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Pitfalls of Communication and How to Avoid Them

Human interaction and communication are diverse, with multiple ways to exchange information and numerous possibilities to collaborate. They are the cornerstones of economy and the communities we live in. They also pose many challenges, as can be seen from countless studies and books devoted to them, as well as trainers and coaches using them as a basis for their income.

I would like to introduce to you a model of communication that can easily be applied to project management and requirements management. It describes possible pitfalls of communication as causes for misunderstandings in communication, and it also shows how to avoid these misunderstandings by focusing on clarity. The Meta Model for language as part of the Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) describes filters of perception which on the one hand make language-based communication possible, on the other hand are origins of misunderstandings which then lead to conflicts.

The bases of this communication model are three filters of perception, namely clearance, generalization and distortion. They affect the pictures of reality forming in our heads, pictures we also transmit to and share with the poeple around us when communicating, when working together in projects, when discussion requirements and when creating personal benefits for them.

Da-Vinci

In this article I want to focus on generalization. Generalization plays an active role in our communicative efforts when we talk about the tangible reality, e.g. table, chair, tree, and also when we deal with abstract concepts, e.g. project or requirement. Just like everyone has a different image in his or her head when thinking of “tree”, the concepts of terms like “project” also differ. There are definitions for the term “project” but they vary, depending on, for example, the industry sector.

There are different formings of generalization in language; words like “all”, “each one”, “always”, “no one”, “nobody”, “never” (so-called universal quantifications), as well as more subtle generalizations like “clients”, “users”, “stakeholders”, “projects” containing a generalized index of reference. Words like “other”, “someone”, “something”, “people” do not feature an index of reference at all.

Generalizations also occur implicitly, in cases when conclusions are drawn from spot tests to the general. Prime examples for this are customer surveys and individual wishes and requirements. These generalizations are also called black swans, which were considered impossible until first discovered.

So, how can we avoid these pitfalls of communication? The first thing to do is to be aware of their existence. Then, we can question, or rather scrutinize them. Following are selected generalizations along with possible questions we can use to find out about the true nature of the term in question:

  • “All projects need a project manual.”
    Universal quantification: “Really all?”
    Generalized index of reference: “The same project manual, equal in content and extent?”
  • “We always take this approach to projects.”
    Generalized index of reference: “In all projects?”
    Missing index of reference: “Who is ‘we’?”
    Universal quantification: “Always?”
  • “Mister XYZ always gets into fights with people.”
    Missing index of reference: “Who are ‘the people’?”
    Universal quantification: “All people? Always?”

When dealing with generalizations we can discern between oral and written communication. In oral communication, practice makes perfect. In written communication, check-lists can be of great help – assuming they are comprehensive, or at least as comprehensive as possible. Concentrating on the most important incidents by use of the Pareto principle as well as applying common sense will further improve the outcome.

Götz Müller has been working in the field of development projects since 1993, in restructuring projects and processes for continuous improvement since 1998 and is involved in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) since 2006. He is a certified Lean Moderator, Six Sigma Black Belt and NLP Mater Practitioner. He works as a freelance consultant and blogs about NLP in projects and more at www.geemco.de.

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