Communication, Communication, Communication

“The three most important requirements for a successful Partnership are Communication, Communication and Communication.”
—  quoted by a Senior Resident Engineer

(Part Two of a Five Part Series)

A recent review of the hundreds of Partnered projects I have facilitated over the past 23 years got me thinking more about the key elements of Partnering and the actions that lead to successful Partnering relationships.

Key Elements of Partnering

  • Commitment
  • Communication
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Continuous Evaluation and Improvement
  • Trust


Part One in this series talked about the importance of Commitment at all levels of the relationship and throughout a project.  We now turn our attention to another critical success factor – Communication.

CommunicationCommunication is hard to define, and even harder to “do.”

A common response I get from individuals in organizations and teams when asked about the number one problem they are experiencing is, “Poor communication.”

Of course, my next question to them is, “What does that mean – to you?”  At that point, the responses begin to vary widely.  The word “communication” is so broad and has so many nuances, that it alone cannot encompass the true meaning of the problem.  You have to go much deeper.

In its simplest definition, communication is “the imparting or exchanging of information.”  One major communication problem identified by people is “Lack of communication.”  That is an example of information not being imparted at all.   Another common issue listed is “Poor communication.”  It is likely something wrong with the “exchanging of information” part of the definition.

This post addresses both elements – imparting and exchanging information – with a focus on communication in a successful Partnering relationship.

Imparting Information

The “lack of communication” issue expressed by many team members is usually a result of not receiving the information they need to do their jobs effectively.  This is the easiest kind of problem to solve by simply finding out who needs to know what and by when?  There are many ways to address this question:

  • At the Partnering workshop we often set up communication protocols for the project.  These protocols include identifying primary points of contact for all elements of the project, setting up weekly meetings, determining what kinds of information are needed by various stakeholders, and agreeing on how that information will be provided and by who.
  • During the project, several tactics are used to make sure information is being imparted.  These may be morning toolbox meetings in the field to discuss the day’s work schedule, safety precautions, resource allocation and address any questions or concerns people have about that day’s activities.  Weekly project meetings are held to address upcoming work, review project status, identify issues, resolve problems, and plan the next two week schedule.   Written minutes of these meetings are distributed to all interested parties.
  • Monthly reviews are conducted to assess the past month’s progress, recognize achievements and identify any issues that are keeping the team from reaching peak performance.  These reviews provide regular opportunities for individuals to express any issues they are having regarding not getting information they need.

Exchanging Information

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not
sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”


Communication CycleAs humans, we have not yet developed the ability to communicate telepathically – that is, get the message that is in my brain sent into your brain so that it is understood exactly as I meant it.  Instead, we have to encode our messages using language and send that code to the people we want to communicate with – hoping that they decode it the way it was intended.  We have developed a number of coding techniques as a means of imparting information –  words, pictures, body language, tone of voice and, especially in today’s world, information “technologies.”  Now that most of our communication is in the form of e-mails, text messages, voice messages, or the ungodly 140 character Tweet, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?!

First, let’s address the best way of exchanging information with another person – face-to face conversation.  A research study once showed that when two people are talking to one another, 55% of the understanding of the message comes from the sender’s body language, 38% from the tone of voice, and 7% is from the words that are used.  I used to do a demonstration in a human communication class using 3 simple words – “I love you.”  I would say them in several different ways, changing my vocal inflection and facial expression with each one.  The class quickly grasped the concept.   That is why it is so important to conduct critical information exchanges in person.  Telephone conversations are OK, but you are missing the non-verbal (facial expression and body language) part.  Written communication is the least effective because all you have are the words.  You really have to hope you compose your messages clearly so that they are understood the way they are meant.

When we encode a message and send it to other people, they have to decode the message and decide what it means.  Even in a face-to-face conversation, where the message includes tone of voice and body language, this may not be enough to decode the message correctly.  You may “hear” the message, but not truly understand its meaning.  That is why communication is most effective when there is some kind of feedback to close the loop of the message exchange.  This is called “listening for understanding” – or what we in the communication field call “active listening.”  It includes the step of feeding back, in your own words, your understanding of what you just heard and verifying it with the person who sent the message.

Sender:    “There’s no way we’re gonna get all this work done today.”
Receiver:  “You’re worried that you won’t finish the concrete pours on the bridge deck?”
Sender:     “No, the pours are going fine, but I don’t think we will have all the steel tied for tomorrow’s pour.”
Receiver: “Oh, so we need some extra help with the steel work?”
Sender:     “Yeah, if we could get a couple more guys to help, that would be great.”
Receiver:  “So two more rebar specialists this afternoon will do it?”
Sender:    “Yes, if we can get them here by 2:00, we can finish by 5:00”
Receiver:  “I’ll have them here by 2:00 o’clock.”
Sender:    “Great!  Thanks!”

Unfortunately, very few people active listen to the person they are talking to.  I admit, when someone is talking to me, I am usually so focused on figuring out what I want to say back, that I’m not really listening to what is being said.  And many times, after I respond with my thoughts I get a funny expression from the person that says, “Did you even hear what I just said?”  That’s because I didn’t take the time to add that one step – feed back what I think I heard and confirm it with the other person.  If we can learn to add that check for understanding, our conversations become much clearer and more satisfying.

Listening for understanding is especially critical in a problem solving or conflict situation.  If helps define the problem more clearly, signifies that you are attempting to understand the other person’s point of view and that you care about finding a fair solution. When I get called in to mediate or facilitate a conflict resolution meeting, I find that most of my role is simply serving as the “active listener” for the parties involved.  They have gotten into a pattern of talking “at” one another – arguing their own points of view with lots of “yeah, but’s” thrown in – rather than listening to understand what each other is saying.  So I facilitate by first active listening to each person and understanding the message they are trying to send (while the other person simply listens quietly).  Then I active listen to the other person to understand their side of the issue (while the first person listens quietly).  Serving as this conduit may be the first time each person actually “feels” listened to.  Then, I encourage each person to do the same as I did – feed back their understanding of what they hear each person saying. It gets us to a point of common understanding so we can begin working to find a mutually agreeable solution.

So, here is my challenge to you all.  The next time you find yourself in a one-on-one conversation that involves a few “Yeah, but’s,” take a breath and really LISTEN to the other person.  Then feed back your understanding of what you just heard.  “So you’re saying …?”  Did you get it right?


“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that is has taken place.”
                                              – George Bernard Shaw


Next Up:  Part Three – Win-Win Conflict Resolution
Read Part One – Successful Partnering Begins With Commitment


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