Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Understanding through Conversation

Today's post is about the importance of having conversations in the workplace. The inspiration of these marginalia comes from Bill Quirke's book titled “Making the Connections. Using Internal Communications to Turn Strategy into Action” and in particular, the sixth chapter of the book, “Engaging Employees Face-to-Face”.

The author's words send powerful messages about the remarkable importance of conversing.

The below marginalia are extracted from the chapter mentioned above:

Conversation is important not simply because it creates understanding, but also because it creates value...People prompt each other to think, build on each other's ideas and, together, discover new ways of doing things which alone they would have missed.

The moment of truth for communication is in conversation...What organisations want from their communication is an unbroken chain of shared meaning.

While the classic cascade passes information from level to level, what organisations actually need are much stronger links between information and its implications...
Information makes sense in context. Without the same context, it does't make the same sense.

Because words take their meaning from the context in which they are used, and because the context is created by each one of us making our own interpretation, there is always the possibility of misunderstanding.

People expect us to make sense of what they say even when they do not say it clearly or precisely. They assume we already have enough background knowledge to understand much more than they actually say. Nor do people expect to be asked what they mean, even if those who hear them do not precisely understand. When we ask people to be more precise about what they are saying, they can become annoyed and defensive, partly because the request implies that they are not expressing themselves clearly. Questions can be perceived as reflecting badly on the speaker.

However, we cannot use one-way communication to tell people what to do or what we think and want, and expect them to understand. One-way communication does not allow us to discover whether there is a shared context for understanding. Unless there is opportunity for conversation, we have no way of checking.

Conversation and shared context make understanding each other possible. Conversation turn information into understanding.
And when clear communication is important, we cannot afford to assume that we share a context.

So, questions are necessary to check understanding and any situation in which we are discouraged from asking questions risks create misunderstanding.

...In business, we are routinely discouraged from asking questions or limited by the organisation's culture as to the questions we can comfortably ask. Coupled with that, there is a cultural reluctance to speak up.

...More insidious is the fact that asking questions can be difficult simply because people think language is basically clear and unambiguous and expect us to understand them the first time. We also believe that asking questions exposes some failing in the speaker or the listener...if we ask questions, it is our fault for not listening properly or, worse, we are implying that the speaker was not clear.

Misunderstanding between people is normal and highly likely because talk is routinely vague and ambiguous, and you cannot eliminate that inbuilt ambiguity of language. You reduce the problem of misunderstanding through conversation and checking on feedback.

I believe it is important to pose and reflect on the author's words.
In many organisations, there seem to be not enough time or appreciation for internal dialogue. However, as Bill Quirke suggests, it is very likely that this tendency will create opportunities for misunderstanding.

Therefore, in our workplace, it should be given more focus on encouraging quality conversation, engaging in dialogue and removing the barriers to interaction for a better chance of turning information into meaning, creating understanding and value for people.

What employees say engages them is a chance to talk, feeling safe to speak, feeling that you are being listened to and the exchange of ideas. (Bill Quirke)