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Don't Let Miscommunication Spiral Out Of Control

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We miscommunicate every day, with results ranging from trivial to catastrophic. Unfortunately, we tend not to analyze our exchange until an argument, fight, or worse calls our attention to the nature of the miscommuncation. Miscommunication is a primary roadblock to unlocking the single biggest competitive advantage in the business world today: teamwork. Here, J. B. Rainsberger uses a holiday example to share one of his secret weapons to communicate effectively, build trust and work as a team.

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It starts with "Happy Holidays".

  • "How dare this person insult Christmas and deny the Christ...!"
  • "If only you'd bother to learn to pronounce 'Chanukah'..."
  • "Have you ever even heard of Candlemas...?!"

It appears there is a lot to dislike about these two words. Even so, this is a greeting for happiness during the holidays, and that can't be a bad thing. It appears there is much to like about these two words. So, who's right?

Obviously it depends, but on what? As I puzzled over this, I first had to admit that tone has a lot to do with it. A cheery "happy holidays" is justifiably interpreted differently from a surly one or a sarcastic one. Lying is outside my scope for this article, so I choose to assume my well-wisher is indeed trying to wish me well. In that case, how should I respond? How do you decide?

You probably start by thinking about who's wishing you well. Friend, acquaintance, rival, cashier, nice old Jewish lady, nice old Ukrainian, a Wal*Mart employee? You can try to infer a person's intent from his heritage, but I haven't found that particularly accurate, so I stopped trying a long time ago. The nice old Jewish lady might say "happy holidays" because she's learned over the years that that's better for her business than wishing all her Christian customers a happy Chanukah, then having to explain Chanukah to some of them. There is no assault on Christmas, or Christianity, here today. When you go by superficial cues like ethnicity, age, or perceived personality type, you have to pick out which points mislead and which illuminate. There has to be something more, and there is: let's ask communications expert Virginia Satir, whose work has influenced the great communicators in the software consulting industry.

Well, I can't ask Virginia Satir [1], but I've learned one of her communications models that serves me well. I've never read her original work, so what I know is the simplified, second-hand version. Even so, it works for me, and it could work for you.

In this model, there are four fundamental steps to going from stimulus to response: intake, meaning, significance, then response. Now we all know that all models are simplifications, and therefore incomplete; but this model is complete enough to do wonders. When I see communication go wrong, Virginia's model usually helps get it back on the rails.

Let's remember that that's the problem here: there is a divide in this beautiful world of ours, with hedonistic cultural assassins on the one side and altruistic defenders of the good on the other. I'm a uniter, not a divider, so I'm just doing my best to help these group communicate a little better with each other. By the end of this article, I feel I'll be justified in claiming mission accomplished. I'd like to go step by step through this model and explore how we get from "Happy Holidays" to a response

First, focus on intake

What did you sense? You saw this nice woman smile and say, "Happy Holidays" in a pleasant tone. You probably didn't smell, taste, or touch anything out of the ordinary. All right: message received. The next step is to decode the message.

Focus on meaning

What did she mean by "Happy Holidays"? What do you think? Did she smile sincerely? Did she sound genuinely cheery or saccharine or autonomic? Different people assign a variety of meanings, even when they take mostly the same message in mostly the same way. What about this woman? She's a cashier, and I know how these people are trained: I've been one. I can still teach you how to play Red Planet at a Virtual World ten years after I flew my last mission. I can recite the sales pitch word for word. (It'll only cost you one beer.) The history of the Virtual Geographic League is fading into obscurity, but my three-minute speech before I show you the instructional video comes out of me without any conscious intervention. Maybe she's the same, so you interpret her smile as sincere (or not), her voice as genuinely cheery (or not) and you understand the literal meaning of the two words "happy" and "holidays". You decide, somehow, that means she is sharing her holiday cheer with you. Message interpreted. The next step is to digest the message.

Focus on significance

How do you feel about this strange woman spreading her holiday cheer in your direction? Does it lift your spirits on a bad day, or does it annoy you because there's nothing happy about this particular holiday this year? Do you feel hope for all, or is this just more empty sentiment to make a sale? In one mood, you honor her sincerity, and in another, you think of her as a fraud. Even if you interpret her message correctly—meaning, the way she intended it--the significance you give the message depends on a variety of things over which she has no control. You decide, somehow, that this woman is sincerely trying to spread good cheer, and because you're already in a decent mood, this message of cheer makes you feel even better. Message digested. The next step is to respond.

Focus on your response

You were feeling good, and now you feel even better. If you're in a hurry, you might nod curtly and be on your way; but you could decide to take your time, smile back and repeat the message before you go. You might spend a moment thanking her for making you feel even better. You might encourage her to keep it up and not to let those angry people bring her down. Of course, there's more than this to consider when deciding to respond. This time, you choose to respond positively, but since this is Wal*Mart and you don't like the implied conformist political correctness of the evil mega-corporation, you make a point of saying "Thank you, and Merry Christmas!" with an equally cheery tone and smile as you walk away.

This is where it gets complicated...

You respond, and she takes in. She hears you say "Merry Christmas", interprets that as some kind of jab at Wal*Mart's policy, decides you're justified in doing that, then chooses to "correct herself", wishing you a Merry Christmas in return. Maybe this leads to her third verbal warning in a month, a suspension from work, and no Christmas presents in 2007, triggering her former eating disorder... Just kidding!

She says, "Merry Christmas", then her supervisor gives her a funny look, she signals that she knows she's not supposed to do that, then she makes a point of loudly saying "Happy Holidays" to the next five customers in line.

My response feeds your intake, and your response feeds my intake. Our responses feed the intake of a bystander, and he tells two friends, and so on, and so on. That's one way to try to understand how we communicate with each other.

Teamwork starts with
great communication

Now that's all very interesting, but what about the original topic of this article?

Well, when someone wishes you "Happy Holidays", is she trying to be inclusive or attacking Christmas? On the other hand, if she wishes you "Merry Christmas", is she ignorant or attacking the anti-Christmas terrorists? As we've seen it's all very complex. But I invite you to practice using Virginia Satir's interaction model to understand your own response, and her response, and your response to that. The more you analyze these conversations, the more quickly and easily you do it, and the more deeply you understand the people around you. When used on the job, this technique helps you build trust, which is the first step towards building an effective team. You can read more on this in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team [2]. Enjoy!

Oh, and Merry Christmas!

[1] Virginia Satir (pronounced sah-teer' ) was a noted American author and psychotherapist, known especially for her approach to family therapy. Her ideas are now also applied to leadership in business.

[2] Book: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, by Patrick M. Lencioni

About the Author

J. B. (Joe) Rainsberger writes, programs, mentors, coaches and consults. Since 2000, Joe has contributed to the Agile Software Development community as a practitioner, teacher and writer and conference organizer. His first book, JUnit Recipes: Practical Methods for Programmer Testing has become a standard reference book for Java programmers who use JUnit. Joe is a frequent conference presenter, who writes for both magazines and his own weblog. He hosts the conference series XP Day North America, giving software professionals across the continent an opportunity to learn about Extreme Programming. In 2005, he received the Agile Alliance's annual honor, as one of the first recipients of the Gordon Pask Award for Contribution to Agile Software Practice.

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