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The Dorset House Quarterly Interviews

Naomi Karten
Author of Communication Gaps and How to Close Them

ISBN: 978-0-932633-53-8  
©2002  376 pages   softcover  
$33.95 (plus shipping)

DHQ: Your brand-new book, Communication Gaps and How to Close Them, asserts that communication is as important to software projects as tools, methods, and languages. Do people have trouble accepting that?

KARTEN: People become open to accepting the critical role of communication when they have personal ahas about the impact of communication failures. In my seminars, I've found that simulations of actual work experiences can help people appreciate the flaws in when and how they communicate. Once people gain this insight, they're very open to considering change. For example, a few of my recent seminars were with technical groups that were highly motivated to be responsive to clients, but in their haste, they often neglected to ask some important questions that would have helped them understand what their customers really wanted. Participating in some simulations helped them realize how their behavior and tactics contributed to the problem they were experiencing.

DHQ: What is the biggest stumbling block in convincing managers and technical professionals that effective communication is vital to the success of their projects?

KARTEN: When I think back to my days as a techie, I can well recall being happiest when I could concentrate on my programming and testing; having to interact with other people was a distraction and a nuisance. So, with technical professionals, the challenge is to help them appreciate how just a few small changes can have positive consequences for their immediate work -- and for their career growth. Most managers, by contrast, are already aware of the importance of effective communication, but some don't appreciate the damaging impact of faulty communication on productivity and relationships -- and some don't want to deal with these "messy people issues."

DHQ: In this fast-paced, ever-changing world of systems and software development, is there time to worry about communication skills?

KARTEN: Focusing on communication doesn't take time; it saves time. As technical professionals and management well know, the further in a development effort an error is found, the longer it takes to resolve and the greater the cost, so it's vital to put the effort in up front. The same is true of communication; it invariably takes longer and costs more to resolve the relationship, project, and service problems caused by flawed communication than to take steps to communicate effectively in the first place. It's a small investment with a huge payoff.

DHQ: How can we identify communication problems within a company?

KARTEN: Some questions can help, such as: Is the level of employee grousing excessive? Are we issuing mixed messages? Do we spend a lot of time undoing mistakes or redoing work to get it right? Are we experiencing a lot of customer complaints? Have we had difficulty introducing and managing change -- or been on the receiving end of a mismanaged change effort? Situations such as these are likely to be at least partly the result of flawed communication. Therefore, it's a worthwhile strategy to examine whether faulty communication might have contributed to these situations, and to evaluate how changes in what's communicated and when and how it's communicated might prevent a recurrence.

DHQ: What if our managers don't think time spent on communication is mission-critical or even productive?

KARTEN: Fortunately, people can take numerous steps to improve their own communication without requiring management's approval or support. For example, you can make a point of asking follow-up questions to clarify a colleague's instructions. You can respond faster to phone and e-mail messages from key customers, even if only to explain that you don't yet have the information they want. You can periodically voice your appreciation of the efforts of others. You can moderate your tone of voice so you don't come across as blaming. You can try harder to consider another person's perspective, and to shape your comments accordingly. We can all take personal responsibility to work on our own self-improvement. If we each focus on doing our best as individual "Gapologists," we can have a huge positive impact on our relationships with each other and on our ability to achieve our work goals.

DHQ: Your first Dorset House book, Managing Expectations, continues to sell very well. How is it most relevant today?

KARTEN: Managing expectations has certainly proven to be a very compelling and enduring topic. I regularly hear from people who have read my examples of mismanaged expectations and tell me, "That's my company you're writing about!" The book focuses on twelve strategies for managing expectations, such as: help customers describe their needs, become an information-gathering skeptic, clarify customer perceptions, try the solution on for size, listen persuasively, and when appropriate, just say whoa! As with Communication Gaps, my examples focus on the experiences of software and IT organizations, supplemented by amusing everyday experiences that everyone can relate to.

DHQ: You explore communication issues in your newsletter, Perceptions & Realities. Tell us about that project and where we can find it.

