Lewis Litt is a character from the TV show, Suits. Suits is a drama set in a New York City law firm. Litt is a incredibly talented but emotionally tone deaf lawyer. He’s also filled with insecurity which causes him to make a mess of many situations. Sometimes his insecurity is reflected as a healthy ego. He certainly likes to win and has a solid track record as a legal performer. Litt enjoys celebrating his victories. One of his signature self-congratulatory phrases is to say of someone whom he has just gotten the better of, “you just got Litt up.” At the heart of being a good lawyer is the core competency of being able to communicate well. In today’s world, where direct, face-to-face contact is substantially reduced, communication skills have become even more crucial in business independent of industry. Ever more of our client contact revolves around written communications as does our communication with peers. Have you asked yourself recently if you’ve been LITT up, where LITT is Lost in Translation Today?
Perhaps you’re familiar with a variant of a game often played at school called Telephone, Pass it on, or Chinese Whispers? In these games, the group sits in a line. The more people, the funnier the outcome is likely to be. The leader whispers a short message, typically a sentence, into the ear of the first group member. It is the job of the receiver of the message to absorb it, then turn to the person beside them and pass it on. Participants are told to try to pass the message on as quietly as possible. The fun surfaces when the final person in the chain is tasked with presenting to the group what the message is that they received. Usually, the message has been ridiculously butchered along the way and comes out at the end as an entirely different and, often, comical result. The original message has been lost in translation while moving down the line.
A few years ago I served on the board of the Canadian Ski Coach Federation. I was the treasurer for the organization and was responsible for providing an update to our membership at AGMs. Our AGMs typically followed a standard format. In one year, we had an additional item on our agenda that involved a vote to merge the organization with another. Our organization would no longer exist. We would dissolve and the assets would be passed to the other organization. It was a contentious issue with passionate people on both sides of the discussion. Attendance for this AGM was higher than normal as a result. I prepared with our organization’s managing director to get our ducks in a row with respect to my piece of the presentation. I knew the agenda. I knew there would be more people present. I knew that most were keen to talk about the merger and not standard business. However, my focus was solely on my task. I wanted to ensure that I communicated the fiscal position of the organization properly to reflect our stewardship of our resources. I was focused on my role and not my audience. As I gave the fiscal update absorbing my fifteen minutes of fame in front of several hundred people, I happily walked through what was completely unimportant and a distraction to my audience. I marched forward minding our business while oblivious to the ticks and twitches of the audience. They wanted this part over with. They had no objections or concerns with how the finances had been managed. They wanted to get to the meat of the meeting and talk merger. At some point, a fellow board member whispered at me to wrap things up as it was clear to him that the audience wanted to move on. My efforts at preparation and delivering my piece never once considered what the audience was after. As a result, my message was lost before I started. Just like in a game of Telephone what we say and what others hear may be vastly different things.
In a separate ski related experience, the program director of a ski club had a habit of typing his texts and emails using ALL CAPS. Receiving these, you knew who the sender was instantly. He was sending messages to groups and individuals. Many of us that received these would scratch our heads and wonder, why the ALL CAPS? What was being communicated using caps? Why every word on every message? Recipients of these messages would get together and try to theorize what was going on. Because the individual sending these was the boss, people were reluctant to seek clarification. One day, while we were standing on the ski hill together, I asked him why he sent his messages with ALL CAPS. He answered immediately and matter-of-factly that the reason was because it was easier for him to see the words written in CAPS when he was typing on his phone standing on the hill. He didn’t have his reading glasses with him while on the mountain. In order to be able to see what he was typing, instead of expanding the screen, he used CAPS. It was purely for his benefit for pecking away while standing, shivering on the side of a ski hill. Out of all the speculation that had come from recipients of these messages, no one had predicted the actual reason. Knowing his reason deflated the visceral discomfort so many recipients of his messages had immediately.
