What is effortless for us to initiate takes concerted effort to do well. Take breathing & sitting. We breathe on autopilot. Hardly think about it. It barely registers how we sit. We slump into perceived comfort which is anything but that. We all know that there is a mindful breathing practise that makes us breathe better among other things. We all know our spinal health depends on a healthy sitting posture. We never get down to doing both unless we suffer some pain. Is communicating any different? We all can talk & hear wilfully; to fill the silence. And lo & behold, we are all communicators; so we think! The results do not deliver what we communicated for.
This is especially true in organizations. Information is the currency of organizational transactions. Is there any other? When people envision & share, plan & co-ordinate, market & sell, organize & implement; they are always communicating information in some form or the other. Due to its all-pervasive nature, organizations rarely disown communication skills as a learning need. They attribute most problems to lack of good communication. And they seek to make people better by training them on communication.
What a boundless topic communication is! Because communication permeates virtually everything that the organization does, any shortfall in results is blamed on it. People can be seen to struggle with words and language. Lack of understanding is readily apparent. The solution is thought of as fixing individual people to get things right.
The fixing is on presenting, on communicating, on negotiating, on motivating. People are trained on presentation skills, communication skills, negotiation skills, conflict-resolution & leadership.
Does it work? What are the likely results?
A fitness trainer gives you an exercise plan without seeing you. A dietician prescribes a diet without knowing your lifestyle. A doctor gives you medicines without diagnosing you. How would you respond? Not very well, right?! A training program that gives you a ready-made solution-kit on communication smacks of the same approach. Has the trainer done the investigation & the diagnosis of a unique performance environment & what ails the trainees there-in? That is what customization is all about.
A designer of learning solutions has his work cut out in communication skills programs because as said before, communication permeates everything. If I were to design a communication skills program, what are the things I will need to consider? And where do I begin?
Straightaway, I need to acknowledge that in this program, I have to address unique individuals, the context of their groups/teams & the even larger context of their organization. I have to align effectiveness in these areas by simultaneously addressing how the nature of the task impacts all of them & in turn gets impacted. For a sales guy, I recognize the heft his task carries, the collaborative/competitive internal team structure, the defined process & his individual skill-set. How well he or she communicates at work is a cumulative result of all these factors clicking in place. For a customer service rep, the aspects stay similar, but the nature of the task differentiates the performance context. The sales guy persuades. The customer service rep soothes & pacifies. A world of a difference.
Does a standard training program factor in all of this? If it wants to, where will it begin?
What follows are general guidelines rather than specific pointers. Being specific as an example will narrow down its applicability. The aim is to help in creating a map, not plotting a course. The map-making has wider applicability. A person who knows how to make a map can then survey any territory for plotting the course. The guidelines are neither exhaustive nor authoritative; they are exploratory & non-linear.
First, what stands out prominently for any organization is: its mission (why it exists) & its prime task (what it primarily does).This is the meta-message clarity needed for successful communication. How clear is everybody on why the enterprise matters & what it has set out to do? The communication deficiency that manifests at the individual level very often has its roots here.
Second, what is the functional role played by the unit of the trainees? As a unit, is their task & function dictating resource allocation or are they playing a supporting or even subservient role to peer units or larger units of which they are a part. If a unit is subservient functionally, no amount of assertiveness training will help to make people assert themselves. A unit like accounts that has a regulatory/veto power is structured to stem the workflow. If the training need is for them to be empathetic; more than the training, these accounting people need to get a taste of life on the other side. All of this, of course, normally goes outside the purview of a conventionally conceived training program.
Third, what is the immediate unit-performance context like & how can they leverage each other’s strengths? We investigate the way roles & responsibilities are structured, who reports to whom, what gets measured, what gets rewarded & the group dynamics as is revealed to a discerning facilitator. Each of these reveal vital clues to the mystery of ineffective communication. We unpack the process of communication & the assumptions it is based on. We need this piece because in the training, this process understanding is a vital reference point for each individual to uncover their communicative self: individual world-views & their adapted communication patterns. It holds the key to individual effectiveness.
Structure & Process understanding is integral to all three general guidelines. They help training designers, consultants & trainers tie all the pieces together into a systemic understanding, the one that most effectively reveals how an organization works. The guidelines are helpful in designing for other types of trainings too.
What if we don’t do any of this & continue with business as usual?
Good trainers connect enough with self-driven learners to achieve individual proficiency. Everything in the training falls under the good-to-know category. Communication is so boundless that the training easily expands into games, activities & exercises that fill the available time. Trainees get scores that class them under communication styles & ideal-types. They feel empowered with a set of tips & techniques: all easier to put down on paper & difficult to practice in an authentic way. Most concur it was time well-spent & go home happy. Come tomorrow, they will go back to a workplace & context that hasn’t changed one bit & is stubbornly resistant to their improved selves!