Finding Common Ground

Finding Common GroundSometimes the hardest part of facilitating communications is people recognizing that that they need the facilitation. Communications is such an all-encompassing term.  We all communicate, in fact, we’re engineered for it.  Everything about us is geared towards getting our message out.  The way we use our hands, the shape of our vocal chords, even our eyes. We gave up a useful protective camouflage by having so much of our eyes be white and we did it for the sole purpose of better communication.

With so much focussed on enhancing our capacity to communicate, it’s not surprising that we would struggle with the concept of a professional communicator, after all, isn’t it an inherent human trait? Yes and no. Yes, we are geared to express ourselves, but we are geared to express ourselves best inside our own tribe.

Finding Common Ground in Communications - Schramm's ModelThink of a group of chemists having a wonderful conversation on the molecular structure of various substances. They could have a heated debate or energetic agreement, but it’s unlikely that the average person could join in  or even follow the exchange. The language would be specific to their field of interest and particular knowledge. Seems obvious enough, but often when it comes to organizational communications, or even person to person communications the deliverer of the message takes for granted that all listeners will understand what is being said. Wilbur Shramm put it simply and said that for understanding to take place between the source (sender) of the message and the destination (recipient), they must have something in common. Communicators work to identify and develop that common ground.

In my work as a liaison between organizations it became very clear how easy it was to misinterpret messages.  Let me give you an example, a national organization set out to build closer ties with its provincial counterparts. In an effort to express their desire to enhance relations, they decided to give a gift or peace offering to several provincial organizations. Nova Scotia said thanks, Ontario didn’t respond and Alberta got angry. What happened?

Traditionally the organization I represented would speculate on the reasons for the various responses, determine what they thought the problem might be and then decide not to offer a similar gift again. However as I was tasked with building the relationships, I opted to visit Alberta. Why speculate about the answer when I could just ask them what was going on? By meeting them in person I would be able to not just hear them but see what their body’s had to say.

I flew to Edmonton and met with the CEO and second in command to ask them, why the gift had upset them. Imagine my surprise when they explained that they would not tolerate attempts to restrict or in any other way control them. Since the peace offering came in the form of a free publication that could be altered to reflect the needs of the user, I was flabbergasted and asked them to explain further. Through discussion it was eventually revealed that the sample we had sent had images that were inconsistent with local activities…I said we could change the images to whatever they thought would suite. They said the literary content was out of date with the local practices.   I said they could change the content to reflect local objectives. “But, that would cost a lot of money if you did that for all of us!” exclaimed the disbelieving executive.

“That’s why it’s a gift.” I said. After an awkward silence we started laughing. I asked why they thought we would not change the content or images when we had offered to do so from the start.  It turns out that historically there had been a somewhat patriarchal relationship between the two organizations and although the people had changed, the nature of the relationship had not. Over time, the provincial organization had grown to resent the national body and felt they didn’t understand their needs. There was also an expectation of disagreement on both sides. The national organization expected the provincial organization to reject anything they said or suggested, so didn’t spend much time investigating the reasons.  The dance pattern had been set and the dance partners chosen.  No one veered from the pattern or suggested a change in music. Since there was a tacit understanding on what to expect, at every encounter the assumptions would grow until the estrangement was so loaded that even a peace offering could be interpreted as a threat.

What communicators do is work to understand the perceptions of the source and the destination and make sure that the signal or message is delivered in an environment of mutual understanding.  In order to do that effectively we have to be able to step into everyone’s shoes, even if just for a moment and see the world from their perspective. This is why market research and environmental scans are such an essential part of developing how messages are delivered.

Have you ever had to put yourself in someone else’s place? Did you learn from the process? Have you ever had your message completely misinterpreted?

About Debra Yearwood

Experienced communications and public relations executive who manages challenges with an eye on outcomes and a sense of humour. Learn more about how I think at https://commstorm.com/ Learn more about my experience at ca.linkedin.com/in/debrayearwood/
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20 Responses to Finding Common Ground

  1. becc03 says:

    Many times have I been misinterpreted. Mainly through the written word. When email was first introduced, i just expected people to read it the way I would have said it. It became quite clear very quickly that this was not the case.

    • It’s amazing how much is heard through written language versus how much is actually said. I see arguments break out over e-mail on a regular basis and generally it’s not a question of disagreement but misinterpretation.

  2. mk slagel says:

    I took a class in college that was very much centered on this very idea. While you are writing about communications with in corporations, you can also pull from the content communications across cultures. That is the class I took: intercultural communications. It wasn’t just about citizens of one country interacting with another, but about communications across all subcultures: older generations and young, East and West Coast, Sexuality, Job titles. It was very interesting and in the process I learned a lot about the way I communicate too.

