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Beyond Words


How well do we say what we mean? Diana Gibbs, Director of KD Partnership, explores the unspoken elements of management communication.

There is a well-known and sometimes much misused communication grid, based on the work of Mehrabian, which says that 100% effective transfer of our meaning in a spoken message comprises 55% visual signals, 33% auditory and 8% content. This does not of course mean that, of everything we say, only 8% is important - although I have come across such an interpretation!

Mehrabian’s research is intended to remind us how much personal interaction is based on our whole sensory system; that the body subliminally transmits, receives and interprets signals pulsing beyond our conscious awareness, like the sonar from a deeply submerged vessel. This subtle mix of behaviour is also frequently reduced to the short-hand term “body language”.

What happens is that incidences from our previous experience may be amplified into repeating patterns that significantly colour our reactions to new events. Unless we pay some attention to when this is happening, unhelpful patterns begin to get in the way of the message, filtering and distorting it so that rather like the “send three and fourpence we’re going to a dance”, (which started out as “send reinforcements we’re going to advance”), what arrives in the other person’s inbox is not what left our outbox.
Not only that, our emotions get mixed up in all of this too. So that a small work issue such as someone being late or forgetting an important item, grows in our minds to become an all-consuming, infuriating matter that diverts our energy.

If you recognise this kind of reaction you probably also know that there is plenty of theory outlining methods for dealing with it. In my personal and professional experience though, it takes a whole different order of thinking to put the theory into practice and deal with a situation neutrally and dispassionately. Much of this thinking is deemed to be ‘just common sense’, but do you know how to tap into your common sense when you’re under pressure, rushed and emotionally connected to the outcome you want?

During organisational change or in crucial negotiations, communication needs to be as sweet as a finely tuned engine. A poor choice of language, emotional baggage, and reluctance to move away from a familiar frame of reference can torpedo opportunities to move forward.

By paying attention to the process of a conversation as well as its content, and asking questions that surface our unspoken assumptions, we can take communication to the level of what Peter Senge calls ‘skillful dialogue’, have greater influence and get longer lasting results.

When we’re in charge, it can be really important to get to the nub of the issue. To gain people’s trust. How? By asking questions, well thought-out questions, and steering clear of conjecture. We call it “Extreme Dialogue”.

It works by helping us understand the extra matter embedded in our everyday conversations, and gives us an imaginative method for sharing more of our experience. We find that people who use this have shorter meetings – sharper decisions – focused activity – quicker results.
Extreme Dialogue is a suite of products including Wordplay© and think rich©. think rich© is a process for mapping information in a creative and energising form to encourage faster generation of ideas and solutions. Wordplay is a technique for eliciting deeper understanding during group and 1-1 interactions.

Clients who have experienced Extreme Dialogue say it has helped them to be focused when speaking to colleagues; prevented them from making assumptions about other people and their abilities; enabled them to think through and plan for difficult situations that need resolving; significantly improved the quality of staff supervision.

We have used it on a small scale with organisations such as a primary school, where the young, quite inexperienced classroom leaders needed to learn to manage their assistants and nursery nurses. The Principal wanted to see more direct handling of problems (rather than everything escalating to her), to expand everyone’s understanding of the required performance standards, and to get a more consistent level of performance. Within two months and only six hours contact time, the team of twelve leaders were feeling much more confident to tackle issues, and the school quickly reaped the benefits of timely conversations, through less misunderstanding and more stability.

Extreme Dialogue has also been employed in conjunction with other methods for learning to manage people. It has complemented the Kolb learning cycle route to coaching staff in how to learn from their experience and try different approaches. It has brought to life William Bridges’ concept of managing transformation and supplied the language needed to negotiate with seniors and staff. And it has enhanced the GROW coaching model we used with a senior team.

The decisive intervention is in enabling people to have a structure for asking questions and addressing sensitive issues objectively, whilst maintaining the boundaries in which they must operate and enforcing the standards needed to deliver results.

Given how important it is for leaders to be able to express what they mean, and help others hear what really needs saying, it is remarkable how many senior people that I meet still find this the hardest thing to do. So next time you’re feeling cynical about “body language” – been there, done that, got the T-shirt – perhaps you’d like to ask yourself, have I just said what I really meant, and was my message truly understood?

About the Author: Following an early career in the BBC, Diana Gibbs has spent the last 10 years working with leadership teams in private and public sectors, helping them drive their organisations forward by utilising what she calls Extreme Dialogue to achieve effective communication. Diana focuses on the skills needed to conduct management conversations and develop good quality working relationships.


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