One segment of my Legal Project Management training courses focuses on giving and receiving tasks/assignments correctly, culminating in a fun practice exercise that attendees really get into.
One critical piece of getting assignments/tasks right is the readback, where the assignee relates to the assigner what she understands the task to be. The reason it’s so important is that even the best of us don’t communicate as clearly as we think we do. Communication requires… well, consider the child’s game of telephone:
Here we have six kids passing a message starting with the girl on the left (step 1). When she gets the message back (step 6), do you think it bears much resemblance to the message she sent out?
Now consider this variant:
It’s the same six steps, but now the go from the assigner’s brain to her mouth (step 1), to the assignee’s ear (step 2), to his brain (step 3). Now he translates that back into speech (step 4) that passes back to the assigner (step 5), who converts it to brainwaves (step 6) and compares it with the original.
It’s simple. What could go wrong?
Communication requires a round-trip message with the message remaining intact. The only way to confirm that the message is intact is to compare what you sent with what you received, or more specifically, what you think you sent with what you believe you received.
Lack of readback is one way assignments get messed up.1
Here are two examples from things I read in the past few hours.
1. What’s The Hunger Games about? According to an Associated Press report on box office receipts, it’s “about teens battling to the death in a post-apocalyptic competition.”
No, it’s not about that at all. Yes, the 74th edition of the annual Hunger Games forms a central plot point of the movie, but it’s about teens battling to the death in the same way that Citizen Kane is about “Rosebud.” Or the same way that a client’s real issue is the legal problem she presents you with.2
(By the way, forget the fact that the movie is getting all sorts of hype and go see it!3)
2. How can two people talk about the same thing and mean different things?
There is a blog called Not Always Right that features unfortunate interactions between customers and salespeople, in which the customers usually come off looking silly. Sometimes, I’m sure, they’ve earned it. But this exchange caught my eye:
(The store I work in is a store full of little girls’ accessories. With headbands, nail polish, and necklaces, it’s fairly obvious this is a store for little girls.)
Me: “Hey there, how can I help you?”
Customer: “Yes, do you have any little girls accessories?”
Me: “You’re in the right place.”
Customer: “Oh, good! Where would I find them?”
Me: *gestures* “Anywhere in the store.”
Customer: “What do you mean?”
Me: “The whole store is full of little girls’ accessories. That’s what [store] is all about.”
Customer: *somewhat ditzy* “Oh. Okay! Thank you. Goodbye!”
(I watch as the customer prances off into the mall and goes straight into another girls accessory store.)
Leaving out the editorial comment describing the customer as “somewhat ditzy,” what’s going on here?
As I read it, the customer lacks the specific words to describe what he’s looking for. (I suspect the customer is male.) He’s been asked to pick up some girls’ accessory with which he’s unfamiliar. He doesn’t know how to describe it… and the salesperson isn’t at all helpful. Consider these scenarios:
- My wife asks me what I want for my birthday. I show her a picture of a chop saw and note that Home Depot carries them. If she doesn’t remember the name and goes into Home Depot looking for tools, or even saws, what will happen?4
- My wife said she wanted a small change purse for the holidays last year. My son and I went to Macy’s and asked where the purses were. We got pointed to about 25 racks containing purses of all sizes… except the size we were looking for. We did eventually find them… on another rack away from the purses as we were giving up and walking out!
- You describe an issue to your client using legal terminology. The client nods meaningfully.5 Are you confident the client understands what you’re asking? If so, why do companies keep having document preservation issues, for example?
The salesperson should have asked, “What kind of accessory…” or “How old is…” or a similar question to help the (possibly embarrassed) customer.
Likewise, when you’re communicating with a client, you need to find ways to be sure the client understands what you’re talking about. (For starters, speak the client’s language, not lawyerese.)
It works the other way, too. If you don’t deeply understand the client’s business, you’re not likely to understand what the client is really asking. Either they’re speaking gobbledygook (see meaningful nodding, above), or they’re dumbing it down because they know or suspect you’re not getting it. Neither is a success indicator.
Legal Project Management relies on effective communication, among other things. Without communication, though, it’s pretty hard to get to those other things in meaningful ways.