1.1 What's It Like Out There?

In this next chapter we’ll be looking at what communication is like in the real world. The section is organised into seven topics.

a. Education — early years

If parents had one ability they could magically impart to their children, they would do very well to wish them the ability to communicate well with their fellow human beings. For in doing so, they would bestow upon them a key ingredient for a happy marriage, deep and lasting friendships, and satisfying work relationships.

So let’s begin our survey of the situation today by looking at a snapshot of the UK’s generation of 4 and 5 year olds.

How are they doing? Not too good is the short answer. Good communication seems more like a forgotten life skill than a fundamental one.

Assume you are a reception teacher in a primary school getting to know your new intake of pupils. If you work in a typical school, you may well discover that as many as half the children have a communication or language problem that’s significant enough to prevent them from beginning their primary education properly. Even allowing for an increase in pupils for whom English is a second language, this is a shocking figure. But this is what studies are showing. According to research carried out by I CAN, one of the UK’s leading charities in the field of speech therapy and language development, up to half the children arriving at primary school today are unable to begin their primary education because their have significantly underdeveloped speaking and listening skills. They are poor at understanding others. They are poor at making themselves understood. They are poor at basic conversational skills, like taking turns and keeping their emotions under control.

There’s no shortage of factors to blame. Too much time in front of a screen (television, computer, or games machine), too little time interacting with other human beings, over-worked parents with too little time for play, over-use of dummies, the death of family mealtimes, the growth of single parents families, limited opportunities for play with other children in the neighbourhood, forward-facing pushchairs, the decline of bedtime reading, the dearth of positive role models in a society hooked on celebrity … and so on.

b. Education — Later years

What’s the situation like at the other end of the education system? Are our schools and universities doing any better?

Again, the short answer is no.

Universities say that far too many students are arriving for their first year’s study with underdeveloped verbal communication skills. They are unable to communicate their ideas clearly. Few seem to know how to engage in a cognitively-challenging dialogue — an essential method of study at this level.

Further down the line, companies are complaining about the same deficit. Study after study report that an unacceptably high percentage of college and university graduates has poor all-round communication abilities. This means that they aren’t ‘job-ready’ — much to the annoyance of employers.

With demand outstripping supply, being a good communicator gives you a very strong hand to play in the careers game. In a study carried out by the BT Education Programme, researchers analysed 800 recruitment advertisements, aimed at university and college graduates in September 2005. The analysis showed that most employers rated a good set of interpersonal communication skills more highly than the grade of a degree, or even having a degree at all. (Of course, the best combination is to have both!) Being a good communicator was specifically mentioned in 78% of all ads, way more than any other quality or qualification.

There are signs of change. In 2003, the UK government introduced a detailed ‘speaking and listening’ curriculum into the primary school system. This has since been updated and given even more emphasis. Many teachers have welcomed the move, though the take-up overall has been patchy. This is not surprising, given how little training teachers are given in the subject. In 2007, after a great deal of consultation, the government announced its intention to place a much greater emphasis on spoken communication within the secondary school system.

Slowly, perhaps, the wheels of change are turning.

c. The cost of communication breakdown

Let’s continue our survey of what it’s like ‘out there’ by taking a deeper look into the damage caused to individual lives and whole societies by poor two-way communication.

In human interactions, the following formula is repeated thousands of times every day:

Ineffective communication x poorly-managed emotions x narrow self-interest gives rise to Personal misery + Social disruption + Financial waste

These costs were illustrated dramatically in a study entitled The Cost of Communication Breakdown (1995) led by Janet Walker and sponsored by BT plc. The study details how billions of pounds are wasted every year because of such things as divorce, family breakdown, community disputes, and bungled communication in the workplace. Is Britain worse off than other countries? Hardly. Indeed, if the study had been done in the United States, the results would have been the same.

Failed communication takes its toll in each and every social setting of life - marriage, family, friendship, school, the workplace, the community, religious institutions, government, and the community of nations. Moreover, while the financial costs of failed communication are mind-boggling, how do we put a cost on the psychological and social costs such as loneliness, disrupted marriages, confused children, alienated friends, poor quality of work life, and unresolved community conflicts?

While the costs of failed communication are high, lost-opportunity costs - that which could have been achieved through effective communication - are probably even higher. One of the main points made back in the 1960s by Abraham Maslow, a major advocate for the development of our full human potential, centered around lost-opportunity costs.

Human beings tend to use only a fraction of their potential in living out their lives. Given the large number of missed opportunities in human development, he redefined the term ‘normal’. "What we call ‘normal’ in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so dramatic and so widely spread that we don't even notice it ordinarily."

