Communication Conflicts

Assumptions, Emotions, Perceptions, Conditions, and Facts color our communication with ourselves and others. We must learn to manage them.

A wise man once said that the hardest thing about communication is the illusion that it has occurred. I have been involved in hundreds of medical, military, and public safety operations, and the after-action reviews of each one cite communication as a problem. Whether in business, relationships, or anywhere else, avalanches of academic papers and mountains of media articles bemoan our inability to effectively talk to each other, and propose ways of fixing it.

Several factors are present in every communication event, including assumptions, emotions, perceptions, conditions, and facts. They change the communication, often without the participants realizing it.

Assumptions

Assumptions are believed true but without proof. Each person, whether he considers himself religious, spiritual, philosophical, materialistic, or something else, makes metaphysical assumptions, assumptions about the fundamental questions of life. Suppose three college students, Mike, Sienna, and Jorge, are talking about their planned vacations. Mike, a Christian, believes that God created everything, that He is the center of existence, and that the purpose of every created thing, including people, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Sienna, a secularist, believes that the universe is just one of many universes in a “multiverse”, that the human community is the center of existence, and that making oneself happy is the purpose of existence.  Jorge, a philosophical naturalist, agrees with Sienna on the origin of things, believes that each individual is the center of existence for that individual, and claims that the universe has no meaning or end at all. Mike plans to do a mission trip to Brazil for his spring break, Sienna is scheduled to take an eco- and poverty-tourist trip to Belize, and Jorge is going to the Caribbean for alcohol, parties, and women. Each is acting in accordance with their fundamental assumptions about life, but their discussion will probably be no deeper than “whatever works for you.”

Most people do not recognize their own assumptions, but have a smorgasbord mishmash drawn from religions, the media, popular culture, and those around them. Nonetheless, these assumptions color everything that we do – from who we marry to how we work and vote. When two people talk, the further apart their assumptions are, the harder it will be for them to communicate, and the less likely it will be for the conversation to go well. Keep in mind that we are talking about fundamental, important assumptions; beliefs about life, the nature of good and evil, and purpose.

Imagine that Asherah, an ancient Sumerian woman, were listening to the conversation between Mike, Sienna, and Jorge. Unfamiliar with any idea of universal religion, she would puzzle over why Mike was sailing over the ocean (she couldn’t conceive of flying) to bring his religion to another people, who already had their own gods. Scoffing at the idea that all people are created equal, she would be scandalized that Sienna was going anywhere without her father or brother, and that she should be care about poor at all. Even if our Sumerian maiden secretly admired Sienna’s independence, she would not admire her egalitarian leanings. Asherah would understand Jorge’s plans the best, and if Jorge were wealthy, might approve.

Lesser assumptions also impact communication. If a woman believes that black men are threatening, or that men in general are oppressive, she will have trouble understanding anything that a male is trying to say, no matter how he says it. If a man considers women little more than sexual prey, he will be equally impotent in understanding women. The same is true for other prejudices, no matter their basis (religion, culture, nation, etc.). That is why such attitudes are so toxic.

Emotions

I know the look. When I am talking with my oldest daughter, I am in trouble when she squints, tilts her head, and furrows her brow. At that point, I better start apologizing, because we have moved from (usually) rational discourse to emotional damage control. It is not that she is unusually irrational but that she, like all people, is a complex mix of intellect and emotion. Often the emotion leads. My daughter is helpful in that she signals when the switch has occurred – with others you may never know.

Emotions powerfully affect communication, sometimes blocking it entirely. When doctors give a patient a terminal diagnosis, the patient hears nothing else during that conversation, no matter how the doctor says it. When a judge announces a contest winner, the same thing happens. Excessive anger or fear can also stop the ears and close the mind. Stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol surge in the body, and all the person can do is react.

Emotions color conversations. All else being equal, speaking with someone you love will always be better than speaking with someone that you do not like, or are neutral towards, even if the words are as tame as “Please pass the butter.” Newlyweds eating by candlelight might see that request with the rose hue of love, while feuding co-workers at a mandatory company dinner might see it with the red fire of anger or the blue ice of bitterness.

Talking with someone new may be exciting, but it also generates fear. The same is true of talking to a person of a different age, sex, religion, culture, nationality, race, or political persuasion. Discourse with those who are different from ourselves is imperative, but the emotions involved often make it more difficult.

