By: Rex M. Holmlin
This month’s theme at projectmanagement.com is “communication & collaboration.” I want to focus here on a crucial part of communication: confirming that we’ve understood the message someone has given us.
The PMBOK® Guide discusses what is called the “Basic Communications Model.” One aspect of this model, also known as the Shannon-Weaver Model, is the responsibility of the receiver to both decode a message and then confirm he or she has understood it.
Here’s a story to illustrate why that model matters.
A few years ago, I was in a project meeting about some stone we were going to purchase from a quarry in Egypt for flooring in an atrium. Stone is typically sourced by a stone broker. Stone brokers know the various quarries and work with everyone involved to select the correct stone from the quarry, get it turned into the proper size of tile and then get it to the project site.
As we wrapped up, I stood up and began to think about my next meeting. At this point, the stone broker came over to me. “You know,” he said, “stone is a natural material.” That’s not something anyone had ever mentioned to me before, but I acknowledged his statement. He seemed pleased, and I went to my next meeting.
A few weeks later, we received a call from Italy where the blocks of stone were being cut and turned into the flooring tiles. We learned that the tiles were crumbling into pieces when they went through the saws.
Fortunately, we had ordered the stone well before it needed to be installed, so there was time to source another block of stone, get it turned into tile and ship it to the project site. But later, as I reflected on this, I thought about the stone broker’s words. When he told me stone is a natural material, he was encoding a message that I’d failed to decode.
The message was that every piece of stone is different. This is one of the qualities that helps make stone beautiful and a key reason we want it in our homes and offices. Unlike steel or glass, stone might have veins of quartz or other imperfections that can cause the stone to crumble when cut.
Keep You Head in the Game
As I thought about it, I realized there were two things I did that contributed to an imperfect communications process. First, as I stood up, I “changed channels.” I was beginning to think about my next meeting. The lesson here is that if you’re in a meeting, be in that meeting. As a coach would say, “keep your head in the game.”
The second thing I did was fail to ask the stone broker to “Say more, please.” He likely would have told me a lot more about stone and the process of turning it into tile. The stone broker was not trying to conceal his meaning; he was being economical and selecting words that were meaningful to him.
This is something we all do. As the receiver of the message, I was the one responsible for confirming I had understood his message.
It may not always be the other party that causes a communication to fail. But it only takes a few seconds to ask someone to say more about the message they are trying to communicate. It also only takes a few seconds for us to confirm we’ve understood it. Sometimes taking the extra step to take these two actions can make a big difference in our projects.