(Note to the Reader: The Rambling Texan apologizes in advance that this post lacks his usual snarkiness, and that it has a title that borders on academia. Both were necessary to convey the importance of the subject matter. Until next time. RT)
Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to sit through a good number of supervisory training sessions. Most were quite average and have long since faded from memory. However, one of them still stands out after many, many years.
Back in the ‘80s, a fellow by the name of Jack Yeager came in from our national organization and taught a session on interpersonal communication. As it turned out, he was a graduate of my college alma mater and we studied under some of the same professors. Maybe that helped this particular session stick with me. But most likely it was because Jack was a natural communicator and approached the topic in a way that was completely unexpected.
A Unique Perspective on Communication
Jack started with this fundamental thesis:
Humans communicate with each other to reduce uncertainty.
The workshop attendees immediately pushed back at that suggestion, but Jack challenged us to toss out various forms of interpersonal communication. We came up with interactions such as: an argument between spouses, a parent disciplining a child, an interaction between a shopper and a sales clerk, a supervisor doing a performance appraisal with a subordinate, or two friends catching up after a long separation.
Jack fielded each one with precision and helped us see that all of them had their roots in reducing uncertainty. Now, there’s no way that I could do justice to his explanations, so I won’t even try. But I will try to share some of what I learned from listening to them.
After he persuaded us to give his thesis a hearing, he went on to expound upon it and its converse.
The Converse: The Absence of Communication
So, if you are willing to accept that we humans communicate to reduce uncertainty, then here are some things that logically flow from the absence of communication:
- In the absence of communication, uncertainty increases.
- When uncertainty increases, people become uneasy and mistrusting.
- Uncertainty from the absence of communication creates an information vacuum, and just as nature abhors an actual vacuum, humans abhor an information vacuum.
- To fill such a vacuum, people will begin to manufacture information, giving rise to the grapevine and the rumor mill.
- When humans manufacture information, it invariably involves worst-case scenarios, leading to conspiracy theories, false judgments and trust issues.
- Before long, the initial uncertainty can grow into a full-blown crisis.
Jack shared a personal story that helped us grasp what he was talking about and highlighted our human propensity to fill the unknown with the worst possible scenarios.
At that time, he had a young son. Each night they would read stories at bedtime and all was right with the world. That is, all was good until Jack turned off the light.
Once the light was off, his son became scared that there was a monster under his bed. Jack would turn the light back on and show him that there was no monster under the bed. Yet when the light was off again, the son again became scared at what was under the bed. Jack told us that his son didn’t THINK that a monster might be under his bed, he KNEW that a monster was down there because he couldn’t see to convince himself otherwise.
Sound familiar? Ever have a child with similar fears? Ever seen employees in your workplace respond similarly?
How to Prevent Such Problems
So, how do you prevent problems like this? Communicate.
How do you stifle the grapevine and the rumor mill? Communicate.
How do you stop conspiracy theories and suspected hidden agendas? Communicate.
How do you begin to restore lost trust? Communicate.
Now, what I’ve shared from a workshop I attended thirty years ago might not be enough to completely persuade you to accept Jack Yeager’s thesis. But I will tell you that I’ve observed and experienced enough positive and negative human interaction since that workshop to know that it’s a pretty accurate assessment, especially in the negative sense.
Nothing suppresses the rumor mill like regular, candid, transparent communication.
Nothing is more effective at maintaining trust than open and honest communication.
Nothing takes the heat off a contentious issue like the leadership of an organization stepping up and talking about the “elephant in the room”.
On the flip side, nothing increases uncertainty and feeds a crisis better than continuing to keep silent during a difficult period.
So, with apologies to a Jack Yeager, I’ll summarize everything he taught us thirty years ago:
To avoid crises of trust or credibility or morale, communicate early and often and openly.
I hope this helps you as much in your personal relationships (at home, at school, at work, at church, and everywhere else) as it’s helped me over the past thirty years.
And lastly, thanks to Jack Yeager for sharing this so many years ago!
Best to All,
The Rambling Texan
Years ago, I heard Doug Conant speak in DC when he was the incoing CEO of Campbell’s Foods. In sharing his strategies on turning an organization, he said this about communication:
“Communicate well. Communicate often. Communicate personally.”
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Great post. With all due respect to Jack, people actually communicate to … transfer information. It is just an information transfer channel. Just like bits and bytes on a fiber. Along with body language, another way to transfer information. And, again without disrespect, not all information transfer reduces uncertainty; sometimes people communicate FUD to purposely increase uncertainty.