Joe Marchese

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"What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate."                               - Strother Martin, Cool Hand Luke, 1967

That has to be the ultimate cliché, because it is almost always true.  Communication often defaults to the rumor mill, outsiders, misdirected comments, and other pseudo-reliable sources.  So, not so much as the solution as much as a start in addressing the matter, I began writing a bi-weekly message on a variety of themes.

This movie quote (I constantly make reference to obscure movie quotes, so get used to it!) occurred to me during many recent conversations I’ve had throughout the organization.   There’s a fair amount of insularity that occurs in many companies: among people, teams, practices, clients, management, and especially locations.  I’m not sure it ever could, but the world can’t work that way any more.  Our culture is designed to be entrepreneurial, but sometimes it means that we just don’t know what other folks are doing. Our ability to deliver value in a vacuum is pretty low.

A skill I long ago gave up trying to master was mind reading.  The problem with mind reading is not just the high probability of being wrong.  The worst part is the impact it has on your own thought processes.  We tend to make real any information we take in; hence Mark Twain's warning that a little knowledge can be dangerous.  There are too few facts and too much interpretation in our daily lives. When we fail to openly and freely communicate, each person is left in a conversation with himself.

An old comedian (I'd mention the name, but too few of you would recognize it and then I'd feel old) used to tell a story about a guy in a rental car who gets a flat tire.  Predictably, there's no jack when he looks in the trunk.  He remembers seeing a gas station a few miles back, so he starts walking.  On the way, he plays out the conversation with the service station attendant asking to borrow a jack.  "What if he doesn't have one to spare?  What if he tries to overcharge me?  What if he doesn't have the authority without a manager there?  What if he's just a creep? ..."  By the time he reaches the station, having worked himself into a frenzy, the guy flings open the door, and screams at the astonished attendant, "KEEP YOUR DAMN JACK!!"

Obviously, that's silly.  It's what happens when we substitute speculation, interpretation, and partial facts for open communication.  It's also what we run the risk of having in the organization. We're all guilty, so don't be too tough on yourself.  Or too kind.  If we don't resolve to continuously improve the situation, than we all know what to expect, and it's ugly.

We especially need to work on communications with our customers.  The fastest way to breed ill will is to do a lousy job at this, so pay a lot more attention to training, improving the various channels, etc.  People have a tremendous capacity to be understanding if you let them know what is going on, just by telling them.  When they do not receive information, they all too frequently think the worst.

Which communications medium is the best?  Face-to-face.  Phone.  Voice mail.  IM.  e-mail.  All of them are part of a culture and discipline of communication.  Whatever the medium, the important thing is to open the dialog -- that's the hard part.  But how?  [This is a "Grant's Tomb" question.]  Try asking them.  "What are your expectations?  Do you have the information you need?  What can we do to make our products and services more valuable?"  Most importantly, we must each back up the words with the action. Asking creates the expectation that you intend to do something about it, so you had better.  If your listener thinks that you're just going through the motions, you might as well have saved yourself and your colleague the trouble.  And trouble is what you’ll be left with for having created an unfulfilled expectation.

I have come to the belief that the people and ability that I prize most in an organization are those that get everyone freely talking with each other.  I see the other values that I’ll discuss at a later date as logical extensions of this kind of behavior.

Finally, it is essential to consider that perhaps the most valuable and least appreciated communication skill is listening.  [Effective communications requires a committed speaker and a committed listener – more on that in a future blog.  In the meantime, test yourself in each conversation: am I really listening to the speaker, or to myself interpreting and judging the speaker?]  John deButts, the late CEO of AT&T and the man with the vision that his business was to become a lot more than plain old telephones, was asked if he'd rather talk or listen in a meeting.  "I don't learn anything by talking" was his reply.

I'd love to hear from you on this and other topics of interest.