Working together is essential for success. Sure, you could be a person comfortable living alone in the wilderness relying on nothing but a stomach strong enough for a steady diet of bugs and berries, and a knife big enough to hack out a cabin made of twigs (and after last week, that actually sounds kind of nice!). But without a doubt, life is easier when we work with others. And…working with others requires communication.
The communication doesn’t necessarily have to be effective, but that does make it better. What does that mean? Because our world is incredibly complex, we employ mental models to try to make sense of it. These are imperfect mental maps and sets of rules that simplify and filter the vast amounts of information we take in. When we work together, it’s helpful if we are all working from the same map. Effective communication boils down to how good we are at transferring the mental model in our heads into the heads of others. But therein lies the rub: I can’t see what's in your head, and you can't see what's in mine. So we establish a communication link, the primary purpose of which is to reconcile our mental models.
So far, this is all at the "project" level. By that I mean it’s what you do when you're working together towards a common goal. But what about when you want to share what you know (your mental model) with others? Here are five tips:
1. First, you need to realize that no method of human communication is perfect and therefore, learning as much as you can is imperative. Are you describing how a machine works? Or are you telling the story of how a project got off track and went over budget? Or are you explaining how a person ended up in the hospital with seventeen stitches in their hand, but feeling lucky they still had a hand at all? Telling the story begins with the story in your mind. So make it rich, interesting, and accurate. That will give you the best chance at communicating effectively using the imperfect means of communication available to us.
2. Second, internalize the notion that diversity is your friend. You cannot possibly know all there is to know, so reach out to others to help you learn. As our friend Rob Fisher would say, you need the broader perspective that can only come from others to help you see the bigger picture and minimize bias. You may be a brilliant writer, but it doesn’t matter if the story you are telling is inaccurate.
3. Third, use different communication modes together whenever possible. Pictures, charts, graphs, and videos all augment the written word. At Sologic, we strategically plan our content in a way that takes advantage of different modes, depending on who the audience is. This is helpful because different people build mental models in different ways. Accepting and respecting the diversity of your audience will help your message travel further.
4. Fourth, read it to yourself – out loud! Before I submitted this work to JD, I did exactly that and made corrections based on how it sounded. Technically, the dog was here too, but she wasn’t helpful. Your inner voice won’t work nearly as well for this. Reading out loud requires that you annunciate each word. It slows you down when all you want to do is hit "save" and send it. And it is always, always (always!) helpful!
5. Fifth, ask one or two people you trust to proofread your work. This final dose of diversity will give you an idea of how it will land with others. You aren’t required to incorporate their input – but hearing it is always helpful.
Brian Hughes helps teams of people solve the toughest problems using root cause analysis. As President of Sologic, Brian helps define strategic direction and works closely with each core function to ensure Sologic achieves our goals and objectives. He draws on more than twenty years of experience teaching, investigating, and designing enterprise-wide structured problem-solving programs.
Brian's articles are published in multiple industry periodicals and online, including Quality Digest, Professional Safety, and Occupational Health and Safety. He has also presented at industry conferences, including ASQ, ASSE, NSC, APICS, the Community of Human and Organization Learning (CHOL), and multiple client events. Brian holds a BA in Finance from Western Washington University.