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Volume 17, Issue 25;   June 21, 2017: Anticipate Counter-Communication

Anticipate Counter-Communication

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Effective communication enables two parties to collaborate. Counter-communication is information provided by a third party that contradicts the basis of agreements or undermines that collaboration.
A raven

A raven, corvus corax, one of the most intelligent birds, with cognitive function comparable to chimpanzees and dolphins. Ravens have been observed solving complex problems, but perhaps their most impressive behaviors involve deceiving other animals. For example, if they know they are being observed caching food, they will pretend to cache it, but instead hold it in their beaks and secrete it somewhere else.

Counter-communication, which usually occurs in private, is that kind of deception. Working in a typical workplace, and assuming that counter-communication never occurs, is naïve.

Imagine that you and a colleague (call him Chad) have conversed about a problem that has arisen and which affects you both. You explained what you understood about it and what you didn't, and what you could do about it and what you couldn't. Chad did the same. Eventually, you agreed on a solution. Or so you thought.

Next day, Chad texts you. He now believes that parts of the problem that you explained to him are unclear, or that the solution you both adopted is no longer suitable, or he's troubled by some irrelevant factor. He wants another meeting, so you agree to talk by phone. In a quick, ten-minute conversation you clear up all objections, he's happy again, and you're both back on track with the original deal.

But this was the third time this happened. What is it with this guy? Can't he remember what you tell him? Or does he just not listen? Or perhaps he's not smart enough for his job?

Miscommunication is a failure to communicate clearly. Misapprehension is a failure to comprehend or understand. Misremembering is a failure to recall accurately. Sometimes, one or more of those explanations for post-agreement confusion do apply, but after someone reaches a certain level of responsibility in an organization, those explanations become improbable. Working in a complex, fast-paced, knowledge-oriented workplace requires a decent memory, good listening skills, significant intelligence, and an ability to learn quickly — and retain what you learn. So what else can be happening?

One possibility is what I call counter-communication. Counter-communication is communication from a third party who contradicts or otherwise undermines something previously communicated between the parties to the agreement. In other words, someone else might be talking to Chad.

We tend to We tend to assume that when
we come to an agreement with
others, and the basis of the
agreement is clear to all,
the agreement will stand
assume that when we come to an agreement with others, and the basis of the agreement is clear to all, the agreement will stand. We tend to assume that the parties won't be conferring with anyone hostile to the agreement, who might not grasp the issues, or who might have a personal agenda, or who might intentionally omit or misrepresent facts so as to call the agreement into question. We tend to assume that counter-communication will not occur.

Sometimes counter-communication happens. If it has happened to you, assume that agreements will be exposed to counter-communication. Anticipate the counter-communicators by providing your collaborators with re-enforcement in advance. Be explicit. For example, if one of the issues is whether Engineering will cooperate, you could say, "Chad, that's right, we are assuming that Engineering can provide that information by the 15th. I spoke with Anna in Engineering, and she says they already have it and that they'll send it tomorrow." By giving your partners information they can use to refute the counter-communicator, your own further direct involvement might not be required. It's nice when it works out that way. Keep in mind, though, that next time, your counter-communicator might anticipate your anticipating. Go to top Top  Next issue: Tackling Hard Problems: I  Next Issue

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