Sunday, January 14, 2007

Rules of Engagement

Effective communication is not spontaneous in nature, it takes commitment from all contributors.

So, you have set aside time for reflection. Now what? How do you proceed? To a degree this depends on the situation, however there are some general principles that can prove beneficial. The key is to explicitly establish rules of engagement that maintain trust across all contributors so that they can add effectively to the pool of shared meaning while maintaining focus on the overall goal in order to generate actionable results.


Before beginning any dialogue, it is important that a goal is put forth that is accepted by all contributors. This formally establishes the problem space that people will be thinking within. It also helps the group maintain focus.

For example, If one of your teams main problems is quality, start the discussion by stating that the purpose of the dialogue is to discuss the quality issue and how quality can be improved. In this particular case, blame has no place in the discussion and this should be made explicitly clear when the goal is communicated.

Safety and the Pool of Shared Meaning

During the discussion it is critical to maintain safety within the group. If people do not feel safe, they will not contribute effectively to the conversation which means the pool of shared meaning will not be as full as it could be. There are a couple of implications of this. Firstly, detail is lost because the entire group is not sharing their opinions. Secondly, and more importantly, Those who do not contribute because of safety issues are less likely to be bought in to any decisions that come out of the discussion. This could lead to the second-guessing of decisions and become an obstacle to improvement.

When is safety likely to be an issue? Any dialogue that can be classified as a crucial conversation where stakes are high, there is a difference of opinion and emotions are involved. The safety issue can be further exacerbated when one of the contributors has a strong, aggressive personality.

Actionable Results

Finally, we want to come out of the discussion with actionable items. If not, any feedback that led to the discussion is not feedback but noise. This is a critical concept that has been stated before:

Feedback without action = noise.

In the end, if the purpose of the discussion is to institute change that will hopefully lead to improvements, then action must be taken. Talking about it is only half the work.

In Conclusion

As I stated at the beginning of this post, effective communication is hard and takes work. I have been reminded of this many times over throughout my career and I have found these principles to be effective. In a future post, I will bring up some of the practices that can be used to support these principles.

If you are interested in becoming a more effective communicator, I highly recommend the book Crucial Conversations. I have found it to be an invaluable resource and it was a major influence of this post.