Communication let us all down

For most of my life I have been part of various organisations – schools, employers, mission agencies, universities, churches, societies – and almost invariably they have a communication problem.  I should imagine there are few of us who feel we are in an organisation that communicates well.

Either the information is left to trickle down (or not!), it’s all pumped out in one deluge, or there is such a commitment to communicating that information comes out so frequently that people stop listening.  Rather like the rain down in Africa, good communication not only needs to come at the right time, it needs to come in the right quantities, otherwise there is huge damage caused by flood or famine.

Good communication involves expressing ideas clearly, listening with a view to understanding rather than contradicting, and being prepared for an open, frank discussion while still remembering to love those who don’t agree with us.  Without these prerequisites, a meeting can be held, words said and heard, but communication hasn’t actually happened.  As George Bernard Shaw remarked:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

So how can we communicate effectively in our churches, agencies and teams?

First, think about who does the communicating.  Some leaders can feel uncomfortable that they don’t have the ability to communicate well, whether orally or verbally, or cope honestly with any difficult questions, and therefore they start the process defensively, which can lead them to going on the attack if challenged.  Others may be communicating simply because they think they it’s their responsibility.  Some do it because they need to make sure their people’s need for information is met and are not committed to taking people with them on the journey.

All of these are likely to do a bad job of communicating because their heart is not in it.  They would benefit from letting someone else manage the communication – a person with an understanding of what is needed, a person with the right skills and a passion for getting a message across.  Which is why important people often have press secretaries.  They think about what is being said, and how and when.

Communication is also complicated by the variety of viewpoints among the followers.  Some will have principled objections to any suggestions of change, others will be personally inconvenienced or hurt by it.  Some will feel they haven’t been heard if they’re not agreed with, and others (like football supporters) will always be of the opinion that they could do the job better than the current manager.  Many will think the organization ought to be more ‘democratic’ – in other words they feel they have a right to have a say.  And the different ethnic mix in any given context means that any communication is filtered through the differing cultural blinkers of each nationality.  These factors  complicate how well organisations communicate.

Second, think about why you are communicating.  If you are giving people information so that they will do something, you may want to communicate differently than you would if you are leading a consultation.  Sometimes communication needs to get a message across in a hurry, as in a combat situation where lives could be lost if there is not clear communication.

Other communication may be about an organisation’s change of ethos or policy, which may require more consultation.  Sometimes communication, as in marriage, may not be for any particular purpose or about a specific issue so much as maintaining and building on a relationship, for which it is important to ensure communication channels stay open and that people have an opportunity to be heard.

Finally, think about the process of communicating, particularly if it’s about major change.  What is the mix of face-to-face meetings, social media and written/email letters?  How do people express their views or ask questions – particularly those who are reluctant to speak in meetings or only have space to marshal their thoughts once a meeting is over and they can be alone.  What about those who are afraid of reprisals if they speak out?  How can you avoid simply going through the motions of communicating to try and soften the blow of change – because being seen to be an open, transparent and accountable leadership enhances trust, and being seen to listen reassures people that they are valued individuals and not just expendable commodities.

Decades ago a famous study of change in the Shell oil company showed that talking about change long before it happens gets people used to the idea, so that by the time it happens, it’s not a challenge anymore because they’ve already processed the transition in their minds.  Good communication was key to delivering a seamless transition.

Good communication, whether about selling a much-loved head office building, merging with another organisation, or major changes of direction, is not often talked about and it would be good to hear from any of our readers what their experiences of good communication are.