Embedded understanding

Do you ever feel like General Brooks at one of those Iraq war CENTCOM briefings? You know, you're trying to explain a complex project and the people in your audience keep asking those same, dumb, unrelated questions? Are they stupid, or ignorant, or just not listening, or what? Or are they trying to use your platform to advance their own agendas? If it hasn't happened to you, I know you've seen...
By Richard L. Dunn Editor May 6, 2003

Do you ever feel like General Brooks at one of those Iraq war CENTCOM briefings? You know, you’re trying to explain a complex project and the people in your audience keep asking those same, dumb, unrelated questions? Are they stupid, or ignorant, or just not listening, or what? Or are they trying to use your platform to advance their own agendas?

If it hasn’t happened to you, I know you’ve seen it happen to somebody else.

I don’t know how the military briefers keep their composure day after day.

During the first Iraqi war, Desert Storm, the folks on the Saturday Night Live TV show did a great parody on these kinds of press conferences. Right after “the general” explained that he would not reveal operational details, a “member of the press” would ask where, precisely, would the next air strike be and when, exactly, would they drop their bombs.

These kinds of episodes demonstrate some of the major problems of communication between those who know and those who don’t know. The problems are the same whether you’re a general or a plant engineer — or an editor.

I knew an editor once who received some criticism from a reader about an article. It wasn’t very understandable, the reader said. The editor’s response was that the article was perfectly well written; if the readers couldn’t understand it, that was their problem.

Wrong.

It is always the communicator’s responsibility to make himself/herself understood. And often the reason we don’t get the support we need is because we haven’t succeeded in making ourselves understood.

A lot of things get in the way of this understanding. Our backgrounds, for example, bring all kinds of filters to the ways we express and the ways we interpret things. Even if we think we all speak the same language, we don’t. Engineers and financial people rarely speak the same language in talking about their work. We joke about how IT people have a language of their own.

Knowledge is another huge factor. How can I explain the need for a new lift truck, if you don’t know what a lift truck is? It does me little good to talk about applying the principles of Six Sigma performance if you have no idea of what Six Sigma means.

Experience is yet another factor. You cannot fully identify with my frustration in troubleshooting an electrical system if you have never tried troubleshooting a problem yourself.

One of the reasons the military agreed to embed journalists with the troops in Iraq was to help overcome these kinds of problems in communication and understanding.

Maybe we should embed some plant engineers in the financial department and some management executives in the maintenance department.