As far as quotes go, it’s right up there, leading the charge for favourite question during the annual Classic Movie Trivia Night at the local pub: the Captain, a tyrannical prison warden, has just whomped Paul Newman’s Luke over the head for being sarcastic, leaving him collapsed and reeling, and then suggests the problem is this:
Anyone who’s seen Cool Hand Luke – and anyone who hasn’t, maybe even you – knows that what they’ve got there is nothing to do with communication. The communication is fine: that baton over the head conveys everything it needs to convey. No – what they have there is, in actual fact, injustice and hypocrisy. And yet the very same people who all-too-clearly see what the problem is in this scene often do not see that the same applies to them. They think that in business, or at home, communication is the issue, and better communication should be their goal.
Wrong. So wrong.
Communication is not an end goal. Communication is not a destination. Communication is a vehicle.
You don’t need effective communication. What you need is the myriad benefits that communication can bring you.
In my LinkedIn profile I describe myself as, “a communication specialist to people who never think they need help with their communication.” This isn’t just a description of me, but of the people I like to work with. Someone who calls herself a communication specialist likes working with people who don’t think they need help with their communication? Sure. That’s because these people know what the problem is, and how I can help them solve it. Easy.
On the other hand, my most problematic clients (or rather, would-be clients, because they don’t get past my initial interview these days) are the ones who can’t vocalise what terrible problem more effective communication is going to solve for them, or what you-beaut benefits it’s going to give them.
When you understand what the problem is, and how communication can help or solve it, not only is the strategy straightforward, but you can measure the results far more easily, ie. by seeing whether or not the problem is still there. On the other hand, when you don’t really know for what purpose you want this new-and-improved communication, you’re not really satisfied because you don’t know what the end goal is. That, or you’re supremely satisfied, but the problem remains and is chalked up to something else. Waste of time and money.
Knowing what you want, and what the problem is, is vitally important.
People are fond of this quote by Henry Ford:
I myself think that Ford was a nasty piece of work and this quote displays what I think is a typically arrogant attitude. See, when the customer has a problem, they are aware of what they want, even if they’re unsure of how to get it. In Ford’s time, people did know what they wanted: they wanted to get places faster. They may not have known that a motor car was possible – enter a visionary like Ford who did – but they definitely knew what their problem was, and what they wanted.
If you know what the problem is, and you know what you want, better communication can get it for you, or at least help you get it.
On the other hand, if you don’t know what the real problem is, and you don’t have a goal beyond “better communication”, then all the best communication in the world won’t help you.
So let’s talk about a worst-case scenario, in which you or your staff really have lousy communication skills of whatever type, and communication really is a problem: what then? You still need to know what problems these lousy communication skills are causing, and you need to pin them down and make them concrete. What is this communication gap costing in terms of time, or productivity, or profit, or morale? Once you know, you can address it in the best possible way. And if you can’t pin it down, you may need to face some tough truths: many is the team member who has been accused of lacking communication skills, when the real issue wasn’t theirs, but that the boss simply didn’t like them or their style, or perhaps saw them as a troublemaker, or perhaps was mismanaging them.
Far easier then to say, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”, isn’t it?
Failure, yes. But not of communication.
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