Emotions amplify or deaden the importance of communication. When a rigorous teacher in an important class says, “the test is tomorrow”, students will color and amplify the statement based on their perceived readiness. Prepared students will feel satisfied in their work and a readiness to get the exam over with, and unprepared students will feel dread about their anticipated grade and shame for not working harder. The words “the test is tomorrow” will pound in the unready student’s head all day long, while the ready student will hardly give them a second thought.

Perceptions

I was standing near a military medical tent in Washington DC during Barak Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. The Presidential motorcade was approaching, and several black women were chattering wildly in anticipation of seeing America’s first black president. Their emotions were high, and from the tenor and text of their conversation, had been for days. It was hard to know which black limousine the President was in, and hard to see anyone inside the vehicles due to their dark, tinted windows. Nonetheless, everyone found him and in the few seconds that he passed by, studied his every move. One woman shouted, “he looked at me!” while another exclaimed “he smiled at me!” Watching the same scene, I could not be sure that the President had done either. He could have scowled, or more likely not noticed them at all given the tens of thousands of people on the parade route, but it didn’t matter. Those women will stick to their stories and tell them to their friends and family all of their lives.

Perceptions are mental impressions or intuitive insight. In day to day life, what we perceive is often more important to our understanding and our actions than the truth. A look, body position, or tone of voice perceived as threatening, unkind, or even uncaring will undo the best of words. Similarly, favorable perceptions can make the communicating parties feel better about themselves and each other. Regardless of what Barak Obama actually did, the perceptions of these women at the Inauguration made them like him more.

Conditions

Everyone who communicates does so to gain something:

  1. Money
  2. Self-esteem
  3. Esteem in the eyes of others
  4. A chance to do good, whether by advancing their business or some other cause
  5. Specific, personal goals

While everyone more or less shares general goals, communicators are not likely to share specific goals. A boss might want to get his employee to do a task, while the employee might want to shift that work to someone else. A politician may want each person in the audience to vote for her, while listeners might want free food, a good time, and a chance to have an interesting experience with an important person that they can share with their friends. A man may want a date, but the woman he is talking to may simply want to escape from a “creepy” situation.

Real communication will be much harder to achieve if the parties don’t know what motivates others. If they know what the other person is thinking, the boss might emphasize the benefits of doing this particular job, the politician might design a rally to provide an exciting experience, and the suitor might learn more about the object of his affection to avoid making her uncomfortable. If the boss knows that nothing he can do will make the employee do the work, if the politician has no chance of getting certain votes, and if the man’s amorous advances are dead in the water, each would drastically change their tactics, or give up communicating all together.

Facts

People generally believe that they are communicating in facts, those objective truths upon which life is based. Because each party feels that he is dealing only in irrefutable facts, he may have trouble understanding how anyone could disagree. When we are not careful, this opinion leads to dismissing other opinions as stupid, or even evil. We demonize those with whom we disagree, and they demonize us. Our assumptions, emotions, and perceptions align against our opponents, and our desired outcome is no longer understanding or compromise, it is victory. Crushing the hated enemy, not understanding each other and accomplishing mutual objectives, becomes the goal.

Actually, facts can be challenged, debated, and seen from different perspectives. Truths are still objective – a person with colon cancer has colon cancer regardless of what they, their friends, or all the doctors in the world think. But finding the objective truth can be extremely difficult – much harder than we assume. No one has a monopoly on truth, but some do understand reality better than others – at least in certain fields. By comparing facts, acknowledging other opinions, being humble enough to learn, and keeping all participants’ best interests at heart, we all can get closer to the truth, and closer to solving the problems that vex our world.

Conclusion

It is hard to communicate effectively. If communication is an iceberg, facts are the visible part above the waterline, and assumptions, emotions, perceptions, and conditions are the barely visible parts below the surface. Just as the Titanic never would have foundered if it had hit only the top of the iceberg, so communication rarely founders on the facts. Rather, it founders because the parties don’t understand and sometimes don’t trust each other. Anyone who wants to communicate will take the time to ponder the assumptions, emotions, perceptions, conditions, and facts of others. These people will communicate better and have success.

