Sunday, October 25, 2015

Good Communication, Bad Communication, and Head-Desk-Related Injury

A few days ago I had the joy of listening to a designer and an engineer discuss a minor change to a web page. It went something like this:

Designer: "Ok, I want it just like it was before, but put this part at the top."

Engineer: "Like this?"

Designer: "No, I don't want everything else moved down. Just keep everything else where it was, and put this at the top."

Engineer: "But putting that at the top pushes everything else down."

Designer: "It doesn't need to. Look, just..."

... this went on for about 30 minutes, with steadily increasing frustration on both sides, and steadily increasing thumping noises from my head hitting the desk.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

It turned out that the designer's tools built everything from the bottom of the page up, while the engineer's tools built everything from top down. So from the designer's perspective, "put this at the top" did not require moving anything else. But from the engineer's perspective, "put this at the top" meant everything else had to get pushed down. This revelation did not reduce the pain from thumping my head on the desk.

Whenever people communicate, a certain amount of translation has to happen. We don't all think in exactly the same way, so somebody has to translate from what makes most sense to me into what makes most sense to you, and vice versa. A "good communicator" can handle all of the translation single-handed. They can word things to make sense to anyone, and they can tease out whatever anyone tries to tell them. The best communicators take it a step further and also tease out the things their partners are trying to NOT tell them (often much more fun and interesting than what people are actually saying). A good communicator is the universal remote of human language.

A bad communicator, on the other hand, does not translate anything at all. They can't understand what other people want to say (even though they might THINK they understand), and other people can't always understand them (though again, they might THINK people understand). This underlying problem can produce symptoms which we often think of as communication problems in their own right. The most common is lots of talking and very little listening. A person with poor communication skills will frequently not understand what others try to say, so they avoid the problem by talking themselves. As long as the poor communicator is around better communicators, their partners will shoulder the effort of translating, and some understanding will be achieved. But put two poor communicators together, and it takes 30 minutes to figure out that one is building from the top and the other from the bottom.

Nothing is as frustrating as not understanding. Stick two poor communicators together, and frustration will inevitably result. "Why can't you just put this at the top and keep everything else where it is? Are you being deliberately obtuse? Just stop arguing and do it!!!"... "Why can't you see that that's not how it works? I've explained it five times! Are you just not paying attention?!?!"... Thump. Thump. Thump.

So how do we prevent head-desk-related injuries? There's a lot of answers. At an organizational level, good management and processes can handle this problem. A good manager is always a good communicator. All they need to do is stand behind the designer and the engineer and translate. In more formal hierarchies, the designer and engineer are required to communicate through the manager. If one or both of the designer/engineer are good communicators (or worse, the manager is a bad communicator), then communicating through the manager is useless. But if the designer and engineer are both poor communicators, and the manager is a good communicator, then the problem is solved.

Even absent good management, process can substitute for management. In this particular case, the engineer suggested that all design changes, no matter how minor, had to come in visual form. This creates quite a bit of extra work for the designer, but it means not burning 30 minutes failing to communicate.

Of course, both managerial and process solutions are highly inefficient. They require an extra person, extra work, or both. They don't always generalize well. Ideally, we want people to communicate directly. Most people, most of the time, can communicate reasonably well. They're not the best communicators, but not bad either. Most of us aren't universal good communicators, but we learn to communicate with those around us.

Feel free to leave good communication advice in the comments. Better yet, leave cryptic advice in the comments and let everyone else try to figure out what you meant.

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