Archive for August, 2011

Being misunderstood is one of the most frustrating feelings anyone can experience.  It certainly is true for professional communicators. Yet, it happens almost daily. In fact, I have been known to comment that there is no such thing as a communication expert. There are only people who work at doing it systematically every day.

Experience has taught me that as much as fifty percent of every message  is lost.  A receiver can only process so much information, and selective perception determines which fifty percent is remembered.  Noise interruptions, from technical problems to attention distractions, also make it difficult to process entire messages. Based on this same reality, I argued in a previous blog that people only hear what they want. So what can we do to improve understanding?

I suggest thinking about shaping important message content around seven steps: (1) Get your receivers’ attention before sending any message. (2) Tell them your main purpose up front. (3) Limit your message to a few main points. (4) Give an example or tell a story to substantiate each one. (5) Conclude by summarizing your key points and purpose. (6) Build in the most efficient feedback process you can.  (7) Respond to whatever feedback you get, and resend your message.

The closer communication can become actual dialogue, the more effective it will be.  And, the more distance and noise  (including technology) there is between sender and receiver, the less effective communication will be. In these cases, you must keep your message as simple as possible, and repeat it as often as you can. In the final analysis, we all must anticipate breakdown, and just keep going.  The advantage we professionals  have is that we do it everyday, and therefore are able to continually repeat and reinforce our most critical messages.

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Lesson 73 is that people generally hear what they want to hear, and that contrary arguments actually reinforce already held beliefs. So when setting out to change how people are thinking, what should professional communicators do?

First, know that it will take time, and will often not  be successful. This is why grassroots politics centers around using those who are already on your side to work with those who are already undecided. Minds rarely change, and when they do it’s at the end of a long process. Most of us have come to our opinions as a result of our interactive experiences at work, with friends, with family, and over time.  We tend to think like those with whom we have been interacting on a regular basis. And today we even tend to make media choices that reinforce what we already believe. Thinking differently almost always requires a substantially changed message environment for a sustained period of time.

But if you are still determined to make the effort to persuade, you must begin by raising provocative questions. The more questions I have to confront the more likely I will become confused.  And when I am confused, I will become extremely uncomfortable.  Psychologists call this state “cognitive dissonance.”   In that state, I become psychologically compelled to reconstruct my belief system. It’s the only way I can regain my sense of well-being.

It will take a deluge of new influences to orchestrate this state of cognitive dissonance. It best happens when new thinking people appear in my immediate environment, and new message points assault me from a new set of media sources.  But even then, not all minds will change. Making the effort,  however, is a legitimate form of strategic communication and honest persuasion. 

This process, admittedly, is a form of brainwashing.  But brainwashing as we sometimes find it in militaries and concentration camps is different. It is accompanied by brutal techniques to wear down resistance by producing physical and mental exhaustion. Changes in thinking produced like this almost always disappear later on.

The type of brainwashing we find in politics today is different, but some of it can also be questionable. Many of the consistently repeated message points are untrue or misleading.  And when misleading messages bombard people repeatedly and consistently, are repeated by influencers in the immediate community, and are accompanied with confusion producing questions, the messages can begin to sound true. This is dangerous and irresponsible.

Our responsibility as professional communicators is to use our mind changing processes and tools cautiously, responsibly and honestly. Then, we must make additional efforts to help educate the public about the new realities of the 24/7 polarized world.

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Listening to all of the political rhetoric this week I kept thinking about how often I would tell my undergraduate students over the years about the practical lessons we must learn from communication theory study and research findings. One of the most important lessons is just how selective our perception can be.

One of my favorite examples was to demonstrate that when a committed democrat hears a well crafted speech by a strong republican, the democrat invariably becomes a better democrat.. and vice versa. This is because our natural tendency is to argue in our minds with what we are hearing so as to reinforce what we already believe. Changing our minds rarely happens.  Rather, we end up finding new ways to strengthen our long-held positions.

There was a period of time a number of years ago when several universities ended their debate programs.  Some of the academics felt that communication studies should examine how communication can help solve problems, and that debating mostly ended in polarizing arguments… leading ultimately to communication breakdown.  Today, competitive debate programs have been reinstated in some institutions. But critics will still argue that the most successful debaters are the extreme fast talkers and most polarized thinkers, and that winning the day by taking extreme positions, and making the most noise,  is the wrong lesson to learn.

My experience has led me to think a two-step process is required: First, I suggest that debating is helpful when it is defined upfront as “an exercise” to clarify all the viable positions. When the debate is complete, however, there is another set of collaborative decision-making communication skills necessary for progress to be made. The critical second step, and only way forward, is to use group process facilitation to find the best elements of each position, define an initial step forward, and then make needed adjustments as experience dictates.

Debate, followed by facilitated decision-making, is how the best organizations move ahead. And I believe it is the only constructive way forward for the U.S. political system as well.

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Requests to help plan careers, or evaluate job offers, always give me pause. These situations all have both rational and emotional elements, and often produce periods of total confusion.  A feeling of panic can set in, along with fears of either making a mistake, or missing a great opportunity.

I am reminded of advice I received years ago when trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life:  “Determine where you want to be in five years, young man, and lay out clear steps on how to get there. If you don’t know where you are going, you are not likely to get there.”  I must say now, this approach never worked for me!

My best opportunities were the ones for which I never planned. My advice now is to start down a path that compels your curiosity, and brings you immediate joy and personal satisfaction. Make sure it utilizes and maximizes your inherent best talents.  Work as hard at it as you can, and keep watching for unplanned opportunities. Everything good that happened to me came completely unplanned!

I learned over the years that the only way to make a good job decision is to “play out” the entire process, and resist any strong inclination to make a quick decision. Walk carefully through all the interviews, experience the setting and people you might be joining, take plenty of time to formulate questions, and get thorough answers.

Is your primary motivation to get away from a bad situation, or to find a great opportunity?  Even the best opportunities are never perfect, and so you must carefully identify the new problems you may inherit. Examine the “organizational culture.”  Will you be comfortable applying your talents here? Can you count on having the resources and staff you will need?  What about current morale?   Can you see a clear institutional vision?  How secure is top leadership?  Opportunities for further advancement? Or, is this a stepping stone?  And is this a location where your family will thrive?

I have participated in several search processes where I thought initially I would be accepting an offer.  Then, after meeting people, experiencing the setting, and resisting early commitment, I woke up at home one morning knowing I would not move. I would just be trading problems, and so why do that?

My experience, therefore, suggests that it’s best to choose a career path based on getting to use personal talents, and on what brings happiness on a daily basis. Along the way, look for exciting and unplanned opportunities to crop up.  Play out the search process each time, resisting making early decisions. Be patient, and what to do will gradually become clear.

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