Thoughts on the effectiveness of communication in today’s workplace

Before we talk about the communication between two (or more) people, let’s take a brief look at the equipment used by them (the brain), because learning how to communicate better without understanding how brains work is like playing chess without knowing how the pieces move.

Although Neuroscientists are regularly discovering new information about how our brains work, much of the brain’s function currently remains a mystery.  What we understand is:

·         The brain weighs between 2-3% of our body weight

·         The brain uses 25% of all the energy our body generates

·         The brain has developed many ways to save energy

Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking Fast and Slow) suggested that the brain keeps some information ready to hand and easily accessible. For example: your route to work, simple maths, the Capital of France etc.  Other information requires some more brain power: what is 16 x 27? Or name as many African countries as you can, or how can we resolve the staff shortage situation caused by the wedding of 2 of our members of staff?  He called these parts of the brain System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast, but limited to simple ideas/thoughts/solutions, whereas System 2 is slow, energy draining and potentially creative, collaborative and clear.

System 1 contains our fight/flight/freeze response which is mainly interested in our survival, our emotions and social interactions which seem to be ‘triggered’ by external events. When driving someone does a dangerous manoeuvre and you have an instant angry reaction, or if your child is bullied you go into ‘protect’ mode.  These examples, and many others like them seem to happen automatically. There’s no conscious thought involved.  And when we are triggered we move to a state that is effective in one sense, it protects us, and allows us to operate at a certain level, but it makes the state of ‘us at our best’ elusive.  We cannot access the highest levels of our thoughtfulness, our consideration or our effectiveness.  

Our modern way of living produces ‘low level’ triggers in such large quantities that we don’t even notice them.  Every time you feel stressed, or have an emotional reaction (both positive and negative) recognise that you have been triggered.

Your System 2, or conscious brain, is a wonderful tool, allowing us to question and reach clarity, work with others collaboratively, and to spark creativity and find solutions to the most challenging situations. Unfortunately, for most of us, we don’t have access to it enough, either because the outside world (or our negative thoughts) is triggering our System 1 responses or because System 1 is jumping in and dealing with the situation to save effort and energy.

One tell-tale sign you could look out for is when you hear people say the phrase “You know what I mean”.  Notice if the words are accompanied by a nodding of the head.  It’s like they are trying to persuade you to say “yes”.  Almost certainly what they said before ‘You know what I mean (YKWIM)’ or it’s shortened form of ‘you know’ wasn’t 100% clear. (Or they wouldn’t need to add YKWIM) and their System 1 brain uses the phrase to shortcut the effort of explaining the situation with complete clarity.  And most of the time people respond ‘yes’ to YKWIM because their System 1 brain has created its own interpretation of what was said. For example, imagine someone you like saying to you: “Do you fancy doing something fun this weekend?”. Most likely your brain will come up with a thought or an image of what that ‘fun thing’ could be.  And it may be the same idea as the other person, or it may not.

Checking in on what the other person really means (If they are clear on what they mean) takes effort and time.  Sometimes we take that effort, and sometimes we just assume we know what they mean. It may not matter that much if we are discussing a fun weekend activity, but it may matter a lot if your boss (or a client) suggests that you ‘raise your game’ and you feel intimidated and unable to question the phrase and its implications.

Assumption is one of the key traps we can fall into with our communication.  And because it is performed by our System 1, we can be unconscious of the assumptions we are making.  It is not our view that assumption is always bad and inappropriate, indeed it saves a lot of time and effort, and it’s this positive benefit that makes it a trap.

Here are some suggested actions to take:

·         Listen out for assumptions in your conversations (both yours and theirs)

·         Flag up your assumptions, and check in with others if its correct

·         Some people don’t like their assumptions highlighted – ensure you have permission to challenge assumptions

·         There are ways to challenge that range from gentle to brutal – be appropriate

The quality of any relationship is correlated to the quality of the communication within that relationship. The communication is in service of the relationship, unfortunately many relationships are damaged by the communication within it. It does take effort and time to engage our conscious brains, and we can train our brains into better habits, leading to fewer misunderstandings, and greater effectiveness.