LAST WEEK WAS A CURIOUS ONE. I spent the first half of it training the staff of a large German car manufacturer in the importance of clear communication and detailed information sharing. I spent the second half of it trying to get visas for my two children and got to see first hand how a lack of clarity or detail can bring a man to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
One exercise which we use to emphasise the difference that clarity can make to a conversation is to get trainees to describe a simple sketch to a partner and to see if the partner can produce something similar. This activity always works because people fall into the trap of failing to give sufficient detail. Trainees, and thus the employees of multi-nationals, tend to give out information based on incorrect assumptions on recipient knowledge, or, they base the level of detail given out on what they know rather than what the colleague/ client may need to know.
The simple sketch which the trainees received was drawn on an A4 sheet of paper. It consisted of a small house in the right bottom corner of the page with square windows, pulled back curtains and a door with a letterbox. Three birds flew over three rounded hills in the left background. There were two pine trees on the hills and two tree next to the house which had curvy, cloud-like foliage. Finally, a large sun poured its six straight rays down over the landscape from the top right corner of the paper.
Upon checking the results of the exercise, most trainees’ pictures did indeed contain all of the above objects, but no two pictures were alike, and only one drawing out of ten actually bore a resemblance to the sketch which I had given them.
The reason for this is simple. As we receive information, we form images in our head. If someone tells us that they have had a bad day and that the boss has shouted at them, we imagine a picture of their manager (if we know him/ her) or failing that, a manager who we have known. The image which we conjure up may have little in common with what actually happened. So, when one trainee states that ‘there are two birds in the sky’, we draw what we imagine, rather than what is actually there.
This means that when we write an email to a colleague or client and ask them to send us some information ‘quickly’, we are relying on the fact that their idea of quick matches ours. However, if we ask for them to send the information by 5:00 pm, Thursday the 18th July, we can be pretty sure that we will receive a timely reply. If, as a manager, you tell a subordinate that their report is ‘bad’, then you are at the mercy of what their experience tells them bad means. The chances are that any editing which they do will not reflect the improvements which you wanted to see.
As part of this ‘Cross-Cultural Communication’ seminar, I related a story of an experience which I had many years ago when applying for a visa at the police office in Yong He Gong. Having carefully collected all of the paperwork on the list provided by the office, I was rather surprised, when I handed it over, to hear that I needed more. When I asked why this extra documentation was not on the list, I was told that it was ‘because the paper is not big enough’. I ended the story by telling the trainees that the level of service at the visa centre had improved immeasurably since those dark days. This is absolutely true, but unfortunately when I went there last week, nobody had told the staff there of these vast improvements.
On my first attempt to get visas for Jack and Harry, (my sons age 4 and seven weeks) I was told that all of my papers were in order but that I also needed a copy of my company’s business license. On the next day, when I arrived with the copy of the business license, I was told that I also needed a copy of my partners passport. When I returned with that, I was then told that in actual fact, a copy of the business license was not enough and that I should bring the original. When I asked why the rules kept changing, I was told ‘I am telling you what you need today. It might be different tomorrow!’
As the veins in my neck began to throb, I decided to leave rather than make a huge scene that would more than likely result in my deportation. The next day I did the wise thing and came back with my 7 week old son. This time, the female police officers were so keen to give him a cuddle, they paid much less attention to the papers and the applications went through in double quick time.
This kind of situation (the unclear communication rather than the unethical use of a baby’s cuteness to distract bureaucrats) happens all of the time. Requests for information are made and then when the recipient complies, they are asked for further details. Both time and money would be saved if the initial request was clearer and contained all of the relevant facts.
By taking a few minutes extra and thinking about the needs of the person who you are talking/ writing to, we can save time, money and show the level of respect that our colleagues, clients and customers deserve. Remember, not everyone thinks the same way as you do. Everyone is different and that makes the world an interesting place to live in. However, when we forget to include sufficient details into our messages, then we are more than likely to face challenges which could have been easily avoided.