“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.
First, 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
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:
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.
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!