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Category Archives: Team Communication

What Did You Say, Again?

What Did You Say, Again?

“Fundamentally, you have partners in this enterprise speaking different languages.”

This quote by John Logsdon appeared in an article in the LA Times on October 1, 1999. At the time, Logsdon was the director of the space policy institute at George Washington University, and he was referring to the loss of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter, which had burned up in the Martian atmosphere earlier that year.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this debacle? The accident occurred because engineers at Lockheed Martin used English units of measurement, while their counterparts at NASA used the metric system.

Well, actually, that’s not why the accident occurred. The accident occurred because engineers at Lockheed Martin used English units of measurement, while their counterparts at NASA used the metric system, and NO ONE CAUGHT IT.

I don’t know about you, but I see similar situations every day with the leaders and teams I work with. People miscommunicate, and often don’t even realize that they’re miscommunicating. Sure, none of my clients is losing $125 million space orbiters, but I have seen people lose jobs, projects, and the good will of others. I can’t attribute any of these situations solely to miscommunication, but it was definitely a significant element of the problem.

This is why the simplest tool I have in my tool box is the one I pull out most often when I’m working with teams. That tool is paraphrasing. Often, I actually feel a little sheepish introducing it, worried that the client will think “that’s the best you’ve got to offer?” But I persist, because over the years I’ve noticed one crucial fact. Everybody knows how to paraphrase, but no one actually does it. And when you need your team to collaborate effectively in order to deliver the results you need, the lack of shared understanding can become a big problem.

Three types of paraphrasing

communicationFirst, a simple refresher on paraphrasing. There are three types of paraphrasing that can be useful, depending on the situation. I call them simple repeating, clarifying meaning, and listening between the lines. (Credit to John L. Wallen for these distinctions.)

Simple repeating is just what it says. When was the last time you gave someone your phone number or credit card number over the phone? Often that person will parrot back the number, just to make sure they heard it right. Simply repeating information like this is also useful when you’re communicating a meeting location: “Great. See you at Peet’s at 1:00.”

Often, though, you need a little bit more depth to your paraphrasing. Did your friend mean the Peet’s on 17th, or the one on 24th? This is where clarifying meaning comes in, which simply refers to trying to understand the meaning behind someone’s words. A great way to do this is to say in your own words what you think they mean, and then give them a chance to confirm or clarify.

Examples of clarifying meaning

  • “When you say you think this is a bad decision for employees, do you mean you think it will have a negative effect on morale?”
  • “You’re saying you think we should be more fiscally conservative. Do you mean we should look at cutting costs across the board?”

The last type of paraphrasing is listening between the lines. This type can be most useful in situations of high intensity, where people have strong opinions and strong emotions. Listening between the lines means listening for the assumptions and emotions that are underneath the words people are saying, and then reflecting them back and checking them out. When even one person on a team is able to do this, it can often shift a stuck conversation into new territory and build greater shared understanding.

Examples of listening between the lines:

  • “It seems like you’re really worried about the effect of this decision on our financial health. Is that so? What specifically worries you?”
  • “I hear you advocating for making this change to our program. Are you assuming that we’ll be able to serve more people? What is that assumption based on?”
  • “You seem angry as you’re talking to me about this project. Is there something I’ve done to upset you?”

So, what can you do as a leader to help your team develop the skills of repeating, clarifying meaning, and listening between the lines? Consider these action steps as a place to start.

Action Steps

1. When your team seems stuck, try paraphrasing. You know, when the conversation has been going in circles for 20 minutes, or when there is strong disagreement between people, paraphrase what you’re hearing people say. Test your understanding. The more you model this behavior, the more likely it is others will paraphrase more as well.

2. Ask people to paraphrase you. This can seem awkward at first, but it can be illuminating when you learn more about the meaning people are actually making from the words you’re using. You can say something like, “I want to make sure we’re really understanding each other clearly. What is it you’re hearing me say?”

3. Check your intentions. Like any tool, paraphrasing can be misused. I notice this a lot in parenting (“What did you hear me say, young lady?”), but I think it applies among adults as well. Paraphrasing works best when you genuinely want to understand the other person better. It tends to backfire if your intention is to make a point. (Cue sarcastic tone: “Are you saying you think we can lower costs and improve outcomes?”) So, check your intentions before you open your mouth.