People also tend to use only a fraction of their interpersonal communication capacity. Even worse, many people often use communication against themselves. That is, the way they communicate with others often lessens rather than improves the overall quality of their relationships. When it comes to quality of communication, many people have low standards. The criterion seems to be ‘good enough’ communication, not communication that is demanding and creative.

d. Misunderstanding — The ever-present enemy of good communication

If the world is short on effective communication, it’s long on misunderstanding. Richard Heyman, in his book, Why Didn't You Say That in the First Place? claims that misunderstanding is the norm, rather than an aberration, in conversational life. If this is the case, conversational partners have their work cut out for them.

Forewarned is forearmed, they say. Perhaps the military connotations of this adage are not appropriate for conversations, but its spirit is. Maybe the homely proverb, "A stitch in time saves nine," is a better one. There are many enemies of effective conversation. We will run across a number of them as we explore what makes conversations productive and satisfying. One enemy is the frequency of misunderstanding. This has nothing to do with deception or ill will. It's just one of those unfortunate facts of life. Let's take a look at an example.

Francine tells Hugh that she won't be able to go to the hen night for their mutual friend, Deborah, because her new boss is sending her on an important work assignment out of town. She regrets not being able to go, but that's just the way things are.

After saying to himself, "Oh, no! She's not going," Hugh listens to her somewhat distractedly. Later in the week, Hugh talks to Carl. Carl belongs to the same group of friends. During the conversation Hugh mentions that Francine has found "a way out of" going to the hen night, "or something like that." Since he didn't listen to Francine very well in the first place and began making unwarranted assumptions, what he says to Carl is off course. Carl later talks to Deborah, mentions his surprise that Francine is not coming, and wonders out loud about her ‘attitude’. Misunderstanding from beginning to end.

When people talk with one another, which is the norm — full mutual understanding or a fair amount of misunderstanding? Unfortunately, studies show the latter to be the case. The players in the drama revolving around Francine's ‘attitude’ are not evil people, but they have allowed themselves to become both victims and perpetrators of misunderstanding.

One of the reasons for misunderstanding is the imprecision of language. Words and phrases can mean many things. Context often gives meaning to words. Therefore, if, as Heyman says, conversational partners don't share the same context, they can easily talk at cross-purposes. Furthermore, people differ in many ways - age, sex, education, economic class, lifestyle, experience, and so forth. These differences contribute to misunderstanding. Context is not shared.

Aaron and his grandfather Jake talk easily about their passion, football. Their discussions are both informative and entertaining. They share a context. However, when their conversations touch on such issues as marriage and the world of work, they are often at odds. Aaron has been brought up in a much more freewheeling society than his grandfather. They don't share the same context. Misunderstanding seems to be the norm.

Some writers have come up with a framework that explains at least some kinds of misunderstanding in conversations. Chris Argyris has written extensively on the ‘defensive routines’ that limit learning and contaminate relationships. He calls one learning-limiting process the ‘ladder of inference’. Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard, in their book Dialogue discuss how this ‘ladder’ leads, not only to misunderstanding, but to somewhat stupid behaviour.

‘Ladder’ is not the best metaphor to use. After all, ladders are useful and they connote some kind of ascent. Rather, let's call this communication-corrupting process, ‘The slippery slope into the mire of misunderstanding’.

Let's see an example of the slippery slope. The case below centers around a reunion of the Baxter family at the family homestead. Harry Baxter and his wife, Lisa, have lived in the same house for forty years. They have four grown children; Mike, Martin, Sandra, and Douglas. All but Doug, the youngest, are married and have children. The steps in the ‘Ladder of Inference’ go something like this:

Experience some incident. Doug, in a new job and the only sibling who lives out of the neighbourhood, calls his parents and says that he just can't get to the reunion. In conversations with the three other children, the Baxters mention that Doug is very sorry that he won't be there.

Give your own personal spin to what you observe. Some of Doug's siblings think that not coming is totally unacceptable. Sandra, in talking with her husband, says that Doug is the ‘mysterious’ one and that he doesn't want to come to the reunion. The spin begins.

Pollute the air with assumptions. Martin, talking with his wife, suggests that Doug doesn't want to come to the reunion because of his single lifestyle. "He's fancy free and can't be bothered with the rest of us." Assumption-making at its worst.

Draw unwarranted conclusions. Sandra notes that, "Doug has something to hide. He doesn't want us to know about his private life because he knows we wouldn't approve."

Base your actions on the mess you've created. Sandra calls Doug and angrily tells him how he is "letting the family down." Martin decides to "scratch Doug off his list."

Mike, on the other hand, avoids the ‘slippery slope’. He is sorry that Doug won't be there. He calls Doug and tells him so and they chat about how demanding Doug's new job is. Doug wants to go, but the date chosen has become impossible because his new boss put him on a key project that will take him out of town. During the family reunion Mike asks the others, "Why all the fuss about Doug?" and he tries to set the record straight.

e. Technology is not the answer. It may even be part of the problem

It’s true what the telecommunications companies tell us — it’s easier and cheaper to get in touch with people than ever before. But do we communicate better as a result?

