How Perception Impacts Project Communications

Most issues that arise in the performance of professional services have their root cause in the communications that occur between the humans executing the work. It’s an interesting aspect of human endeavor in that the thing we all do every day is communicate. So, why is it that something we do every day causes us the most difficulty?

The difficulty arises from the frame of reference, perspective or objective of at least one of the communicators. Readers of this blog will know that I always like to end it with some quotes. On this topic, there is no shortage of material to draw from. It has been talked about for centuries. Yet, as a collection of societies, we seem to do nothing about it other than acknowledge that it is a problem.

In The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Z. Shafir, the author emphasizes that listening is the key to better communications, and that listening is a skill that needs to be developed. Good listening is borne out of a dedicated curiosity of one person in what another is thinking. It is not necessarily a natural curiosity, as our egos and the challenges of making progress in the direction we want to go cause us to be self-centered in our communications.

Stephen Covey observed that most people listen with the intent of how they will reply, rather than understand the speaker’s point of view. It is all about the frame of reference. Another Covey habit of successful people is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” The implication is, of course, that it is human nature to want to be understood more than to understand those with whom we communicate.

In addressing a recent issue where different teams were collaborating on a project, I held a conference call with a few of the senior members of the team that were, in my opinion, wrong about how they handled a situation. I shared with them my perspective about what happened, where they were wrong, and what my expectations were. What I didn’t do was first ask them why they chose to go the route they did. 

I first sought to be understood. And, in doing so, I did the following:

  1. I modeled wrong behavior as a leader,
  2. I devalued the great contributions and efforts these teammates have made that put them on the senior management team in the first place, and
  3. I missed a coaching opportunity to help everyone on a team be better at addressing issues and resolving conflicts before they get amplified.

The epilogue to this anecdote: I pointed out what I did and apologized to the team members. We talked about it and they pointed out that had we set up a fifteen minute conference call with the team members, it would have been resolved rather than a flurry of emails going about. A takeaway we all know intuitively is that it is easier to understand people when you are face to face, or talking with them, as opposed to email.

Finally, Christmas is a time where we are supposed to slow down, step back and open our hearts up more. ‘Tis the season to “first seek to understand” – perhaps we would all do better to make every day a little more like Christmas. And, finally my quote for this post:


Jesus Christ