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Getting People to Answer

A Navy Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) came into my office recently. “Sir, I have emailed Lt. Col X several times and she hasn’t answered yet. All I get is radio silence. Could you help?” This young officer was voicing a concern that I hear frequently; someone that they are trying to work with, or get something from, wasn’t answering. Or at least they weren’t answering fast enough to suit us at higher headquarters. When faced with such a problem, many junior staffers go to the Boss, hoping that he or she will contact the person and get immediate results. Sometimes if the issue is urgent that is the right approach. Sometimes even going directly to the boss of Lt. Col X is the best approach. Often, however, it is better for the junior staffer to get the information themselves, and there are many ways to do that. I have been faced with similar problems in the past and have learned the hard way that, unless the issue is urgent, I need to exhaust my options for resolving problems, such as radio silence from someone I am supposed to work with, before going further up the chain.

Make sure that you are asking for the right thing

Ultimately any request, whether for information or for a task to be done, must be right. The energy that it takes to do it must be worth the value that comes out of it. We have to ask the right person; it is no good asking the chief of patient administration to do something that the chief of neurosurgery should be doing. We have to be clear in our request and respectful in the delivery. We must only make ethical demands. In medicine our requests must be the right thing to do for our patients and other stakeholders.

Give a little time

Sometimes it is a little embarrassing to remember past mistakes. Several years ago our commander at William Beaumont Army Medical Center received a suggestion to cut imaging costs by preventing physicians’ assistants, nurse practitioners and primary care physicians from ordering expensive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. He asked me to get information from my department, primary care, and from other departments to address the question. In the flood of other tasks I quickly forgot until a few days before the information was due. A cold knot welled up in my stomach and a sent out a flood of emails to everyone involved so that I could at least shift the blame to them if I didn’t get the data in time. Or so I thought…

There are lots of good reasons why people don’t respond as quickly as we would like. Sometimes they just don’t get the message, whether because it is lost in cyberspace or because they are out of the office. Other times they get it but are so far behind on email that they don’t see it. The more emails I receive, the more I sympathize with this problem. Everyone is busy, and an issue that I consider urgent may not be urgent to someone else.  Sometimes requests are confusing and the recipient truly doesn’t know what they are being asked to do.  

Assume the best

Most people do not want to do the wrong thing. If your request is reasonable and you ask in a timely and friendly manner, most will want to honor it and will feel guilty if they don’t. We sometimes assume that we will act with wisdom and compassion while others act with foolishness and spite, assuming the best about ourselves but the worst about others. This arrogant attitude only makes it harder to get good things done.

Even in the worst of circumstances it is usually unhelpful to assume malice. Shortly after my father died my mother received an email from her health insurance provider stating that he had technically been off of her insurance during his last six months of life. Therefore they were going to bill her for his chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hospitalizations. Mom was panicky and my brother was furious, so she asked me what to do. I replied that in situations like this you will more often be correct if you assume laziness and incompetence rather than malice and villainy.  Calmed slightly, my mother called the insurance company. After getting referred a couple of levels up the management chain, she learned that a computer error, a policy change, and an unwillingness on the part of some of their staff to look deeper had combined to generate this misunderstanding. Everything was covered.

Flip the roles

In another instance we had asked our subordinate command to provide a report about a recent mock Joint Commission inspection. Rumor suggested that the results were not pretty, and they were dragging their feet. After many weeks and many entreaties our Quality Management shop turned to me for help. I contacted their chief of staff, listened while she explained their perspective and then clearly explained ours. Then I asked “if our roles were reversed, wouldn’t you and your commander want the same thing?” The report appeared in my inbox the same day.

Name drop

Every organization is conscious of rank and position, no matter how flat they are organizationally. The larger the organization, however, the more conscious of such things it tends to be. Nowhere is this more true than in the military. Sometimes stating that a request is from a colonel or Navy captain rather than from a lieutenant commander or major is enough to get results. Even better, sending an email that has the higher ranking officer on the courtesy copy list lets the recipient know that a boss is looking at the request. More than once this has made the difference between action and inaction.

Fingers, voice and feet

It is easy to send an email, and equally easy to miss or ignore an email. It is much harder to ignore a ringing phone, especially one that rings again and again. It is hardest of all to ignore a person sitting across from your desk or in the waiting room outside your office. If the target of your inquiry is not intentionally avoiding the issue, a phone call may be all that is needed to get results. Phone tag is not a bad thing if you are able to make headway. Further, emails can be confusing, clouding the picture more than clarifying it in many cases. This is especially true for complicated or contentious issues. Even if the target of your inquiry is intentionally avoiding you, a phone call or even a visit is vital. The communication motto for my staff is “friendly, but relentless.”

