Bridging the communication barrier: describing what you do to your boss.

I don't blog a lot, but when I do blog it's always about something that I have real-world knowledge of, and I'm very passionate about. This is one thing that I'm very passionate about. It's not very useful to know something if you can't describe it to others. If you really want to get ahead in life, you're going to have to explain things to people that have absolutely no clue what you're talking about, and don't have any knowledge of the terminology you use with your colleagues. Bridging this communication barrier can be quite complex, and is something that few people really understand. It's the reasons most companies have several layers of management, simply because an executive top-level person wouldn't ever be able to understand anything a bottom-level engineer is describing. If you're one of those middle management folks, it's probably because you're very good at bridging the communication barrier.

I recently read a post by Jordan Sissel, a former classmate of mine at college, where he details how to Speak the same language with others. While I do and always will have a lot of respect for Jordan, there's one thing that I strongly disagree with on this point. Effective communication isn't always about speaking the same language, it's usually about how to speak to someone who doesn't understand your language. Describing to a business person all the details they need to know to speak your language is usually impossible to do within any reasonable period of time (but don't worry, them teaching you to speak their language would be equally as challenging). So how really do you communicate effectively to people who don't speak your same language?

Find a common language

When two or more people meet and try to communicate to each other, the first step is always to find the common language that both people can understand. This is true not only of difference in language of two people that both speak english, but also of people that speak literally different languages. If you came across someone that spoke German, for example, and you really needed to use the bathroom, how would you go about describing that to them? Obviously you trying to teach them English wouldn't work, and them teaching you German before you pee yourself probably wouldn't work either. What you want to do is find some way to explain to them that you really need to go to the bathroom. You start off saying words like "I need to pee!" and they don't understand, ok, so that's not the common language you both speak. Then you start making hand gestures, maybe even that doesn't work. Finally you start dancing up and down holding your crotch and crossing your legs. They finally catch on and direct you to the bathroom. They don't tell you in German how to get there, they actually show you. Why? Because you've established a common language that you can both speak.

The same is true with any communication experience. You can speak in multiple different forms of communication, so what you do in any meeting is try to find a common language that you can speak and the intended audience can understand. I'm doing it right now; I'm typing out my thoughts into a written form which, hopefully, you as the reader will understand and be able to use in the future.

So how, really, do you go about finding a common language? You have to study your target audience. The first part of being able to communicate to your audience is to listen. If you're trying to explain something to your boss, find out what he likes. If he's a big baseball fan, and you know about the rules of baseball, you can speak the same language. If he likes to go fishing, learn more about fishing, and you can speak that language. If you're trying to say something to anyone else, the first thing you have to do is listen to what they say and then you can find a common language. Speaking louder, slower, or faster, doesn't help.

Use analogies and examples

The very title of this post is an example. No this isn't just how you talk to your boss, but it's something many people have a hard time doing. So what did I do here? I found a common language we can all understand (talking with our boss), and I've given that out as an example

Analogies, no matter how silly they may seem, are generally very effective if done well. Take, for example, the long criticized analogy The internet is a series of tubes. Yes, for you the reader this may seem like a horrible analogy, and a great reason why not to use analogies. Ok, so that's how you feel about this analogy, but you weren't the target audience. Take this analogy to your grandparents, or your redneck cousins who don't understand anything about the internet. After they read it, I bet they have a much better understanding of what the internet really is.

You have to target your analogies at your audience, once you've found the common ground, speak it. Study it, and make sure you have it right.

The best example of an analogy in recent times that I've heard was actually (and I'm hesitant to say this) while watching the coverage of SOPA. I apologize in advance for not having the exact quote, or even the name of the senator who made it (and if you do please let me know so I can quote/add it here). For those of you who don't know, SOPA is the government act that is their attempt to prevent online piracy of copywritten works that are being distributed through the internet, by using DNS Blocking and filtering.

The basic gist of it is this:

When we identify a crack house, we send in a raid and shut it down, taking those responsible into custody and making sure that they are punished for selling crack. What this bill is essentially suggesting is that instead of arresting those responsible, we change the street signs and take their address out of the GPS and map systems. The house will still be there, and anyone who's smart enough to figure out how to get there will still have their crack. The problem isn't actually solved. Worse yet, those normal law-abiding citizens now have to deal with the fact that their street signs were all changed, and the GPS systems were all completely messed with. This is essentially what we're doing with DNS in SOPA.

It really is a great analogy if you think about it. By using DNS filters and blocking, we're not removing the site, it still has a public IP address, and it now has impact on the law-abiding normal citizen more so then those who would be seeking out to reach that site. They went on to talk about how even a ten year old could follow instructions on how to change their DNS servers to use something housed outside of the US that has the right information. Back to the analogy, anyone could still get a copy of a map that has that crack house's address on it, and go off of that instead of anything official.

Listen to and make sure your audience understood

The final piece of any communication session is to listen again to your audience and make sure they understood what you said. If you gave an analogy or example that they didn't understand, you may need to explain things a little more clearly, give more details, or try a different analogy all together. While switching analogies can be quite confusing, if you start out talking about baseball and they don't understand anything about baseball, it's time to switch and try something else. It's important at this stage to wrap up your point and make sure they come away with a better understanding of what you were trying to explain. Don't think of this as a quiz time, but it's good to allow them to follow up with questions. Be open minded and answer their questions with the same common language you've been using. Don't assume that if they don't understand it's their fault, in fact if they don't understand it's because you didn't communicate effectively.

There are always going to be some times where your target and you simply can't find any common language to speak, and even after you think they understood, they just look at you completely puzzled. If this happens, it's time to find someone who can bridge the gap. If you have trouble explaining something to your grandparents, try first explaining it to your parents, then perhaps they can explain it to your grandparents. You don't always have the ability to speak to everyone, in fact those that do usually end up in public jobs.