Many times in life I’ve regretted the things I’ve said without thinking. But I’ve never regretted the things I said nearly as much as the words I left unspoken.
― Lisa Kleypas
I’m a scientist and I tackle lots of difficult intellectual topics, higher-level mathematics and deep physical principle daily. All of these things are very complex and require immense amounts of training, experience and effort. For most people the things I do, think about, or work on are difficult to understand or put into context. None of this is the hardest thing I do every day. The thing that we trip up on, and fail at more than anything is simple, communication. Scientists fail to communicate effectively with each other in a myriad of ways leading to huge problems in marshaling our collective efforts. Given that we can barely communicate with each other, the prospect of communicating with the public becomes almost impossible.
Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.
― Roy T. Bennett
It is as much a problem of listening as talking, and we do neither very well. It is arguable that the art of listening is something in deep crisis society wide. We seem to be quite capable of expressing a wealth of opinions to each other, but incapable of listening and attempting to understand each other. This makes every problem we have worse and stymies our efforts to solve them. In the sciences, these issues are generally compounded by the nature of the people capable of carrying out the deep scientific work. With all that effort and energy put toward the intellectual labor and their basic nature as people, little is left over to do the heavy lifting of communication. This leaves this essential effort languishing from a combination of lack of effort and outright incompetence.
If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.
― Dave Barry
Meetings are at the heart of an effective organization, and each meeting is an opportunity to clarify issues, set new directions, sharpen focus, create alignment, and move objectives forward.
― Paul Axtell
A big conduit for communication is the “meeting” a proper target of derision and ridicule. We all spend way too much time in horrible meetings that masquerade as communication. In addition to time wasting, the worst thing about them is that they give people the impression that communication has taken place when it hasn’t. The meeting doesn’t provide effective broadcast of information and it’s even worse as a medium for listening. Our current management culture seems to have gotten the idea that a meeting is sufficient to do the communication job. Meetings seem efficient in the sense that everyone is there and words are spoken, and even time for questions is granted. With the meeting, the managers go through the motions. The problems with this approach are vast and boundless. The first issue is the general sense that the messaging is targeted for a large audience and lacks the texture that individuals require. The message isn’t targeted to people’s acute and individual interests. Conversations don’t happen naturally, and people’s questions are usually equally limited in scope. To make matters worse, the managers think they have done their communication job.
People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.
― Thomas Sowell
The tendency to do everything through meetings results in the illusion that communication has happened. The same happens with mass e-mails where management assumes the exchange of information was successful. A lot of the necessary vehicles for communication are overlooked or discounted in the process. Managers avoid the one-on-one conversations needed to establish deep personal connections and understanding. We have filled manager’s schedules with lots of activities involving other managers and paperwork, but not prioritized and valued the task of communication. We have strongly tended to try to make it efficient, and not held it in the esteem it deserves. Many hold office hours where people can talk to them rather than the more effective habit of seeking people out. All of these mechanisms give the advantage to the extroverts among us, and fail to engage the quiet introverted souls or the hardened cynics whose views and efforts have equal value and validity. All of this gets to a core message that communication is pervasive and difficult. We have many means of communicating and all of them should be utilized. We also need to assure and verify that communication has taken place and is two ways.
Employees hate meetings because they reveal that self-promotion, sycophancy, dissimulation and constantly talking nonsense in a loud confident voice are more impressive than merely being good at the job – and it is depressing to lack these skills but even more depressing to discover one’s self using them.
― Michael Foley
We haven’t touched on the other context of the word “meeting” for scientists. The technical talk, seminar or conference version of the word has great importance. The act of formally giving a presentation of technical work is one of the key ways of delivering information in a professional setting. It forms a core of opportunity for peer review in a setting that allows for free exchange. Conferences are an orgy of this and should form a backbone of information exchange. Instead conferences have become a bone of contention. People are assumed to only have a role there as speakers, and not part of the audience. Again the role of listening as an important aspect of communication is completely disregarded in the dynamic. The digestion of information and learning or providing peer feedback provide none of the justification for going to conferences, yet these all provide invaluable conduits for communication in the technical world.
Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.
― Neil Postman
Part of the irony of this problem is the role of science in providing technology that makes communication easier than ever. The issue is the content of that
communication, which varies depending on people’s innate taste for clarity and focus. We have issues with transparency of communication even with automatic and pervasive use of all the latest technological innovations. These days we have e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, Internet content, various applications (Twitter, Snapchat,…), social media and other vehicles information transfer through people. The key to making the technology work to enable better performance still comes down to people’s willingness to pass along ideas within the vehicles available. This problem is persistent whether communications are on Twitter or in-person. Again the asymmetry between broadcasting and receiving is amplified by the technology. I am personally guilty of the sin that I’m pointing out, we never prize listening as a key aspect of communicating. If no one listens, it doesn’t matter who is talking.
We are still woeful in our ability to confront difficult issues. Concepts like “ghosting” or “breadcrumbing” are useful for online relationships, and actually have great meaning in non-romantic settings. For difficult issues there are a strong tendency to avoid discussion and contention, this is just like ghosting where people disappear to avoid a real breakup. Breadcrumbing is pretending to have a deep relationship that really has no basis in fact and gets nursed along by a stream of limited communications. Both practices are emblematic of deeply toxic engagements that exhibit a lack of humanity, empathy and understanding. Each of these characteristics is deeply helpful in aiding the depth of communication, and things scientists and engineers are generally quite ill equipped to deal with.
Scientists and engineers tend to be introverts and not necessarily good at communicating. Nothing about technology changes these facts; it only gives more mechanics for communication to be poorly executed. All the various communication vehicles require skill to execute and basic ideas to be presented. The ideas are often complicated by their esoteric nature meaning that standard communication is already stressed. Add controversy and tension to the communication will simply lead to greater stress and encourage bad behavior. This greater stress will serve to bait people into various ghosting or breadcrumbing exercises. All of these elements go into undermining the depth of communication possible if all the means of achieving it are exercised.
I work on vastly complex projects involving big ideas and massively deep technical issues. The concepts and ideas in the project are deep and need vast wells of technical expertise to even understand much less solve. In spite of this the biggest issue holding us back is communication. We are more challenged by having access to information and knowledge of the full nature of the problems we face. The complex issues typically need the expertise of many people to understand, and solutions are equally dependent on wide ranging expertise. More than simply understanding being fuelled by communication, the solutions need collaborations across many technical disciplines to work together. Instead of harnessing the possibility and potential that communication has to unleash productivity and innovation, we embrace secrecy and information hiding that only empowers control and destroys potential. Information hiding has become the standard in reaction to the possibilities of greater transparency that the modern world offers.
When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.
― Stephen R. Covey
One of the key issues contributing to our systematic communication issues is conflict aversion. If we talk about our collective problems, we run the risk of conflict. Problems and issues that hold us back are often the source of conflict. Our problems are usually associated with vested interests, or solving the problems might involve some sort of trade space where some people win or lose. Most of the time we can avoid the conflict for a bit longer by ignoring it. Facing the problems means entering into conflict, and conflict terrifies people (this is where ghosting and breadcrumbing come in quite often). The avoidance is usually illusory; eventually the situation will devolve to the point where the problems can no longer be ignored. Usually the situation is much worse, and the solution is much more painful. We need to embrace means of making facing up to problems sooner rather than later, and seek solutions when problems are small and well confined.
Given that scientists can barely communicate with each other effectively, the general public is almost impossible to manage. In many ways the modern world acts to amplify the issues that the technical world has with communication to an almost unbearable level. Perhaps excellence in communication is too much to ask, but the inabilities to talk and listen effectively with the public are hurting science. If science is hurt than society also suffers from the lack of progress and knowledge advancement science provides. When science fails, everyone suffers. Ultimately we need to have understanding and empathy across our societal divides whether it is scientists and lay people or red and blue. Our failure to focus on effective, deep two-way communication is limiting our ability to succeed at almost everything.
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
― George Bernard Shaw