Elements of Reliable Communication

Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

It is vital in any group and/or organization to establish and maintain a reliable exchange of valid information an feelings about important problems and issues. Unfortunately, most of us, most of the time, communicate in ways that are prone to error and that do not provide ways of detecting or correcting the errors. There seldom is sufficiently complete, precise, relevant, timely, verifiable communication about important issues - among the individuals who need to deal with the issues

Reliable, productive communication requires a combination of advocacy and inquiry, plus skill in using each effectively. One of the primary causes for communication errors is that we tend to devote most of our talk to advocating a position and repeatedly arguing for it against competing positions, and do relatively little inquiry regarding the meanings and reasoning of others. We also tend to do too little inquiry regarding reactions to our own comments - both to ensure that we and the others in a dialogue share the same understanding about what is being communicated, and to provide a basis for dealing with differences in positions. Increasing the amount and effectiveness of honest inquiry is a very important way of reducing errors in and improving the effectiveness of two-way communication. [See my web piece on Action Science for additional background, including Model I and Model II theories-of-action and their effects on communications.]

This module provides a recommended outline or protocol and an illustration of its application in a brief segment of a communication between two individuals. This illustration is more detailed and formalized than would be necessary in many situations, but this is done intentionally both to make the steps clear and to provide a guide for an exercise to help individuals learn to have more reliable communications (i.e., an exercise in which two individuals practice two-way communications that use the protocol with this level of detail and care, and with a facilitator to ensure that they do not take "short-cuts").

The illustration starts with one individual sending a message of advocacy, outlines roles of both individuals in ensuring that this message is transmitted and received with reasonable accuracy, and breaks off with the second individual responding to the original message with comments, questions, and/or concerns; both individuals are trying to ensure that the comments are transmitted and received with reasonable accuracy.

Protocol for Sending a Message of Advocacy

  1. Advocate your position.
  2. Illustrate the point you have advocated.
  3. Verify that what the other person heard you say is what you intended to say.
  4. Search for (inquire about) the other person's reactions (to), questions, and concerns about what you said.
  5. Verify that what you heard the other person say about his/her reactions, questions, and concerns is what the other person intended to say (iterate/dialogue until this is so).

Protocol for Receiving and Responding to a Message of Advocacy

  1. Once you have heard someone advocate a position:
    1. Verify that what you heard is what the person intended you to hear, by summarizing what you heard.
    2. If the point advocated was not illustrated, ask for an example
  2. Once you have verified the advocacy and illustration, share your comments, questions, and concerns about what was advocated.
  3. Verify that what the other person heard you say is what you intended to say (iterate/dialogue until this is so).

Illustration of the Necessary Elements of Sending and Receiving a Message

The following illustration of part of a dialogue is both simplified and unsmoothed - to more clearly illustrate the protocol above. In practice, such a dialogue would be less rigid, while still retaining the essential features of the suggested protocol.


Advocating: "I believe we need to change the organization by moving the Underwriting Department from the Finance Division to the Sales and Marketing Division, and by changing the incentives. It's ridiculous to have these continual battles between Underwriting and the sales staff!


Illustrating: "For example, the underwriters need to be responsible to see that we get new business. We could agree on this now and make the change by next month."

Verifying: "Would you mind summarizing what you heard me say?"

Verifying: "Let me see if I heard you right; you believe we can stop conflict between Underwriting and Sales by reorganizing, and that we should do it right away - is that right?"
Modifying a Verification Summary (after the other gave a summary that seemed materially different from what you intended to say): "That is an important part of what I wanted to say. I also said that we need to move Underwriting under the Sales & Marketing Division, and that we should change the incentives for the underwriters to make them want to get new business, rather than fighting with the sales staff."

Verify a Modification: "Let me see if I understand your point now. You believe we must reorganize by moving Underwriting into the Sales & Marketing Division, and also that we should create incentives for the underwriters that will reward them for new business - and you believe we should make the changes by next month. You believe these changes will eliminate the conflicts between Underwriting and Sales. Is that right?"
Provide More re Verification: "Yes, that's right."
Inquire for an Illustration: "Would you mind giving me a concrete example of how this might work?"
Providing an Illustration: "We could agree on the organization change now and make it effective after the underwriting analysis for the end of this month is complete. It would take longer to design the new incentive system for the underwriters, but we could start on it immediately. The underwriters should have at least half their incentive based on getting new business."

Search/Inquire: "What do you think about my proposal?" (or "What questions or concerns are raised by my proposal?")

Share a Concern and Inquire Further: "Here's a concern I have and I would like to hear your thinking about it. The company needs to get new business, but this should be good business, profitable business. The sales staff incentives reward them for bringing in any kind of business. Underwriting tries to ensure that quotes for new business will be good for the company. If we eliminate the current checks and balances, I'm afraid we will write a lot of poor business and dump the company's profitability down the drain! What do you think about this?"
Verify Accuracy of Understanding the Other's Concerns: "Let me see if I understand. You are concerned that, if we make the changes I described, we will lose important checks and balances between Sales and Underwriting, and will write a lot of business that is not very profitable. Is that right?"

Response, Followed by additional dialogue between the parties: "Yes,.....

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Last modified August 17, 2005 Copyright 1988-2005 Rex Mitchell