Photo credit: Nic MacMillan via Unsplash
By Gillian Haley
Communication planning is an essential component of successful change. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI) Pulse report titled The High Cost of Low Performance: The Essential Role of Communications, “On average, two in five projects do not meet their original goals and business intent, and one-half of those unsuccessful projects are related to ineffective communications. This translates to US$75 million at risk for every US$1 billion spent…”
The PMI article cited above is a source of research-based technical information on effective communications, such as content to include and delivery methods. As a Change Management specialist, I also consider the thornier issue of how people respond to change – even change executed with a technically correct plan.
As such, this post is about the fact that the word “communicate” has two very different meanings and teams and project leaders need to know which they have in mind when using the word “communicate” in all its forms.
This brief investment of time at the beginning of a project can make the difference between a communication plan that sets your project up for success versus a plan that contributes to resistance and failed change.
Why We Need to Talk About What We Mean by “Communicate”
It’s a given that the English language is confusing. There are so many exceptions to the rules and different letters that make the same sounds:
“Would you put their wood there?” or, “I want to present you with a present.”
For our purposes, we’re going to zero in on confusion caused by different types of verbs. I promise you will get a valuable “Aha!” if you learn about this significant detail: verbs can be transitive or intransitive, and some verbs can be both.
The verb “communicate” happens to be one of those verbs that can be both. Here’s Miriam-Webster to shed light on why that matters…
Communicate: verb, transitive
1. To convey knowledge or information about. 2. To cause to pass from one to another.
A transitive verb describes an action done to someone or something. An English teacher would say it’s followed by a direct object. For example, “The CEO communicated the date of the move to the employees.”
Communicate: verb, intransitive
1. To transmit information, thought, or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received and understood. 2. To open into each other: connect.
An intransitive verb also describes a doable action, but in contrast, the action is not done to someone or something, as there is no direct object. Instead, the verb describes a process between people or things. For example, “After the announcement, directors and their direct reports communicated.”
The difference between the transitive and intransitive forms of “communicate” is very clear when reading the definitions: You are either doing something to people or you are doing it with people.
That’s why we need to talk about what each person means by “communicate.”
Two Meanings = Two Types of Communication Plans
The first and most common type of communication plan is built around delivering information and is better described as a marketing or public education plan. We are simply telling people what we want them to hear and saying it in a way that we hope advances our cause, which is, essentially to sell the change we want to bring about.
One reason it’s the most common type of communication plan is it avoids dealing with how people respond to the message. And that makes it especially harmful when there is potential for misunderstanding or strong emotions, which turns out to be the case for many change initiatives.
So when is it useful?
- During minor or limited duration changes like street closures for an event or disruptions caused by painting an office building.
- Toward the end of a change, after stakeholders have moved through the early stages of awareness, understanding, and engagement, it’s perfect for communicating factual details like dates and topics of upcoming change-related activities.
The second type of communication plan – one that “transmits information, thought or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received and understood” – is key to successful change because it’s the source of much sought after buy-in. Sometimes people refer to it as “two-way communication.”
The catch is that not everyone understands what two-way communication means and the desire to avoid dealing with people’s responses often leads to listening without really engaging in a two-way process. Effective two-way communication is a matter of sharing information, responding to clarifying questions, listening to hopes and concerns, clarifying and responding to those hopes and concerns, and when everyone has been satisfactorily understood, reporting back what will be different as a result of new understanding gained. Whether things will change or not, everyone needs to know how their input was taken into account.
The steps below break this down into a simple four-step process that can be followed:
- Party one shares information about a change.
- Party two (those affected by the change) responds with clarifying questions, comments, and concerns.
- Party one clarifies questions and uses empathic listening to respond to comments by asking questions to better understand party two’s responses. Repeat steps 1-3 as needed.
- Party one and party two state what they learned from the exchange of information and what, if anything, has changed as a result.
Meetings with stakeholders often omit step 4 and the empathic listening component of step 3 so these meetings that were intended to engage and include stakeholders actually end up inflaming resistance. It’s vital to complete the loop after people give feedback; they want to hear how their concerns were understood and what, if anything, is going to be different as a result.
You’ll know you’ve got it right when stakeholders start to shift from their entrenched positions. The key is to genuinely engage in the entire 4-step process. The HBR article link at the end of this post provides further reading on listening empathically.
Creating the Conditions for Successful Change
I’ve used the 4-step, evidence-based process described above in my work with groups to achieve outcomes such as a dropped lawsuit, resolved misunderstandings that were blocking process redesign efforts, and a savings of over $300K in project-related expenses. My approach is based on empathic listening techniques that anyone can learn.
I’ve also been on projects where a marketing plan or an incomplete two-way communication process was used to communicate with stakeholders. The predictable result? Eventually, nobody cared about the information sent or presented. Even worse, people openly challenged or quietly undermined the very changes we were trying to promote.
While efforts to derail change are commonly labeled as “resistance,” and “unreasonable stakeholders” are seen as the cause of the problem, in truth the problem more often lies with a faulty understanding of one little verb: communicate.
And that’s how communication plans created with the best of intentions lead to failed change.
To create the conditions for success, I encourage adopting a 4-step communication process to experience for yourself how it naturally engages stakeholders and builds buy-in even in difficult circumstances.
Resistant stakeholders can forgive and move on when we acknowledge that previous efforts were flawed and invite them to hold us accountable for keeping our promise to engage with them in a new way. Then take time to fully understand their concerns, including what would alleviate them, and tell them what specifically we will do differently as a result of our new understanding.
Action steps to take now:
- Schedule a time to talk with your team about the different meanings of the word “communicate.”
- Decide how you will distinguish between the different types of communication during team discussions.
- Review communication and engagement plans to ensure they include the full 4-step process when the topic may evoke strong feelings.
- If stakeholders are actively expressing resistance, acknowledge that mistakes were made, explain how things will be different going forward, and then follow through.
Riordan, Christine. Three Ways Leaders Can Listen with More Empathy. Harvard Business Review, January 2014
Gillian Haley is a cross-sector collaboration partner specializing in aligning strategies to implement complex change. She currently works with county and community-led initiatives to address challenges related to poverty and homelessness. Ms. Haley is an alumna of Accenture’s Process Excellence and Change Enablement practice where she worked in global Fortune 500 companies organizing complex process changes at the height of the digital revolution. She holds a Masters in Organization Development and conflict resolution certification from Sonoma State University and the title of Certified Change Management Professional (CCMP) with the Association of Change Management Professionals.