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Herding Icebergs

April 10, 2014
In the workplace and in life, we are all icebergs floating along, pretending the bit of frozen water we can see is all there is and ignoring the mighty blue mountain that glides under the surface.

People = cats. At least that’s the thinking when trying to herd them through a change. Like cats famously (or infamously), people have ideas of their own, minds of their own. And no matter what you say or do, it all gets filtered through those inscrutable brains. It gets mixed up, changed up, and often morphed into something unrecognizable, just like it did when you played the telephone game as a kid: Aunt Millie loves doorstops, pass it on.

So, communication -- the accurate kind that leads to the result you’re after -- is tough.  It is tough to get your message across so that it at least resembles the original when you don’t know that, really, people = icebergs.

What this means is that about 90% of our communication is nonverbal and largely unconscious. In the workplace and in life, we are all icebergs floating along, pretending the bit of frozen water we can see is all there is and ignoring the mighty blue mountain that glides under the surface. At least we ignore it until we get run over by it, which is exponentially more likely when we don’t stop to remember it’s there and that when we’re really communicating, it’s the icy giants under the water that need to understand each other.

Communication -- the massively important kind that travels from brain to brain using body language, vocal nuances, and things even more intangible -- is most accurate and effective when it’s face-to-face.

Modern communication methods have their upsides. Email is great for a lot of purposes, but not for conveying finer points like enthusiasm and urgency. After all, there’s only so much a poor overworked exclamation point can do, and no matter the degree of wordsmithery evident in such communications, emailed memos and exhortations are easy to misunderstand!!!

Phone calls carry more freight, meaning-wise, but none of your gestures and facial expressions make the translation from vibrating air to digital bits and back again. That’s a big deal when about 55% of communication is visual in nature. Communicating that way is like talking with a mask over your face while bound in a straitjacket and strapped to a handcart.

The same problems crop up, to a greater or lesser degree, in all forms of remote communication. Communicating face-to-face is no guarantee of being understood, but it’s the way we evolved to communicate. And that’s why so much of our communication has nothing to do with words, but with fleeting microexpressions, subtle inflections, and hard-to-describe vibes. Simply put, it’s your best shot, better than other forms of communication by a huge margin.

If you want to be clear as ice in every communication, you are doomed to failure and there’s no help for you and you will pass Go without collecting your $200. Even at its best, the way we communicate is error-prone and too often leads to Aunt Millie getting yet another unwanted doorstop for Christmas. But if you want to be clearer – and stand a much better chance of communicating and effecting change and herding those icebergs more effectively -- face-to-face communication has no equal.

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