Communication is what the listener does

One of the most insightful and challenging things my boss has ever told me was: Communication is what the listener does

Think about the ramifications of that statement:

  • Another developer didn’t understand your architecture proposal – It’s on you
  • No one bothered to reply to your code review – It’s on you
  • You try to convince your team that a new library will make your jobs easier – It’s on you

Successful communication is all up to you.

Here’s the basic communications diagram they teach every journalism student, ever:

communication (2)

With the responsibility of successful communication squarely on the the stick figure to the left, what might she do to make sure the listener does what she was hoping for?

  1. Tailor the message to suit the listener. How do they like to be communicated to? The sky’s the limit when it comes to their preferences: in person, via text, audio, slidedeck, interactive game, with data, grounded in values, all of the above, and more.
  2. Account for interference. It can be technical interference like a bad video connection or too much background noise on a conference call. It could be on you.  Maybe you get really defensive about this subject so that gets bundled in along with your message. It could be on the listener’s end. They might not be in a good mood because of something at home, with a friend, or their pet.
  3. Pay attention to feedback. Is the person tuning out? Are they on the edge of their seat? Are they telling you they understand what you’re trying to say, but they don’t agree and “here’s why.”
  4. Remember that feedback comes with its own interference. Pay special attention to the interference you bring to the feedback. Maybe you don’t like to be interrupted but the listener is doing it anyway, that doesn’t make their feedback any less valid. Maybe you were so excited about your idea, you weren’t at the point yet where you could take any feedback. That doesn’t make the feedback any less valid either!

How many of us when confronted with an unsuccessful communication attempt, fall into one of these or other mental traps:

  • My idea was so good, they’re clearly not smart enough to understand it
  • I told them this was a problem, they didn’t listen, so it’s on them
  • I spent 4 hours diagramming the whole thing, why couldn’t they follow my instructions!
  • It’s patently obvious why this is a good idea, why won’t my boss approve it!

If you do, and you don’t remember that communication is what the listener does, then don’t be surprised if you’re continually unhappy with the results.

About Chris

Python developer, Agile practitioner trying desperately not to be a pointy haired boss.
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