Another Iceberg

Tom Robertson: Posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 1:23 PM

Whenever people come together for some purpose, communication is, of course, key to success. Our communication channels – language, looks, books, etc.  – struggle to transport what’s in my head to your head. This is particularly challenging when what’s in our heads is specialized, expert knowledge, and we have come together because we have different expertise that needs to be combined to do something complicated and hard.  

Effective communication has to clear so many hurdles it’s a wonder that it happens at all! Language is famously ambiguous – “How do you feel?”… “With my hands, mostly!”  As if that weren’t enough, whenever I say something, there is a lot of relevant, important stuff unsaid – my assumptions, my priorities, my biases, my feelings. My words are just the tip of another iceberg (like the conscious tip of our mental iceberg discussed in my 11/7 blog post The Committee in Your Head). Real communication relies on revealing more of the iceberg. Fortunately we can do this by cultivating the awareness to bring other parts of the iceberg into the conversation.  

A way to more complete communication is to add “meta-levels” to our conversations, which set the stage for our immediate topic. At the top level, we establish our mutual intention to respectfully and openly communicate. We open the door to feedback, what we might learn from each other, and the inevitable possibility of miscommunication. An excellent framework for this level of communication is The Mutual Learning Approach developed by Roger Schwartz (www.schwartzassociates.com).  

The understandings and protocols established at this top level facilitate discussion at a next level, where we surface as much context as possible. For example, two business unit managers planning a joint project might ask: What is important to us, beyond meeting explicit project requirements? Are we looking at this project as an investment in new technology? A staff development opportunity? A market positioner? Two engineers working on a new product might drop the safety of certainty and jointly brainstorm a vision, half-baked but revealing assumptions and biases.  

Expanding the conversation to include these two meta-levels, establishment of ground rules and making relevant context explicit, facilitates a much more productive tactical discussion of the detailed task at hand.  

Effective person-to-person communication is important to any group trying to get something done. When the group gets large, particularly when they are trying to do something complicated, there are yet more communication challenges and potential barriers. This will be the topic of our next post.

–Tom