4. Point out the pattern. If you notice that members of your team rarely paraphrase each other, point it out. Not in a blaming way, but in a way that links the pattern to the outcomes you’re noticing. Maybe the miscommunication that results means that decisions have to be rehashed, or you waste meeting time in unnecessary conflict. The more you can raise your team’s awareness of the behavior, and what results from it, the more chance you all have of catching yourselves in the act and doing something different.

What struck me most about the LA Times article I cited above was the lack of finger-pointing directed at individuals in the aftermath of the Mars Climate Orbiter disaster. A director at NASA was quoted as saying “People make mistakes all the time…[the problem here] was systematic failure to recognize and correct an error that should have been caught.”

The same thing can be said of communication patterns in teams and organizations. Miscommunication happens all the time – it’s not a mark of incompetence, it’s part of being human. The problem is the “systematic failure” to recognize it and bridge the gaps. That’s where paraphrasing comes in. It might be a simple tool, but it sure is necessary.

What about you? What do you notice about paraphrasing – or the lack of it – on your team? What effect does paraphrasing have when you use it? What other ways do you have of deepening shared understanding? I’d love to hear your comments!

Things Aren’t What You Think!

Things Aren’t What You Think!

I was at a conference the other day and saw a brief video that demonstrated something called the McGurk effect. I had never heard of this phenomenon, and found it fascinating. The presenter asked half the room – myself included – to close our eyes, and played 4 seconds of video which the other halfContinue Reading

This Formula Will Help You Close Communication Gaps On Your Team

This Formula Will Help You Close Communication Gaps On Your Team

Not long ago, I sat in on a meeting between one of my clients and his boss. His boss requested the meeting because he had recently observed or heard about several incidents in which my client’s behavior had a negative impact on other team members. He wanted to hear my client’s perspective. He also wantedContinue Reading

What If It’s Not Personal?

What If It’s Not Personal?

Last night at dinner my husband asked me: How do you get two people on a project to get along? I immediately responded with lots of questions: What’s the context? Whose project is it? What are the reporting relationships? How do you know they’re not “getting along?” What’s happening as the result of them notContinue Reading

Have You Opened Your Gifts?

Have You Opened Your Gifts?

Not too long ago, a client said to me at the end of our meeting, “I don’t know if you know this, but I really look forward to these meetings.” It was, of course, a very nice thing to hear. In retrospect, however, I think of her comment as a gift I left unopened. IContinue Reading

What’s More Critical To Team Development – Being Positive, or Being Real?

What’s More Critical To Team Development – Being Positive, or Being Real?

I recently saw a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio.” You may have seen it, too – or at least come across the idea. The basic point is that the verbal communication on high-performing teams (or in happy marriages) is consistently more positive than negative. This particular HBR post cited researchContinue Reading

Moving Teams To Action: How To Ensure Follow Through On Decisions

Moving Teams To Action: How To Ensure Follow Through On Decisions

As I’ve written before, one common challenge many teams face is the endless loop of discussion that never leads to decisions. No action will take place without that first step. Even when teams succeed in making decisions, though, there’s another common obstacle to effective action, and that’s lack of follow through. Do you know whatContinue Reading

Moving Teams To Action: How To Turn Discussions Into Decisions

Moving Teams To Action: How To Turn Discussions Into Decisions

One of the more common complaints I hear from leaders and teams alike is, “nothing ever moves forward around here.” People describe how discussions go on and on, or get revisited in meeting after meeting, without ever leading to a decision. (Or, decisions get made but there’s no follow through. I’ll cover this in anContinue Reading

How To Avoid Meetings That Go In Circles

How To Avoid Meetings That Go In Circles

Most teams struggle with meetings that go in circles. Repetitive conversations with no clear end point, confusion about what the topic is, time wasted re-hashing decisions you thought you made at the last meeting….Sound familiar? Last week a colleague and I spent three days with a team that went in circles. Sometimes big, meandering circles.Continue Reading

The Terrors of Triangulation

The Terrors of Triangulation

Recently it seems that every leader I talk to tells me some story about triangulation. They don’t call it that, necessarily, but that’s what they’re describing. Here’s what I’m hearing: “One staff person came to me with a complaint about another, and I told her that she needed to go have that conversation with theContinue Reading