“I like fish”… when communication impedes collaboration

Barbara Matoe shares her thoughts and advice on how to improve communication

Often communication (or lack thereof) can hinder the successful conclusion of a collaboration; be it between team members or partnering organisations. The result? Strained relations that inadvertently lead to incomplete or erroneous outcomes, and unhappy stakeholders.

We talked to Barbara Matoe, Engagement and Delivery Director at makepositive with extensive experience in managing relations to ensure positive results, to share her thoughts and advice on how to improve communication.

When we first talked about the subject of communication, you mentioned the phrase ‘I like fish’! What does that mean?

‘I like fish’ is a metaphor that I use a lot. What it means is that everybody comes to a conversation or a meeting with their own experience, their own training, their own point of view, and, in some cases, their own mood. So if for example you arrive for a meeting, for which you may or may not have context or relevant experience, or you’ve got a lot on your mind, you might not hear what the other person is saying. This can quickly become an ‘I like fish’ moment. One person heard you’re standing in the kitchen with a frying pan, a fish and a slice of lemon, and another person heard you’re standing in a river with a fishing pole, wearing waders. You’ve got one statement (I like fish) but two totally different interpretations. And what that means is that communication hasn’t actually taken place.

As a result, if you’re having a conversation with a customer, or a stakeholder, or your team, and that point is not clarified, you walk away with two different mindsets.

So what can someone do to avoid those ‘I like fish’ moments?

For me, when somebody makes a statement, I ask questions; ‘what do you mean by what you’ve just said?’ and then I repeat the statement and ask ‘this is what I think I heard, did I understand correctly?’, or words to that effect.

However, before that you need to make sure that you are present, and by this, I mean be focused on the conversation at hand and the other participant(s). Seek to understand before you seek to be understood. Listen before you speak -if you are only listening to respond, you’re not actually listening to what they say.

By confirming common understanding between the participants in the discussion, your next question, your next statement, or your next action will align with the direction of the conversation.

If we reverse the roles, how do you make sure that the other person has understood what you said?

You need to be open and not be afraid to ask them what they think and if they understood what you said? You can ask, ‘is this what you were thinking about?’.

Sometimes, at least at the beginning, you might not be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Especially when it’s an external introductory meeting, with a client for example.

In this case, what you need to do is try to understand the size of their shoes, the make of their shoes and so on and so forth. In other words, asking them for their feedback, asking them what they actually understood of what you’ve said, making sure you have understood them and their needs.

And when people say I want to ask a dumb question, your response should be ‘there are no dumb questions’. There’s no wrong question. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there’s a wrong way to say a question or ask a question. But if you’re asking a question to try and understand it’s never wrong.

This also proves to the other person or your audience, that you are engaged in the conversation, in what they are saying, and just trying to ensure you understand, which can be a better way to start the relationship, than to walk away without having understood what was said and get it wrong.

Sometimes, especially when some level of particular expertise is involved, like for example in a Salesforce project, the other person, the customer might not be able to articulate their challenges, goals, expectations or requirements correctly, possibly causing misunderstanding and wrong deliverables by nobody’s fault. What do you do in such situations?

Here too, being able to listen and ask questions is key. You as the ‘expert’ should adapt and enable not just the other person but also yourself to achieve common understanding of what needs to be achieved. If this communication is not successful, then you can have what we call in our business scope creep, i.e. the scope becomes inflated with actions outside what was agreed, or worse, a complete change of scope.

One of the things I really like to do is, at the end of our define and design stage, you get a chance to play back to the other person or team the requirements and the proposed solution that will provide the desired outcomes, giving the opportunity to revise and identify any areas where there might have been a misunderstanding. And take the time to correct it before you start developing or building a solution that could result in significant rework at a time or cost to yourselves or your stakeholders.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the define and design stage?

In client engagements, before we start on any development we have a define and design stage. This is where we define the requirements, and we’ll hold workshops with the customer to ensure a clear understanding of what they want the outcome to be. Then we go through a design process where we detail the solution. We write up all the user stories which we then pass to the customer to verify; in a sense, that what we heard was indeed what the customer said. This way, we ensure alignment and, more importantly, we capture any misunderstanding before it’s too late.

Consumer research results indicate that 90% of customer will leave without warning if they don’t have a good experience with a brand. Is this something that you see in the B2B space?

Yes, especially in new engagements with clients that you haven’t worked with before, if something goes wrong, or they feel they didn’t get what they expected or needed, they might not give you a second chance.

I personally make sure that I’m engaged with the customer from the outset, to make sure that we’re forming that relationship, even before we jump into the define and design phase.

By maintaining an open communication channel and making myself available, I make sure that if they aren’t happy with any part of the engagement, my number will be the first number they call.

Any final thoughts?

To summarise, regardless of whether it’s an internal or external engagement, open communication, asking questions, and trying to understand is key. It saves time, effort and relations.

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