W&A Monthly Newsletter, Feb 2018: What Dementia Taught Me about Communication
By: John Wilson
My wife has Frontotemporal Dementia with an emphasis on language. Her vocabulary is steadily decreasing. It has gotten to the point that most of our communication involves her repeating a few phrases couched within sentence structures that sound perfectly normal. To see them written down, however, there would be no way to understand what she is telling me.
Fortunately, there is context. I know what she expects to happen at certain times of the day and week, and when she starts talking and pointing, I know what she would like to see happen. Even when it involves more complicated ideas, I can decipher her meaning just by having her take me to the area under discussion and pointing. There is also the voice; I can tell if she’s asking a question, making a statement, or reminding me of something. Yesterday, we had just such a conversation; I had no idea what she wanted until we went to the back porch and she pointed at a little tree growing the garden. I knew she wanted it removed.
This experience has re-enforced something I’ve always believed. Email is a lousy communication tool in business because it has replaced face-to-face communication. It strips all context from the conversation. There is no human face to read and no voice to hear. I have encountered countless examples over the years of endless emails exchanges that took days to conclude that could have been foreshortened by either a phone call or a face-to-face meeting.
This is particularly true when the email is viewed as unpleasant. Everyone has seen someone rip out a reply to an email that made you wonder, what got into him/her? A lot of this could be avoided if the writer of the first email had talked with the party in question and sent out a summary, and conversely, if the person replying had gone and talked to the writer of the initial email to figure out what they intended. This is always a great idea because none of us are mind readers, and divining people’s intentions is a recipe for disaster.
In addition to the physical and verbal clues, my wife and I have a history together. We’ve been married a long time, and I know her likes and dislikes. Now that the precision in her language is disappearing, I have the benefit of that history to help me interpret her desires. The same sort of history can be found in the business setting. Communication is much easier when you are working with people you know, and that you’ve worked with for a long time. This is why turnover is such an issue and why time should be spent with new employees establishing communication protocols. The history between employees of longstanding is beneficial, and new employees need to know the expectation so that they develop the same history.
I’ll never forget the time, shortly after the arrival of email in our offices, when my boss sent me an email asking if I was going to a meeting. My boss’s office was adjacent to mine such that we could hear each other’s conversations. It was a puzzle why an email was used to ask this question. It was also puzzling because my boss assumed I would read it immediately. Even texts suffer in that regard, although they do work a bit better since we’re so tied to our phones these days. Still, poking your head into an office for a question saves everyone a lot of time and reduces unnecessary confusion about tone.
So, use your electronic devises judicially, but take a moment to walk down the hall, poke your head into an office and chat. You’ll be surprised how much better your communication will be, how happy it will make people, and what you’ll accomplish. And if you’d like to talk about this article, give me a call.
By: Laura Kilgore
In previous articles we discussed some of the benefits and challenges of virtual teams and then focused on some ways team managers can facilitate virtual teams working together to produce a quality product.
If you, however, are working as a virtual team member and want to know how to best contribute to your team’s project, we have a few guidelines for you too. Below are tips that may also be helpful for in-person teams but are much more impactful for organizations that are not face-to-face.
Know What’s Expected of You
While it is your manager’s responsibility to clearly communicate their expectations of you, it’s also your responsibility to follow up with them to make sure you understand those expectations. Especially where instructions are communicated over phone or video meetings, it’s a good idea to repeat instructions back to your manager so you can be sure you’re doing what they need you to do.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s better to be clear about project expectations and personal responsibilities than to make guesses that might necessitate more work later because things were missed or have to be redone. If you’re worried that your manager will be irritated by frequent questions, save them up to ask all at once. Having a good relationship with your manager will also facilitate clear communication between the two of you.
Think of ways to take the initiative. While it’s important to ask questions, you’ll impress everyone on your team if you can anticipate needs and stay a step ahead. You’ll make the project flow more smoothly, and your fellow team members will appreciate the value you add.
When you work alone it’s easy to slip into the habit of thinking of yourself as a team of one, but it’s important to maintain your identity as a group of people all working toward the same goal.
Up next: Communicate Clearly
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