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Volume 24, Issue 19;   May 8, 2024: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: III

Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: III


Recognizing just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can reduce the incidence of problems. Here is Part III of a collection of antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure, emphasizing contextual factors.
NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost on attempted entry into Mars orbit

NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost on attempted entry into Mars orbit on Sptember 23, 1999. It either crashed onto the surface of Mars or escaped Mars gravity and entered a solar orbit. The failure was due to mismatch of measurement units in two software systems. A NASA-built system used metric units and a system built by Lockheed Martin used "English" units. In the terminology of this post, the NASA team and the Lockheed Martin team were using incompatible frames.

Some miscommunications can have dire consequences.

NASA artist's rendering courtesy Wikimedia.

In Part I of this exploration, I described three communication antipatterns that can arise independent of what we intend to communicate. In Part II I described antipatterns that arise, in part, because of the attributes of what we're communicating. In this last Part III, I focus on three kinds of confusions that arise from contextual factors.

As in the previous posts in this series, I use the name Eugene (E for Expressing) when I'm referring to the person expressing an idea, asking a question, or in some other way contributing new material to an exchange. And I use the name Rachel (R for Receiving) when I'm referring to the person Receiving Eugene's communication.

With that prolog, here are three antipatterns that increase the risk of miscommunication.

Poor framing
The frame of a message includes the specific context required to understand it. The specific context is the top layer of the knowledge stack. It includes specific vocabulary, acronyms, historic references, and the settings in which components must operate. Because framing terminology that also serves other purposes can create ambiguity, the frame includes information needed to resolve those ambiguities.
Rachel (a recipient) If time constraints are tight,
the urge to find communications
shortcuts can be overwhelming
can understand only well-framed messages. A poorly framed message almost certainly leads to miscommunication.
Examples are among the most powerful tools for mitigating the risk of poor framing. If Eugene (the person Expressing the message content) doesn't include examples, Rachel would do well to ask for them, or perhaps to formulate one herself and ask Eugene to confirm that it's a relevant example.
Similarity to previous problems
If time constraints are tight, the urge to find communications shortcuts can be overwhelming. One very appealing shortcut involves viewing the current problem as another instance of a previously solved problem. That approach can work well at times, because it saves some of the effort associated with defining the problem and then finding a solution.
But in our haste we sometimes overlook important distinctions between the current problem and the problem previously solved. For example, when Eugene has taken this shortcut, and Rachel or others haven't, the opportunities for miscommunication are numerous. Worse, recognizing the miscommunications can be difficult when the parties are talking about different problems using similar vocabularies.
At some point when this has occurred, someone might say, "Wait, are we talking about the same thing?" If you feel the urge to ask such a question, you could be caught in this kind of trap.
Closely held information
If one of the parties to the exchange, let's say Eugene, has access to closely held information, special kinds of miscommunications can occur. Suppose that Eugene knows about Secret 1, but Rachel doesn't. And suppose that Secret 1 is relevant to their exchange. We can easily imagine scenarios in which Eugene — knowingly or unknowingly — allows Rachel to exit the conversation with a significant misconception. But there's nothing special about these roles — we can swap roles and the problem could still arise.
Eugene's failure (or choice) to inform Rachel that she is misinterpreting some part of their exchange might not reflect badly on Eugene. For example, he might be constrained by law or by role not to reveal anything about Secret 1, including its very existence.
Both Eugene and Rachel might simultaneously possess closely held information that they cannot reveal to the other. Navigating in environments in which these scenarios are common can be challenging.

Last words

These three posts have explored miscommunications that arise in three categories: causes independent of content, causes that depend on content, and causes that depend on contextual factors. Other frameworks are possible, of course. To search for causes of miscommunication in your context, begin by collecting examples. If you can devise a framework that covers a significant share of your examples, you can use that framework to anticipate other communication antipatterns. Anticipation is among the first steps toward prevention.  Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: I First issue in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Should I Write or Should I Call?  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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See also Effective Communication at Work and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

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