In the modern day of emails, texts and web posts it can be difficult and even threatening to have tense conversations over the phone or in person, but some things will never get done otherwise. People who can handle these situations well are like diamonds, scarce and precious.

Give something they want

Everyone wants something, and the person that you need information from is no exception. Sometimes they feel overwhelmed and want less to do so if you have asked them for three things and reduce that to only two, they may be happy enough to comply. Sometimes they want an encouraging word or even a complement about them to their boss. Sometimes they just want to be listened to, and if you spend five minutes listening to their challenges they will reward you with what you need. Sometimes they need help with what you are asking them to do; the Navy LCDR offered to help Lt Col X compile the data he requested.

People at lower headquarters need to know that their higher headquarters is doing something to benefit them. Staffers at higher levels can make their work easier by being value added for those at lower levels. Sometimes giving them “something they want” means protecting them from something that they don’t want.

Think outside the organization itself. Higher levels of command have more than just money and people to give to their subordinates. They have expertise and experience to share, and sometimes people at lower commands need and even want that expertise. They also have access to media outlets, whether a base newspaper or a local radio station, where they can spread the word about the good things that their subordinate command is doing.

Double team, diversely if possible

In the introductory story the Navy LCDR was trying to get information from Lt. Col X, and was getting the stiff arm. He had given it time, assumed the best, and dropped names. He had called and gotten nothing, so the next approach was to double team her. A young active duty Navy male had tried, so he enlisted an older civilian female.

Why try this, because two can apply more pressure than one, and can apply it in slightly different ways.  Who knows why Lt. Col X was resisting his entreaties? Perhaps this officer had a mannerism that she didn’t like, perhaps she interpreted his actions negatively, or his age, race, sex, service, or something else put her off. Discrimination based on these factors exists, and we must overcome it. As rational as we like to think we are, man is an inherently irrational creature. Man is also a tribal creature, with whom identity and identification matter. Perhaps involving someone who was more like Lt. Col X would influence her to provide the assistance needed.

The 360

Those we try to influence do not work alone; they have bosses, subordinates and peers. Since Lt. Col X outranked the Navy LCDR, another possibility was for him to approach her deputy, an Army major, and ask if Lt. Col X had been out of the office or had some other reason why she hadn’t replied. He then asked if he could do anything to help the major help his boss, Lt Col X.  

This technique is useful because everyone is influenced by those around them. Perhaps convincing a certain peer of Lt Col X that this task was important would be enough to get her to do it. Even a trusted subordinate could do the trick.

The Boss 

If the request for information or the task that needs to be done is urgent, sometimes lower level staffers have to go straight to their Boss, and he or she has to go straight to the other person’s Boss. Most requests, however, are routine. If a staff member has done everything that he or she can and still gets nowhere, the Boss must act. Senior leaders have various options, including all of the ones noted above. For example, I could go directly to Lt Col X’s boss or to her boss two levels up.

There is danger in doing this in the wrong way. Years ago when I was a young Army captain I was working in a clinic in Germany and my boss had made an unpopular decision and gone to lunch. A few minutes later a brigadier general came into the clinic. Since I was the ranking officer there at the time our near-panicky executive officer came to me and said “Dr. Harris, a general is at the front desk and wants to speak to you!” When I asked the general what I could do for him, he said “Dr. Harris, someone at this clinic made a decision a few minutes ago and I came in hoping that I could influence that decision.” He never said “I order you”, he never demanded, and he was never cross or even stern. Knowing that he had tremendous power, the general was very gentle in how he used it.  I never forgot the lesson.

There is also danger in doing this too much. Leaders and subordinates grow weary of leaders who seem to be throwing their weight around. Senior leaders are generally very busy and have little time to devote to non-senior-leader level things. Getting involved in staff level work too often impairs a leader’s own ability to get other work done.   

Conclusion

Poor communication and cooperation at every level is, and always has been, a problem in and between organizations. Staffers must do everything they can to fix this problem, including asking for the right thing, allowing time and assuming the best. They can flip the roles, drop names, and use fingers, voice and feet to accomplish their mission, always being ready to give a little in order to get a little. They enlist other people to help them. If all else fails or if time is short, they ask their boss for assistance. Ultimately the mission is what matters, and everyone at every level must accomplish it.