Sunday, June 19, 2011

Potholes on the Road to Clear Communication

This past weekend I've been at the national cohousing conference in DC, and one of the breakout sessions I facilitated was on the topic of communication. As I reflected beforehand about where I saw the pitfalls in this arena, I was surprised that I could name so many…

There are a bewildering array of options about how to communicate these days, and it's only getting worse. Here's a pass at some of the more common choices:

—Face-to-face Conversation
o group meetings
o over meals
o one on one
o structured, facilitated dialog

—Electronic Media
o email
o listserves
o Google documents
o wiki
o instant messaging
o texting
o Facebook
o Twitter
o other social networking
o phone
o skype

Physical Writing
o bulletin boards
o minutes
o handwritten notes
o internal mailbox letters (pages stuffed into your cubby)
o postal letters

(I'm leaving out semaphores, seances, smoke signals, and ouija boards.)

The larger your group, the greater the probability that everyone won't agree on a single channel of communication that everyone is expected to use, and there will be tension between ease and inclusivity. The dominant mode of group communication in most intentional communities today is email (in some form), yet even there it's hardly unusual to have a few folks who plain don't like it and may not even own a computer. While the group doesn't want to leave anyone behind and doesn't want to ram something down anyone throat, it can be frustrating making sure that copies of all electronic communication are printed out and distributed to the Luddites.

If you develop the notion that only "important" communications need to be printed out, who decides where the boundary is (or what's important enough from the perspective of computerless member)?
At some point it gets sufficiently complicated that people will start choosing to not communicate about a thing at all, because the benefit of letting folks know has been overtaken by anxiety over the possibility of being accused of not reaching out to everyone equally and it's safer to tell no one! Not good.

Almost everyone will agree that communication should be done respectfully… but what does that mean? One person's respect may emphasize directness and honesty; another may prefer kindness and appreciation. It doesn't take too much imagination to see how two people operating from different ends of that spectrum are on a collision course. And this is where people are trying to be respectful.

How the Message Defines the Medium
To what extent does the choice of the medium depend on the nature of what you want to communicate? For example, it's generally a terrible idea to give someone critical feedback via email (unless you have a very solid relationship with that person). Going the other way, it's typically a poor use of group meeting time to read reports (it's great to discuss issues in meetings, but mere reports are better handled on listserves or bulletin boards). Some people prefer that delicate conversations occur one-on-one; others feel safer in a group.

How the Medium Defines the Message
Over the years I've observed that many people preferentially respond to communications based on the medium, rather than the message. That is, if they are comfortable with email, they might open and respond to those messages first, independently of whether a phone call or bulletin board message was more urgent. If you know this to be the case with someone you want to communicate with, it's smart to take into account not just how you like to send messages, you need to think about the receiver's preferences as well.

Transparency vs Discretion
In most cooperative groups there's high standard of disclosure and letting everyone know what's going on. This leads to a value of transparency in operations. Having said that, there are still matters in members' personal lives that are private. When private actions have an impact on the group, is there a way to talk about it that doesn't come across as indiscreet?

What's more, this issue comes in different flavors. In addition to how group members handle this, what, if anything, is appropriate to share with prospective members, with family and friends, or with the wider public? When does a commitment to transparency become an excuse to gossip? It gets tricky.

Courtesy vs Authenticity
In general, cooperative groups intend that members be both civil and real, yet these two values in comportment don't always lead to the same conclusion. If someone is angry and expresses it passionately, this may come across as eminently authentic and extremely discourteous at the same time. Now what?

Clarity versus Authorship
I've witnessed moments where one member argued that it's better to allow something they've written about the group for public consumption to stand, even though another member has suggested rewording that everyone agrees is clearer. The person defending the original version felt it was important that other voices by heard and the benefit of plurality and diversity trumped clarity. What do you say to that?

• • •
I want to impress upon you that no one needs to be wrong or pigheaded in order to fall into any of the pitfalls illuminated above. Ironically, the best way I know to successfully negotiate this morass of communication pitfalls is to figure out ways to talk about talking—before you're in the pit.

1 comment:

Elke said...

Hi Laird,
I've been noticing how some of your blogs relate to teaching ESL. This entry could be used as a lesson on so many levels - forms of communication, cultural awareness, idioms, and metaphors, just off the top of my head.