KARTEN: My newsletter uses a lighthearted approach to address serious issues that arise in such areas as delivering superior service, enhancing teamwork, improving consulting skills, managing expectations, strengthening client relations, and gathering customer feedback. Communication is at the heart of these articles. For seven years, Perceptions & Realities was a printed newsletter, but this year, I started posting it on my Website in PDF format, downloadable by one and all at no charge. Readers are welcome to print as many copies of each issue as they'd like. It's on my Website at www.nkarten.com/newslet.html.

DHQ: You write about engaging in a variety of athletic activities -- everything from skiing to bungee jumping. What leads you to try new things, and what's next?

KARTEN: Well, bungee jumping was a one-time thing -- I'd always been curious about what it would be like, and when the opportunity presented itself, I couldn't resist. It resulted in one of my favorite presentation stories, so terrifying though it was -- and it was! I'm glad I did it. Skiing is an addiction. I love the feeling of propelling myself down the mountain. At my favorite ski area, there's a group of skiers over the age of 80. My goal is to stay healthy enough to someday join their 80+ Club (not too soon, though!). In the meantime, my current fun thing is aerobics. I'm taking a cardio-kickboxing class and a class called "Survivor," which is intensive huffin' and puffin'. I want to become aerobically fit enough to write my next book!

DHQ: What is a communication gap? How will we know when we've encountered one?

KARTEN: I use the term "communication gap" to refer to situations, in which inadequate, inappropriate, or faulty communication adversely affects work or the relationship among the people doing the work. Communication gaps are frequently caused by misdirected, one-way, poorly timed, or badly worded communications, as well as by misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and miscommunications among the parties involved. And sometimes, even if you've communicated perfectly, people respond in unexpected or puzzling ways. We're all capable of creating a communication gap, contributing to one, or falling victim to a gap created by someone else, and the best way to prevent gaps from occurring, or at least to minimize their impact, is to become aware of them.

DHQ: Do gaps only occur in conversations?

KARTEN: Hardly. Communication gaps are pervasive. They occur in all forms of communication, and between individuals and groups at all organizational levels. Gaps can occur if people aren't mindful about how they offer ideas, present information, implement change, propose policies, solicit needs, make recommendations, establish standards, give or receive feedback, or simply converse -- whether with customers, suppliers, management, colleagues, or teammates. Attention to when and how we communicate is especially critical to successfully building relationships, delivering superior service, and managing change, which is why I devoted a section of the book to these three contexts.

DHQ: How did you first discover communication gaps? What kinds of gaps do you encounter in your work?

KARTEN: My psychology background provided the theoretical underpinnings and my IT technical and management experience helped me become an observer of gaps in action. Now, as a long-time consultant and seminar leader, I regularly encounter the damaging consequences of communication gaps in client organizations. For example, although software personnel in one organization expected a leap in customer satisfaction due to numerous service improvements, customers hardly noticed and continued to complain. In a second organization, an IT division embarked on a company-wide desktop upgrade that was an agonizingly painful experience for both themselves and their customers. Customers in a third organization learned at an inopportune time that their hardware vendor defined its problem response standard differently than they realized. A consultant preparing to visit a fourth organization was overwhelmed by anxiety in response to an innocuous request from his client. These are just a few of the numerous examples I address in the book.

DHQ: What kinds of communication preferences do people have, and how can you use them to your advantage? How do you find out someone's preferences?

KARTEN: We all have communication preferences, such as whether we prefer to receive information in written or spoken form and if in writing, in a narrative form or a visual form. Some people prefer active, high-energy group interaction; others prefer time to reflect and one-on-one or small group interactions. While we all have general preferences such as these, our specific preferences may vary from one situation to another, and may change over the course of a project. Accommodating someone's preferences enables you to interact more effectively with the person, thereby improving your odds of a successful outcome. Observing and listening yield clues about a person's communication preferences, but the most reliable way to understand someone's preferences is to discuss these preferences early and often -- that is, at the outset of a project or relationship and then periodically over time. I think of this process as communicating about how you're going to communicate.

