The communication challenge – Is a hammer a tool or a weapon?

The question in a recent #CIOChat tweet chat (Weekend Edition) was, “What are the hardest tech skills to find for your IT Organization? Do you groom them or recruit them?” A recurring theme that quickly appeared in the responses was communication skills. This was not surprising, as it is a frequent theme and topic of discussion. The ability for technologists to be able to communicate well with the business is critical to the overall success of an organization. We all speak the same language, so what makes this such a difficult challenge? Surprisingly, I came across a great movie this weekend that helped focus on that question.

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Context and perspective are key

The Arrival, which came out this weekend, is a science fiction movie about the sudden arrival of 12 large alien ships at different locations around the globe.  One of the key plot lines revolves around the various governments efforts to communicate with said aliens. The movie does a great job portraying the challenges and nuances of communication between two groups that have no context or understanding of the other’s language. Eventually, the main characters’ start developing an understanding of the alien vocabulary. Even with that understanding, there are still challenges. The linguistics expert brought in by the US government tries to articulate the challenge to the military leader of the project. She asks him a question, “Is a hammer a tool or a weapon?”

Think about that for a moment. One’s first reaction might well be, of course it’s a tool, but it could be used as a weapon. Is it that simple? If we are talking a claw hammer used in construction, yes, that’s obviously a tool. What about a war hammer, like Thor’s hammer Mjölnir from the comics and movies (yes, I am that geeky)? Suddenly, things are not so black and white. If the alien says ‘use hammer’, are they asking you to pound in a nail, or attack someone with a weapon? Context and perspective are key to answering that question.

Technologists are from Mars, Business is from Venus

Language is a complex and nuanced creation. Even when people speak the same language, communication is hampered by the same challenge highlighted in the movie. Even though technologists and the business speak the same language, there are times where each side thinks the other is from another planet, that they are just not getting it. When I am training new consultants, I constantly tell them, “The business knows what they need, but they may not be able to articulate it in a way you understand. Your job is to bridge that gap in understanding.” It is important to develop good communication skills in order for all in the organization to be successful.

Developing your communication skills

Developing good communication skills is hard work, and requires lots of practice. Just look at the mass of miscommunications that happen in this world on a regular basis, to prove my point. There are a couple of key factors that can help in developing those skills.

  • Be an active listener – This is a critical piece to good communication. I know, almost everyone would response ‘I listen’. The reality is, most of us hear what is being said instead of listening. We do this in order to plan a reply/response. We are not actually listening to what the speaker is saying, we are listening for key points/phrases to trigger responses we want to be sure enter the conversation. It’s human nature. To be an active listener, you must:
    • Focus on the speaker. Not just the words, the non-verbal cues, the body language, the tone. These all will help you in understanding the context and perspective they are coming from. (This is a challenge in today’s remote work mode, especially with audio conference calls. You can still at least get the tone and emotion in the voice.)
    • Avoid interrupting and redirecting. This doesn’t mean allow things to go off topic. If it does, allow them to finish, then politely acknowledge their point, and recommend it be placed in the ‘parking lot’ for later discussion.
    • Paraphrase for clarity. In order both to show interest and understanding, take the point being made and paraphrase it back. “If I understand what you are saying….”. Do not say word for word. Rephrase it to demonstrate both that you were listening and understood what the individual was talking about. Always ask for confirmation, “Did I get that right?”
  • Be an engaged speaker – Communication is a two-way street. As well as listening, you must make sure you are being understood. When you are making a point, make eye contact, again watch for non-verbal clues and body language. You can tell whether people are connecting or understanding with what you are saying a lot easier that way.
    • Be sure to check-in. As with active listening, this becomes more of a challenge in audio conferences. In those situations, I try to take pauses, and do a checkpoint with others on the phone ‘Am I making sense, or is this out in left field?’
    • Personalize your topics, put in terms others can relate to. Instead of ‘If the customer did X, the system does Y’, I go with ‘If I, Ed Featherston, as a customer, wanted to do X….’. Bringing it to a personal level pulls people into the conversation, it will engage them in the discussion.
    • Use humor when appropriate. This does not mean turn the conversation into a stand-up comedy routine. When appropriate is entirely subjective and dependent on the audience. When describing ideas and scenarios, adding small touches of humor can help the mood and the engagement of others in the conversation. I usually connect it with the personalization I already mentioned.
  • Leave emotion out of the discussion. There are topics we are all passionate about, and displaying passion is fine, but avoid getting so emotionally attached to a point that you ignore the active listening and engaged speaking. Nothing will turn off the communications channel faster than if others think you will not even listen to their points. If you feel like you are getting a little hot under the collar, pause, take a breath, and admit to the passion, but that you want other perspectives. Be self-deprecating. It will go a long way to maintaining the communication channel

The communication challenge is never easy

Just like in the movie ‘The Arrival’, communication, and with it, understanding is not any easy accomplishments. It is hard work. I will be the first admit, I do not always succeed at my own suggestions and recommendations above. Honing good communication skills is never a once and done, it is a constant learning process. As technologists, it is incumbent on us to work to ensure those communication channels with the business are open and clear. That way when the business says ‘use hammer’, we will know if we should be pounding in a nail, or going to war.