Generally, I think I communicate pretty well: At Cambridge, I was consistently surprised that I got better marks for my presentations than for my writing. I suppose that I could even score converational effectiveness by whether I understand what (and why) people are saying and feeling, and whether I can express my thoughts and feelings clearly in return. There might be Turing tests to pass: can I sustain a conversation, tell a story, understand a lecture or a play. I’m pretty sure I’d do okay no matter what metric is used.
Yet, the real world doesn’t always agree. Yesterday, I was in a grant review for research project funding: two hours of friendly, but intellectually intense, back and forth with a very capable reviewer. For some questions, I saw the point immediately and exchanged the necessary information with minimal fuss. But other times, we would wander back and forth around the point before finally she’d suddenly exclam “That’s all I needed to hear!” And then I’d feel a bit chagrined because I thought we were talking about a different issue enti.
The five hour plane / train ride back to the Netherlands was a good chance to reflect a bit on the experience, and on why this might happen. I cataloged at least five mental habits that are important to my thinking, but probably are deadly in conversation.
- Active listening. When people say interesting things, they triggers insights that I want to follow. But when my mind wanders off along that thread, I miss the rest of the point. To avoid having my attention drift, I’ve learned to write down a word or two as reminder, then to drop the thought and refocus on the conversation.
- Slow Glass. There was a story by Bob Shaw, “”Light of Other Days“, based on the creation of windows that took years to transmit light from one side to the other. Sometimes my mind runs the same way: my subconscious chews on a conversation overnight before it pokes up a good response. This leads to punctuated conversations that pick up with “remember yesterday when we discussed….” I dont’ have a good solution for that yet.
- Assembling the pieces. Some people who made decisions by chance, others by deductive logic, and still others who steer by intuition. Intuitive sorts shuffle and organize sets of seemingly unrelated observations and knowledge until the answer emerges. And, until that ‘A-Ha’ moment, they seem to be wandering and playing without giving a clear answer. I find myself doing this a lot: the solution is not to do it out loud, and not to indulge the habit while missing the simpler underlying question. It happened in the review: the question was “What is your intellectual property position?” I thought out loud, summarized existing patents, an abandoned one, the new one that their attorney found, noted that we still had freedom to operate… that’s the point where the examiner said “That’s all I needed to hear!”. Stupidly, I was still driving towards defining the whole landscape.
- Telling the story. A question or situation sometimes reminds me of a similar circumstance that illuminates the dilemma and suggests a solution. Believing that people solve problems by sharing stories, I’ll tell mine. This irritates all sort of people who don’t want to wander off topic: I’ve learned to preface it with a word of reassurance that it’s relevant and to keep it short.
- Fine lines. Directness can simply be rude; indifference can be mistaken for trust. We interpret people as being wrong when they are only different, as lacking competence when they only lack confidence. It’s easy to step across the myriad separators that prejudice how we hear what people say and how we respond to them. I try to recognize when I’m getting doubtful or frustrated and reset my assumptions to give the conversation another chance.
I remember a Lilly VP who would ask everyone “Who calls you during the day and why?”, and another Fortune 500 executive who would lead with “Why are we having this conversation?” I suppose that just seizing the conversation and framing tightly enough can make communication more efficient, but I don’t think it makes it more effective. Instead, I try to take account of differences in how we all think, and then I find I can adapt to the pace and trajectory of conversation to get better communication, maybe better uunderstanding..