On Communicating

“A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight.”
     The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck.

That may be the challenge of our lives, having others understand what we tell them. Regrettably, we assume that what we say is understood — always. I recall seeing this phrase recently on a T-shirt:

     “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”

Obviously, the problem is well known at all levels, yet we continue to complain when our words are not understood as spoken/written. Years ago, when I was new to supervising others, I was taught to ask the subordinate to paraphase what had I asked to be done. That seemed like a guarantee; repeating my request using their own words sounded like the perfect solution. Not to be. Communications continued to have the same failure rate. Next, I added a second layer: respond in writing on what was to be done. Now, with an audit trail, success seemed obvious. Minor improvement, but no success. In this process I was discovering John Steinbeck’s words: “Some pick out parts and reject the rest…” Even after paraphrasing or writing their understanding, people unconsciously revisit their commitments and their perception on what had transpired in the communication.

That flaw (?) rests also with me. I can recall, when doing a task requested of me, that there were times when what I was doing seemed to not be achieving what was intended, causing me to change my understanding and also the task. Was this my failure to understand? Or was the objective not explained, only the task? Changing my understanding on this and similar issues is a trait of mine for which I offer no excuse. Although I may agree fully with you today, there is always the possibility that I will later encounter new information and, by tomorrow, I may fully disagree with what I had yesterday believed to be true. Yes, I understood you and agreed with you, but that was then. What I believe to be true is always subject to change. This trait I keep in mind when I hear the news media accusing politicians to have stated opinions contrary to what they had stated years earlier. The implication is that the subject politicians are “flip-flopping”; I like to believe that they are now wiser on the topic. I could be wrong.