Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Common Vocabulary

A while back I asked if ignorance and close-mindedness meant the same thing. Admittedly, I asked this question to prove [to myself] that I was right and someone else was wrong. With the passage of time, that motive has all but vanished leaving behind a stellar example of a necessary component of communication: a common vocabulary. When this component is missing, communication can't happen. It's like taking your hair dryer to Europe and plugging it in with your converter set incorrectly. The appliance tries to run for a few moments and then the motor burns out because it's being supplied with the wrong voltage.

This all started on Facebook when an acquaintance of mine posted the following:

It struck me as odd that he should be so perturbed by ignorance. I have a very distinct memory going back to the start of my sixth grade school year. My teacher that year was quite the literary scholar. A few days before the start of school, the teacher held an informational meeting for all of the students and their parents. It was a means for everyone to get to know each other a little better and go through the daily schedule and other things about the impending term. I have no memory about the context anymore but somehow he was explaining ignorance. He said that there was nothing wrong with ignorance; it was simply not being knowledgeable about something. For some reason this has stuck with me all these years.

I asked my acquaintance if he really meant close-mindedness rather than ignorance and explained how I believe that those two terms express different meanings. This sparked a lively debate in which he contended that they mean the same thing.

This one word, just 9 letters, caused a communication impasse. This was just a Facebook post that had no weight of importance whatsoever. Just imagine though the implications of how a one-word communication misalignment can affect an outcome between a supervisor and employee. What about in a contract between client and vendor?

Verbal communication is a pretty complicated process and even though we start it at a very young age, it's still easy to muck it up well into adulthood. If my manager says she wants something done "right away" that could mean
  1. Stop what I'm doing now and switch to that other task
  2. Finish what I'm doing and then switch to the other task next
But it also has to be taken in context. Should I work through lunch or stay late? Is there a client call schedule for later in the day? Is the developer going to be out of the office tomorrow?

I think the key principle here is to eliminate ambiguity whenever and wherever it is perceived. Ask questions. Be explicit with expectations.

With my conversation above, six out of six respondents to my survey said that ignorance and close-mindedness did not mean the same thing. But there is that seventh person out there that has a different understanding, regardless of the situation.  He might be someone new that the client brings onto the project after the contract has been written. We don't always share a common vocabulary but by being proactive about the seventh person lurking out there and then being as descriptive as possible, even of that which seems obvious we can ward off problems before they happen.

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