Over the past 15 years, there has been an immense explosion in the quantity of communication in the world. E-mails and text messages have done far more than replace letters and memos. They have multiplied the number of words exchanged between people by a huge factor. But, as we’ve seen, it seems to have done little to improve the quality of communication. In fact, it may even have had the opposite effect.

After all is said and done, what communication technology does is put people in contact with each other. Then we have to talk to get things done. If we don’t know how to communicate well, even the most sophisticated communications technology goes for nought. Technology provides channels for communication and it amplifies what we say but does nothing to influence the effectiveness of communication.

It’s become common to see people at adjacent desks exchanging e-mails rather than talking to each other. This cannot be good news. In a Harvard Business Review article , Edward Hallowell talks about the problems that happen when you substitute electronic for face-to-face communication at work.

First of all, while misunderstanding in face-to-face communication is common, electronic technology often tends to make it worse rather than better. Writer Andrea Petersen has pointed out that "while e-mail has made it easier - not to mention cheaper - to maintain long-distance romances, many couples are finding this new medium can wreak its own peculiar havoc."

Second, many people in work settings claim that they tend to be buried by electronic messages, and this increases their stress.

Over-reliance on voice-mail and e-mail can rob person-to-person communication of its business-enhancing humanity. When this happens …

"… oversensitivity, self-doubt, and even boorishness and abrasive curtness can be observed in the best of people. Productive employees will begin to feel lousy and that, in turn, will lead them to underperform, or to think of looking elsewhere for work. The irony is that this kind of alienation in the workplace derives not from the lack of communication but from a surplus of the wrong kind."

Channels such as voice-mail and e-mail are one-way systems. While this is fine in many situations, many others call for some form of dialogue. Although phones present a channel for dialogue, it’s not dialogue in the fullest sense of the term.

Hallowell calls the full face-to-face conversation ‘the human moment at work’. These moments, he says require people's physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention.

"To make the human moment work, you have to set aside what you're doing, put down the memo you were reading, disengage from your laptop, abandon your daydream, and focus on the person you're with. Usually when you do that, the other person will feel the energy and respond in kind. Together, you quickly create a force field of exceptional power."

As a society, isn’t it strange that we invest billions in communications technology but almost nothing in the human ‘software’ that makes it work?

f. Choosing the right channel for the job

Perhaps it’s time to introduce a new skill to the curriculum. It could be called Choosing The Right Channel. The idea is for young people to learn which is the appropriate means to use — e-mail, face-to-face dialogue, presentation, texting or telephone — depending on circumstances.

At the pinnacle is dialogue. This is human communication at its most effective and efficient.

Think of its advantages. It’s live and two way. It enables people to transmit and receive the full range of verbal and nonverbal signals, from subtle nuances in tone of voice to facial expressions and gestures.

Every other form of interpersonal communication is a degraded version of dialogue. Something is missing. With telephone conversations you lose visual contact and thus miss a lot of nonverbal material. With presentations, the communication is one way, although the presenter does have a wide range of verbal and nonverbal devices (like slides) to play with.

With all written forms of communication, words are much easier to misinterpret - and the communication can only ever be one way. On the other hand, e-mails have the great advantage of being able to be sent anytime, without requiring the receiver to be ‘in’.

In the 21st century, being smart about communication must surely include knowing which channel is best for the job,

Let’s finish with a brief story, which illustrates the pure efficiency of dialogue. A colleague of ours bought some software a couple of years ago and was alarmed to discover that it was only supported by e-mail. There was no telephone helpline. The discovery of a bug led to an exchange of six lengthy e-mails over a period of eight weeks. The problem persisted. Writing each e-mail was a lengthy and energy-draining procedure, since trying to describe computer problems is hard work. Then, suddenly, the company introduced a telephone help line. (About time!) Our colleague sorted out the problem in a single three-minute conversation. The dialogue enabled two minds to focus on the same problem at the same time. Something e-mailing can never do.

g. What’s your own experience like?

Think of all the conversations you have in a typical day.

They might involve people you know well, like friends and members of your family, or colleagues you see every day at work. Or they could be with people you hardly know at all, like the principal of your children's school, or the customer-service representative dealing with your complaint, or the police officer investigating a traffic accident.

Some of these conversations go well. They're enjoyable and lead to a satisfactory conclusion. In short, they work. Others, however, go wrong. Some go round in circles, or finish in a bad tempered argument. Others die before they get going properly.

Pause for a moment and take stock of your own experiences. What’s the balance like in your life in general? Do you have enough of the ‘good’ variety?

Now, narrow the question down. Think of a specific person, someone important to you at home or at work. How many of your conversations together qualify as good?

Think what a difference it would make to your life if you could reduce the number of poor conversations to a minimum and replace them with satisfying and effective dialogues.

That’s what’s on offer if you take the lessons of The TalkWorks Guide to heart.

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