Communication can go sideways for so many reasons. A big disruptor is that the message is misconstrued. Either the sender isn’t attentive to the receiver or the receiver hears something that is not intended by the sender. Regardless of the cause of communication confusion, the net result is the sender left on the defensive claiming, “that is not what I said, or intended.” Ryan Holiday in a Daily Stoic email offers a phrase used by political strategist, Frank Luntz. Luntz offers, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” The content of our communication like my experience as a treasurer and our program director using ALL CAPS were both examples of how the message is lost based on how we’re communicating. Receivers of the message heard things that weren’t being said due to the inattention of the communicators. Fixing poor communication after the fact is much harder than preventing problems in the first place. Mismanaged expectations is a source of much frustration. Pain and misery follow gaps in expectation or understanding between individuals. The key part of managing expectations is that this should be done in advance of the communication. If we had set the stage before we communicated to say exactly what we were trying to accomplish we could have reduced the anxiety in our audiences. If our program director communicated the reason for why he was using CAPS, he could have reduced the rush to interpretation on the part of his recipients and had his messages more clearly heard. Are there some ways in which we can manage expectations with respect to our communications in advance?
Reflecting on my experience, I should have been able to foresee the elephant in the room and reason for most attending would be the merger conversation as opposed to typical administrative updates. As a result, I should have prepared to move quickly through my part. Ideally, I could have introduced my remarks by acknowledging that I would spend less time than usual on details in order for us to move on to the main agenda item of the meeting. I could have touched on two items likely of interest in that our revenues were consistent with prior years as, too, was our cash on hand which reflected the assets available for our membership. I could have then noted that I’m open to offering more detail or answering any other questions. If there weren’t any, I could have asked for a motion to accept the prepared financial statements and moved on. My part could have been reduced to a minute or two and the audience would have been content to move on to the main issue of the meeting. By thinking of the audience and proactively managing expectations, I could have kept the audience engaged and accomplished my responsibility.
We’ve had the good fortune of working with an excellent IT vendor for more than fifteen years. Early on in our relationship I developed an appreciation for the quality of communication that the principal of this vendor offered. On more than one occasion as we sat down to get into the details of discussing a project he would pause the conversation and say something like, “if I smile or nod or say yes, it doesn’t mean that I agree with or accept what you’re saying, it simply means that I’ve heard you.” The first time he said it, I thought it was a bit odd, even awkward. However, it became a great tool for managing both of our expectations of the conversation. The goal was for me to present as openly as possible what our requirements were. He would then digest and offer solutions. We weren’t dictating unilaterally an outcome. We had a concept in mind but for it to have the best chance to be delivered, we were dependent on their expertise. The simple preamble to our conversations helped me reconnect with the goal of the communication. It was to start a conversation, not settle a discussion. It was to be open and help him to understand our needs. He would then be in a better position to offer solutions or review further with his team to devise suggested approaches. Since he had told me that his nods weren’t nods of agreement, my expectations were managed. I knew I wasn’t getting a commitment from him, I knew he was simply hearing and internalizing the conversation.
A separate example from the same vendor involves his asking for permission to take notes. He starts a conversation asking if it is ok. He recognizes that taking notes moves his attention from you, the speaker, to his notes. Having the self-awareness to realize that it may appear that he’s not paying attention to the speaker as an individual, he asks for permission to take notes. This has the immediate impact of the other person feeling heard before the conversation even starts. He goes on to explain why he is taking notes. They are for the benefit of the other person in the conversation as opposed to for himself. He’s managing expectations and cuing himself to be present and available. His efforts ensure he’s bringing his best, most attentive self forward in the conversation. He’s making it clear from the outset that he’s here for you. These are all great goals and intentional actions on his part. Respect, trust, and appreciation are all being built by this simple act at the start of a conversation. As the conversation progresses, he will pause from time to time to reflect back what he’s heard. Again, this small act ensures the speaker both feels heard and that any misunderstanding can be corrected in real time. Both parties feel confident leaving the conversation that they are on the same page.
Communicating between individuals has always and will always be a challenge. Consciously charting a course to improving our ability to communicate is a great asset in life and the workplace. Working to manage expectations will help both sender and receiver relax and ensure that our message doesn’t come out the other end like a game of telephone. Avoid getting Lost In Translation Today by working to manage expectations and thinking of your audience as much or more than about your message. In a future article, we’ll offer some suggestions with respect to improving the quality of our digital communications upon which we seem to be relying more and more.