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Three Simple Communication Techniques for Project Managers

Mike Palladino, PMP, CSM, SAFe SA, POPM & SSM

Michael Palladino is a Project Management and Agile professional with broad experience across several industries. He is the Head of the Agile Center of Excellence at Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceuticals. Mike is an adjunct Professor at Villanova University, Past President of PMIDVC and an author for Data Management University Magazine. He has presented in several countries for over 20 years.

Have you witnessed those situations where two team members start out talking calmly, then quickly escalate to a heated debate? Once the conversation starts, over time, the volume level increases, the participants start waving their arms wildly and begin shouting at each other. Each person thinks the other person just doesn't get it. They become louder as if somehow that will better articulate their point.

To those who observe these types of exchanges, it becomes obvious that the team members have different understandings and perspectives on the topic being discussed. This misunderstanding is the cause of the confusion and may have come from an initial miscommunication. Each person believes they have the correct view and are right. Unfortunately, many people don't recognize that a miscommunication occurred, and they become frustrated with each other.

Regrettably, miscommunication can cause arguments to begin, relationships to splinter and friendships to end. However, there are some simple, practical skills that can dramatically reduce misunderstandings and clarify communications.

It seems so simple: The purpose of communication is to convey information. We all take turns in expressing our views, we understand our differences, and come to a view we can all agree to. Miscommunication occurs when the listener has a different understanding of the information compared to the speaker. When people don't resolve these misunderstandings, unclear communication can lead to wasted time, effort and cost. Misunderstandings can also appear in the oddest circumstances

It is possible to develop effective communication skills by learning some simple techniques. Yet, why do so many people struggle with their communications?

One reason is, people don't learn the critical elements that lead to good communications. In many cases, they had to develop these skills on their own, whereas many others have not been able to develop healthy communication skills.

One of the ways to learn better communication skills, is to observe what great communicators do to share their ideas. In many communication models, there are two roles defined: Senders and Receivers. The key for clear communications is when both the Sender, the person sharing the information, and the Receiver, the person receiving the information, actively participate together to ensure the message is accurately received and understood.

The Sender begins by encoding and sending information to the Receiver. There is a strong possibility the Receiver may either misunderstand, or misinterpret the information based on personal experience. One of the leading causes of miscommunication is neither the Receiver nor the Sender check to confirm the information is understood as the Sender intended.

One simple technique a Receiver can apply is to paraphrase the information back to the Sender. This allows the Receiver to test the understanding of the information and informs the Sender that the information is understood. The Sender also has an opportunity to confirm or correct the understanding of the information. By incorporating this iterative feedback loop into important or critical communications, you can dramatically improve understanding and retention between you and others.

As a Sender, you can also help to ensure your message is understood. Ask the Receiver to repeat back his or her understanding of the communication to ensure that the correct information has been received.

There is an email variation of this technique called the three-email rule. If you find yourself about to clarify a point for the 3rd time, don't send the email. Instead, pick up the phone and call the person directly. By calling the person, there is a much faster exchange of information, and misunderstandings can be clarified much quicker than in email.

Another technique the Sender can apply is to better understand the intended audience. Communication is much more effective if you understand and write to the audience using terminology they understand, free from confusing jargon. Somehow, some people believe that the more complicated the language used, the more impressive the Sender appears.

One famous example is where a group of people wanted to show how easy it can be to mislead people. They started by asking people to sign a petition to ban a horrible compound, called di-hydrogen monoxide. The group listed all the many problems with the compound such as the way it caused erosion, destruction and even deaths.

Many people eagerly signed the petition after hearing all the bad things caused by this chemical.  Later, the group reveals to the signers that di-hydrogen monoxide is the chemical name for H2O and they just signed a petition to ban water.  This shows how using unfamiliar and overly complex terms lead to more confusion, and may encourage people to unwittingly respond is a way contrary to what they believe.

The United States Government had a similar challenge with people using overly difficult language in Government documents.  These poorly written documents ultimately led to the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, and the establishment of a public plain language website.  The website’s purpose is to “promote the use of plain language for all government communications.”

One last technique is to keep the message short and to the point.  A lot of Project Managers have a tendency to write long status reports with meandering content.  In general, the longer a status report or update email is, the less likely the recipients are to read the content in full.  Therefore, Project Managers must learn how to summarize data into meaningful knowledge for recipients.

In conclusion, Senders of communication need to ensure their message was received accurately and the Receiver understands the message.  By keeping the message focused on the audience, using clear and easy to understand language, and keeping it short and to the point, miscommunications can be dramatically reduced. 

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