DHQ: What is a Perspectoscope™, and where can we buy one?

KARTEN: Ah, I'm glad you asked. If you can understand another party's perspective, you're in a much better position to avoid communication gaps. But understanding that perspective is no simple matter, so I invented a tool called a Perspectoscope to make it easier. A Perspectoscope looks something like a telescope. To use it, you point it at the person whose perspective you'd like to better understand. Then you look through the eyepiece, and voilà, you see the world as that person sees it. By becoming aware of the person's attitudes, actions, and behavior, you can choose ways of interacting with the person that may be more effective than those you've used previously. I was hoping to have Release 1.0 of the Perspectoscope produced by now, but we're, um, having difficulty with the prototype. In the meantime, until we get the bugs worked out, the book offers numerous techniques to help you better understand someone else's perspective.

DHQ: What are service level agreements (SLAs) and how does communication affect them?

KARTEN: A service level agreement is a highly effective tool for improving communication between service providers and customers, or between any two parties that need to interact or cooperate in support of a third party or a shared goal. An SLA is a formal, negotiated agreement that helps the parties identify expectations, clarify responsibilities, and provide an objective basis for assessing service effectiveness. Communication plays a crucial role in two ways. First, the communication that takes place while creating the SLA helps the parties understand each other's needs and constraints far better than before. Second, once the agreement is operational, the parties manage it through a communication process that includes service tracking and reporting, collaborative problem solving, and periodic reviews of service effectiveness. SLAs have been strikingly effective in helping parties transform their relationship from adversarial to win-win.

DHQ: What is the first step one should take toward improving communication?

KARTEN: Awareness. The starting point is to become mindful of the potential for communication gaps and to channel that awareness into observing gaps after they've occurred, and when possible, preventing them from occurring in the first place. As you develop that awareness, consider the role you may have played in creating or contributing to a gap. When a situation plays out in a puzzling or unintended way, be open to asking yourself: "Could the reason be me? Could there be something I said or heard or misinterpreted that led to this situation?" I've had a head start in becoming a Gapologist because I'm my own best case study. As I reveal in the book, I've experienced numerous personal examples of flawed or confusing communication, so I've had lots of opportunities to discover that, Yes, at times, it's me!

DHQ: Why should a techie -- who already has to keep up with endless changes in technology and programming languages -- read a book on a soft skill like communication?

KARTEN: Because the book addresses their everyday experiences and explains the causes of some of their familiar frustrations. Because the examples I use are from their organizations -- or organizations like theirs. Because they will learn simple changes they can make that will dramatically improve their ability to interact effectively with others in pursuit of their technical goals. Because as a former software developer and IT practitioner myself, I understand the challenges faced by technology professionals and I'd love for them to have an easier time of it than I had. And because readers have described the book as a down-to-earth, very accessible, non-ponderous, amusing-while-serious, information-packed book that they enjoyed reading -- even at the beach!

DHQ: If an organization wanted to appoint a Czar of Communication Gaps or Chief Gapologist, where would that role appear on the org chart?

KARTEN: In Managing Expectations, I described the role of Expectations Manager as a designated or rotating responsibility within a work group, so that over time, everyone in the group would gain expertise at focusing on expectations. I'd advocate the same approach for communication. Preventing and resolving gaps is something everyone can do; it's a responsibility, not a role. But it would be valuable for each work group to have someone whose designated responsibility, perhaps on a rotating basis, is to pay particular attention to gap-prevention. And everyone at a high-enough level to manage across organizational boundaries should ideally be a skilled Gapologist as part of his or her existing duties.

DHQ: If you had to choose one lesson from Communication Gaps and How to Close Them that you would like the reader to come away with, what would that be?

KARTEN: Apply a generous interpretation. That is, when someone responds in a puzzling, confusing, or disturbing way to something you say or do, try to refrain from responding in kind, lashing out, finding fault, or jumping to conclusions. Often, the explanation for the person's response is much simpler, and far more positive, than anything you might imagine. Start by considering positive interpretations, and ask questions to check out your interpretation and to clarify the other person's intentions.

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