“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
How many conversations have you had with individuals or a group where you feel that you made your point and that you both or all had the same understanding about the point or topic, only to find out later that it was not the case? Verbal communications can be tricky, as they are often conducted in a private one-on-one setting or phone call and the others in the conversation may be distracted and not fully engaged.
When having verbal communications, a key skill is “active listening.” Conversations are meant to be a two-way street—otherwise, it would just be you talking and hoping that the other party or parties are truly engaged and understand what has been communicated. Google the term “active listening” and learn more about what it means. A few key points are listed below.
Avoid Evaluative Listening
- Hold off forming opinions until the speaker’s message is complete.
- Don’t obsess with or focus on emotional words or phrases.
- Concentrate on the speaker, not on your intended rebuttal.
Steps to Ensure Active Listening
- Truly listen by providing the speaker with your undivided attention.
- Reduce or eliminate noise or other distractions.
- Organize the message you hear.
- Check your understanding of what has been said by repeating it back in your own words.
The paragraphs above were taken from an article written by Walt Sparling titled Communication Management, published by AUGI and is one in a series of articles written by Mr. Sparling on the topic of Project Management. If you are currently not an AUGI member, I suggest signing up. Their free membership offers valuable resources beyond simply Autodesk specific topics.
AUGI articles are just one source of knowledge on the topic. The Project Management Institute is an organization dedicated to the expansion of the field of project management. PMI has developed tools, trainings and compiled knowledge in this field for professional development. One of those collections of knowledge is the Project Management Body of Knowledge or PMBOK. The PMBOK is a baseline for project management agreed upon by project managers and used as source material for this article. I would also suggest using the templates provided on the website projectmanagementdocs.com. Their templates easily walk the user through creating the document and understanding its purpose.
The PMBOK states “Communication is the exchange of information, intended or involuntary. The information exchanged can be in the form of ideas, instructions, or emotions. The mechanisms by which information is exchanged can be in”:
- Written form. Either physical or electronic.
- Either face to face or remote.
- Formal or informal (as in formal papers or social media).
- Through gestures. Tone of voice and facial expressions.
- Through media. Pictures, actions, or even just the choice of words.
- Choice of words. There is often ore than on word to express an idea; there can be subtle differences in the meaning of each of these words and phrases.
If communications can be perceived differently based on a host of variables and involuntarily transmitted, then how can we as design professionals, project managers, contractors and stakeholders navigate the sometimes tricky waters of communication to achieve optimized project success. The earlier excerpt from Mr. Sparling’s article emphasizes the continued development of soft skills like active listening that are paramount to mutually beneficial exchanges. Another aspect is the creation of artifacts and implementation of activities designed to achieve effective information exchange.
Know your audience
I have heard on more than one occasion “I told the designer what I wanted, and they just keep giving me what I don’t want. They are not listening to what I want”. Identifying the stakeholders should be done early on and if the you have worked with a stakeholder in the past, use historical data to understand which communication method works best for them. If, a stakeholder has had trouble in the past with misinterpreting verbal communications and the transverse being you misinterpreting a stakeholder, then you should follow-up verbal communications with written or communicate design intent through visual means.
Identify the logistics of communication among the stakeholders. Do all design team members physically work in the same area or share the same language? Are some “stakeholders on-the-go” most of the time? Who are the knowledge experts on the project and are they assigned to other projects (though this may technically fall under resource management, it will affect your communications)?
Discussed in more depth in Mr. Sparling’s article and the PMBOK, you should develop a RACI chart to organize who is Responsible, who is Accountable, who needs to be Consulted, and who needs to simply be Informed. Once you develop a RACI chart you can see individual stakeholder roles and by knowing the roles of people on your project, you can determine the methods used to communicate with them.
Project efficiency will go down if you are sharing too much technical information with those that simply need to be informed or not enough technical information with those who are responsible for the design.
Say what you mean and repeat it back
Understand that differences in communication styles can arise from differences in working methods, age, nationality, professional discipline, ethnicity, race, or gender and be mindful of your tone and body langue. I often re-read a text message or email several times to discern the tone of the message. I have a personal bias to read emails from clients and agency reviewers in a harsh tone, since we are at times placed on opposing sides of a problem. I acknowledge my short comings by re-reading the message to see if I come to the same truth.
Make the receiver of your message acknowledge the message by repeating it back to you. I have said in the past “do you know what I mean” which often gets the response ”yes” even if the receiver does not understand the design intent. This has led to rework and frustration between the designer and me.
Moving forward I plan to choose my words wisely by asking the designer something along the lines of “Based on our conversation regarding the design intent, briefly explain to me your design approach”. I should get a response that acknowledges that the designer understands the design intent by requiring a more in-depth response than “yes”.
There are several methods to generate acknowledgment of messages. I had the privilege to attend the Lean Principles workshop hosted by Warehaus, RMF Engineering Inc., and JEM Construction Group on Sept. 28th. I was particularly interested in the method of using post-it notes to identify tasks and who is responsible for those tasks and then the ability to see those tasks move along a large (publicly displayed) board from backlog to assigned to completed.
I like that it showcases what and who in a public manor. It is a strong visual communicator. The downside to this communications tool is that all stakeholders must be in the same working environment. I will continue to look for a web-based equivalent.
Technology is not the great divide
Though recent news reports describe the rise of technology as the fall in our youth’s social skills, technology can aid in communication. Whether it is Newforma, Deltek’s Kona, Basecamp, or simply Microsoft office 365 apps, invest in software that will help to execute communication tasks. At Warehaus, we utilize Newforma software to share documents with internal and external stakeholders, record/ organize meeting minutes, control RFI’s and Submittals, and so much more.
I am sure the cost of licensing and maintaining project management software seems cost prohibitive to some smaller organizations. The cost of not having a collaborative, organized, and monitored space can be even costlier.
Most organizations regardless of size uses Microsoft office 365 products. Microsoft Planner is a useful tool for communications.
Communications will always be a struggle but with sound project management strategies in place, you should be able to mitigate some of that strain.
Warehaus has developed its own project management methodology, briefly described here.
Our Design Delivery Process or DDP is an integrated methodology that allows its design team to work collaboratively with all stakeholders. We define the problem statement, share it with the stakeholders and use this shared knowledge to guide not only the design but the communications.