Avoid communication traps
Communication is diverse. Communication is the supporting pillar in our economy, in politics, in the human community. We experience every day that communication is not always easy. Numerous studies and reference books deal with the challenges of communication and countless trainers, consultants and coaches use these challenges as a working basis. I would like to introduce you to a communication model that also performs well in project and requirements management. It describes possible communication traps as the cause of misunderstandings in communication. At the same time it explains ways to avoid these misunderstandings through more clarity. It is the meta-model of language that describes perception filters as part of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which on the one hand enable language as a means of communication, but on the other hand are also the source of misunderstandings. Such misunderstandings often lead to conflicts, which we all know from our daily work in projects.
The basis of the communication model
This communication model is based on three perception filters:
- distortion and
These three perception filters are constantly active in all people. They influence the images which we create in our heads and which we transmit to other people via communication. They help us to work together in organisations and projects, enable the collection and recording of requirements or the development of products. In the following I would like to concentrate on the perception filter of generalisation. So much is betrayed first: Distortions often result from the fact that individual aspects are given a stronger meaning than originally intended. This can lead to different interpretations of requirements, goals, risks, etc. Deletion influence the completeness of information. If information is incomplete, there is room for interpretation, which can also have negative effects on projects.
Generalisation as a filter of perception
Generalisation is active when we talk about tangible, haptic things like a house, a tree or a car. But it is just as active when it comes to abstract things like projects and requirements. Just as everyone probably has a different image of a tree in their head and you might imagine a red racing car, so too does the project concept. Of course, there is a relatively accepted definition of “project”, but there are still many different forms and the understanding of detail varies. When language is used, different versions of generalisations can be distinguished. On the one hand these are obvious terms like “all”, “everyone”, “always”, “none”, “nobody” or “never”. Here one speaks of so-called universal quantifiers. On the other hand, there are somewhat more subtle generalisations such as “customers”, “users”, “stakeholders”, “projects” in the form of the generalised reference index. A missing reference index is expressed by “other”, “someone”, “something”, ” they”, “people”. Generalisations often also occur implicitly; whenever a generality is inferred from a few cases in the form of random samples. The danger is particularly great in customer surveys or generalisations of one’s own views, wishes or requirements. One speaks here then also of black swans, which were held up to the first sighting also for impossible.
The perception of generalisation
How can generalisation be dealt with now? First, generalisations must be consciously perceived and second, they must always be questioned. Here are some generalisations with the corresponding opposing questions that I always encounter in my projects:
- “All projects need a project manual.” Universal quantifier: “Really all of them? Generalised reference index: “The same project manual, with comparable content and scope?
- “We always proceed like this. ” Generalised Benchmark Index: “In all projects?”. Missing reference index: “Who is ‘we’? The department, the devivision the whole company? Universal quantifier: “Always?”
- “Mr. Schneider always gets into conflict with everyone else.” Missing reference index: “Who is everyone else?” Universal quantifier: “Is it really everyone?”, “Always?”
When dealing with generalisations, oral and written communication can be distinguished by means of language. With the oral form, you achieve a better, more conscious handling only through practice and the routine that goes with it. With written generalisations you can use checklists, but in the long run the continuous extension of checklists to avoid any generalisation is not a practicable way. Concentrating on the most important occurrences with the help of the Pareto principle can be a solution, as can observing common sense – although there is also the danger of generalisation.
More information in German on the two perception filters distortion and deletion can be found at
Götz Müller has been managing development projects since 1993, change projects and continuous improvement processes since 1998 and neuro-linguistic programming since 2006. He is a trained Lean Moderator, Six Sigma Black Belt and NLP Master Practitioner. Since 2009 he has been supporting small and medium-sized enterprises as an independent consultant and trainer in questions of process optimisation and the continuous improvement process. He has been blogging about NLP in the project and lean environment since 2010 and provides food for thought on CIP & Co in his articles at www.geemco.de/artikel. His website can be found at www.geemco.de.