Communicate–we depend on it!

Could “Walkerton” happen in your town? You bet.
Like others, I puzzle over how this could happen. It is likely due to a confluence of unfortunate events. But I see two primary causes that I have observed in many work settings:
1. People are poor at process control. People need variety and stimulation. As much as we cry about change, we prefer it to constancy, and we need it. Over time, just about every procedure is neglected and corrupted.
Think about the preventive maintenance and safety systems in your workplace. They need special attention and re-dedication, over and over.
In that regard, “Y2K” did many of us a big favour–we were called on to examine and update all the processes that might go wrong. Clearly, we should do it more often.
2. People still don’t communicate. That’s obvious, you say? Yes, but what to do about it?
I have suggestions that can stand you in good stead. To illustrate, back to Walkerton.
CBC Radio broadcast repeatedly that the health inspector asked the PUC in charge: “Is your water safe and secure?” The answer was, “Yes.” He asked exactly the same question the next day, and got exactly the same answer.
Both miscommunicated seriously.
What would you answer to a Yes-No question where “no” implies you aren’t doing your job? Been there, done that!
A better question would have been, “What are your test readings on the water supply today?” That could have focused the right attention.
Still better, had the health inspector shared the problem with the PUC man and then said, “Would you review your test results and call me right back so we can see what might be going on?”
The PUC man could have saved the situation by saying, “Why do you ask?” after his own answer. He then would have realized the inquiry was not idle or insulting.
Many people want to communicate better. To do that, the emphasis should be in this order. 1. Listen for underlying meaning. 2. Ask good questions. 3. Speak clearly and briefly.
This is about #2. Here are three suggestions.
(a). Test whether a Yes-No question will get you all the information you are seeking. If not, ask it differently. Test also whether the Yes/No answer might embarrass or implicate the responder or you.
If so, you’ll probably not get the truth.
(b). If someone asks you a question that doesn’t make sense to you or to which you think the answer is obvious, try to answer it and say in turn, “Why do you ask?”
(c). A person may want to tell you something important but the message is unclear. Rather than dismiss it, if you can’t ask a specific question, just say, “Tell me more.”
“Communication (or lack thereof!) should not be blamed for anything going wrong. It is something we do or neglect. We can learn to do it better. It always needs work, and it is worth the effort.
Linda Wiens is a workshop designer and facilitator, planning consultant, author, and president of Quetico Centre.

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