    • Sounds like an excellent course. I wouldn’t mind taking a reminder course like that now.

      I taught a sociology course a few years ago for aspiring police officers. On the first day of the course I presented them with a bunch of scenarios and asked them how they should respond. In one instance, I had them responding to a domestic call and upon entering the home the woman looked at them, screamed and fled the room. What should they do, was she going for a weapon, trying to get away? What clues did they have? In the end she was running for her hijab, her response was an innocent one to being caught uncovered. It was a great way to start the conversation around differences and the importance of understanding the different cultures and communities they would encounter.

  3. Arleen says:

    Debra- I think it is interesting when we put ourselves in someone’s shoes other than your own our perception is very different. As you know I sell promotional products that people put their logos on. During the process of getting the item imprinted the customers will constantly call to find out what is going on. We try to keep them informed every step of the way and still wonder why they are so anxious. After putting myself in their shoes, wow did I have a revelation. I ordered glasses for my son’s boat and it was for a special occasion. Of course it didn’t help that I was out of the country at the time. Wanted to make sure that the logo was going to printed correctly. I drove my office nuts wanting to know what was going on. When I got the glasses finally arrived and I was with my son when we opened them, I felt like a little kid seeing my son’s logo. After that experience I now have understanding the pressures of waiting that my customers encounter.

    • We can be pretty predictable creatures. 🙂 When we decide to brand something it isn’t a passing encounter, that thing becomes OURS. Once that happens we hover and fuss until it’s in our hands. I never get over how excited I am when I order products that we have branded. It could be a piggy bank, a pin or leather portfolio. What’s funny is from the customer’s perspective there is sometimes the impression that once the sale is complete the people doing the branding don’t care. I need to remind myself that its my suppliers product that I’m getting and they are probably pretty excited too. 🙂

  4. Being able to communicate takes a great deal of knowing who your audience is. Even though you are well versed in the discussion topic does not mean that each member of the group is. Being able to have open communication and the freedom to voice questions and concerns is vital.

    • I hear you! The weakest presentations I have ever sat through (or to my horror, delivered) are those where the presenter doesn’t connect to the audience. In a one on one exchange that lack of connection very quickly gets interpreted by the participants as dislike, disregard or disrespect.

  5. Joanne says:

    I always thought the human complex ability to communicate was one of the things that separated us from the other animals – who’d of thought it could also get us into a world of trouble 🙂

  6. Working in a restaurant you come face to face with the world of misunderstanding in communication. Something as simple as the word hi can have so many different meanings depending on who said it and who it was to. From a psychology stand point it is an interesting look into the differences of how men and women communicate.

    • If we could crack the code on the differences between how men and women communicate we’d be millionaires. I know that if I raise something about the house my husband immediately assumes I want him to fix/replace/update etc. immediately. I could just be passing the time. 🙂

  7. Your post brings to mind the importance of beta readers. Writers continually have to put themselves in other people’s shoes, but it’s the test reader that can really make or break a story. I’m often flabbergasted by writers who say they don’t use beta readers for fear the reader won’t understand their vision. Umm, excuse me? Reading is not a passive process. If the reader isn’t getting it, there’s probably something that needs fixed in the way its been written. I truly love it when my critique partners point out that I’m not on my A-game. Often what I want to represent in a draft is not what comes through to the reader at all. Meaning is always an act of negotiation. Period.

    • I laughed out loud at the part about the writers not wanting beta readers because they might not understand their vision. If your objective is to write for yourself, then yes, beta readers would be pointless. 🙂 I laugh, but it’s a pretty persistent communications problem, people who write, present and even try to lead with just themselves in mind.

  8. To presume and assume on either side can be fraught with dangers and challenges. I could see that happening as you laid out the relationships. the fact that you took the time seek out the answer, I am sure, went a long way in bridging the misunderstanding. As an executive I witnessed and was part of misperceptions hat happened pretty regularly. Reaching out to find out when a reaction happened, often helped to dispel many of the issues. Just my thoughts. 🙂

    • Susan we did forge some pretty strong relationships after the first few awkward months. I spent a lot of time on the road listening to stories. There was a ridiculous amount of common ground, but everyone was focussing on the stuff that they didn’t have in common.

  9. This is a perfect example of how we view things through our own individual lens and background experiences. Unless you know about these things, it can be almost impossible to effectively communicate.

    • Our personal experiences colour everything we do. We can’t always know everything about the people we interact with but we can at least attempt to get handle on their big picture perspective. Without that insight we’re just taking guesses in the dark.

  10. You neatly sum up the danger of presuming why something happens.

    All human beings have a different perception of life. The only way of finding out why they react in a certain way is to ask. If not, we will almost certainly misunderstand. Agree with you, sometimes they say something that makes me flabbergasted:-)

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