cut through the chaos whenever you encounter that particular Syntax Error.

Ten Syntax Errors

Error No. 3 Assuming Others Think As You Think, or Know What You Know (Or Ought To!)
"But I thought you meant...."
"Everyone knows..."
"You shouldn't feel that way. You should feel..."
"Of course we'll take care of it. Why do you have to ask?"
"They know how to get there."

Later, we find out it ain't necessarily so.

Probably within the past 24 hours every one reading this has experienced at least one assumption being made without being checked out.

So, if our assumption didn't actually come from the other person, where did it come from? It came from what we call our "map." It came from our own experience, not from theirs.

In engineering environments, this error has its special manifestations. Generally, engineers do not assume that others think as they think, when the others are non-engineers. In fact, they may just assume that few other people think this way and that most people are rather illogical. The world would no doubt be a better place with more people trained to think and analyze, with metrics and data. So it seems.

As soon as you find out someone has a similar background, the Syntax Error of assuming they think similarly is reactivated. The tendency to forget to verify, or to overlook the questions that should be asked, or to skip steps in an explanation, is more prevalent when we share the same acronyms.

Engineering teams are certainly as subject to group-think as other teams. Remember the big 1999 Lockheed Martin screw-up of not realizing that some measurements were metric and some were English, causing the loss of a Mars space orbiter, to the tune of about $125 million.

Most assumptions don’t have that size payload, yet they cause erosion in our efficiency, effectiveness, and working relationships every day.  It’s worth reminding yourself to double-check.  Whenever you find yourself thinking, "Of course they think / feel as I do or as I expect them to," think again. If you could correct this error in daily scrum meetings when you are using an Agile development approach, wow, it would help avoid a lot of potholes.  

Remember that no thinks exactly the same way or has the same knowledge as anyone else. It keeps the world interesting! If we didn’t have differences, it’s said that we wouldn’t need each one of us. For teams to collaborate, we need to hear those differences and allow new possibilities to emerge from them.

The weird thing is that we rarely realize that we are assuming, so making it conscious and having a choice is the big step.

The communication hack that corrects this error of making assumptions is to have multiple ways to inquire and check in with other people, and to do so often. For example, saying back what you heard can frequently reveal divergence from what the person thought they said or intended to say. Actually listing assumptions is a good technique to use when setting up a new project. Using diagrams to back up verbal discussions also reduces groupthink.

It's usually informative and delightful to find out about the other person's unique viewpoint. Often, what they are thinking is much more positive or helpful than what we had assumed! Any tension that arises can be channeled into creating new options.

Today, and as often as you think about it, verify what you thought you heard, ask that further probing question, open your mind to what is really coming from the other person, and run team decisions through a follow-up protocol such as an action list to make sure you and others really are on the same page.

Lucy Freedman is the president of Syntax Communication Modeling Corporation, co-author of Smart Work: The SYNTAX Guide to Influence and developer of the Syntax Influence Course

For more on how SYNTAX enables teams to get more done, visit  You can hear about all ten SYNTAX Errors in ten ten-minute programs recently offered as a teleseries – “More Success with Less Effort in 10 Minutes a Day,” now available as a set of ten mp3 recordings. Email for ordering information.

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