It is September. Nurseries are back, schools return next week, new students are planning their studies and living independently; and they are all excited and maybe a little fearful. Businesses feel the year starts too as we take on graduates, trainees and apprentices. I love this time of year as we all get serious again but in an enthusiastic way! One of my Godsons was telling me about how he loves all his new pencils and stationery and I think we can all relate to that! New challenges, new places, new people and friends we have not met yet. September is a time of great promise.
So, what am I thinking about?
Communication in all its forms.
It started because in last month’s Thought I mentioned an induction programme. A modern person said, “you mean onboarding”. Well actually I didn’t. I meant induction – a time when the person is at the start of learning about the business (let’s say), the job they are expected to do and everything they need to be able to understand to do it well and feel part of the community. It can take a long time: maybe up to twelve months for a graduate. Onboarding is often a quicker process it seems to me, with an expectation of results within weeks. Now we could argue about this, and we may! The important thing is there are at least two words that describe this process, and they may mean different things.
People outside the business community are often defeated by the strange jargon we use. Someone said to me recently you have to be bilingual if you work in another environment. Seems like a good description.
Then let’s add the technical language of the medical world or the building world or the management world etc. etc.. It gets perplexing.
The little boy who lives next door to me is nearly three. He has an English parent and an Italian parent. He is starting to string sentences together which have words from both languages to communicate what he means. He chooses what he thinks is the best word. We all know this phenomenon. How many words do the Innuits have for snow? It certainly means they can select the right one. In English we have several words for rain: mizzle, drizzle, rain, downpour etc. When I worked with farmers that was not sufficiently descriptive, especially at harvest time and they invented three kinds of rain: wet, wet-wet and wet-wet-wet. They all knew exactly what the words meant.
Now all this is based on the fact people wish to understand each other which is not always true. Some people use language to impress and some use language to hide their ignorance. Any of you who have read the Hornblower novels (by CS Forester) will remember how Midshipman Hornblower learnt to keep his mouth shut rather than open it and illustrate he did not know what he was talking about. It was a technique that served him up to being an admiral.
There is another aspect to this. I call it the Ladder of Understanding. I do not know where I learnt it, but I find it incredibly useful. It takes the form of a story. A little girl is walking with her mum and asks what the black and white thing she sees is _ Daisy says Mum. A few weeks later they are out again, and she sees lots of black and white things and says Daisies – of course these are cows, but she hasn’t learnt plurals yet. Getting older she is out with her farmer Dad and sees a lot of black things – she says cows and he says cattle because these are not the black and white Friesian dairy herd but the black beef Aberdeen Angus herd. By the time the little girl is 16 she is referring to livestock because they have a dairy herd, a beef herd, pigs, sheep, goats and even ostrich. The word covers all animals. At 18 she goes off to Harper Adams University to train to be a farmer and she starts to think of farm assets – not just animals but buildings, machinery, land and so much more like goodwill. Now we hope she will use the right term for the occasion. However, in board meetings I have heard people go too far up the ladder to keep things vague and perhaps avoid a detailed discussion.
All this is just about selecting the right word, but good communication is based on so much more. As we talk we imbue our words with both emotion (how we feel about the topic) and intuition (how we think the decision should go). The person listening to us hears the message in three ways from our words, the tone we use and the body language we demonstrate and all in the context of their own world view..
Is it any wonder communications are often misunderstood? And think about the often catastrophic consequences.
This is just a crash course but there is so much more to effective communication. If you are interested in improving your business communication – because it can always be better, then why not speak with me about the challenges you face. We can work on how to tackle them so you can work more effectively with your work colleagues, suppliers and even the all-important client or customer. I love speaking with people, off the meter, to help them explore possibilities and whether/how to take them forward. I hope you will be one of them.