Monday, July 27, 2009

Uncovering the Implicit Message

Every summer, I spend a week teaching a class on global virtual teams at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication in Portland, Oregon. Working through some papers recently for the 2009 session, I came across the results of an exercise I did in 2008. The exercise aimed to demonstrate challenges when explicit and implicit communication styles encountered one another.

In the exercise, I took a blank piece of paper and at the top I (Person 1) wrote an explicit statement ("Don't do that!"). I then passed the piece of paper to the person on my right (Person 2). Her task was to look at my statement and write the same meaning, but in an implicit way. She then folded the top of the paper over my original statement, and passed it over to the person on her right (Person 3). He/she would look at the statement passed over by Person 2 and write the same meaning, but in an explicit way. Person 3 would fold the paper over Person 2's statement, and so the paper would go around the group with people writing explicit or implicit statements.

Here are the results (explicit statements are in bold):

Don't do that!
Would you mind not to do that
Don't do that!
Could you please find something else to do
Stop doing that
If you wouldn't mind focusing on something else
Look over there
When you get a chance, glance over in that direction
Look over there
If you look in that direction, you may find what you need

Things went well until the 6th person shifted from the word 'do' to the much more indirect phrase 'focusing on something else'. 'Focusing' implied something visual, and so the meaning shifted away from stopping a certain action to looking in a certain direction.

These types of exercise are always fascinating because they demonstrate just how fragile human communication can be.

Global virtual teams are often working across high context (indirect)and low context (explicit) cultures, as well as through communication media that restrict the social cues we use to interpret meaning. The chances for miscommunication increase exponentially on global virtual teans.

What's to be done? I said in Where in the World is My Team? that we must work hard to make the implicit, explicit. If we don't, we sow the seeds of confusion and conflict. Being explicit, of course, is easier for those who come from low context cultures (at least in terms of language; their actions and thinking can still be hidden from view). As a global virtual team leader, it would be my responsibility to create the conditions in which greater explicitness and transparency is the norm. How?

Create greater awareness on the team of the different styles (explicit and implicit)
Demonstrate the potential impact of the differences on team communications
Talk with the team about the challenges of working virtually, and of the need for everyone to adapt and be alert for actual or potential misunderstandings
Raise awareness of - and examine - the assumptions people have about the different styles, e.g., explicit is rude and aggressive while implicit is noncomittal and even deceptive
Provide opportunities for the team to use rich communication media so that people can see and hear more of the communication context, e.g., facial expressions, tone of voice
Establish the principle of what I will call "sitting in the audience seats" - am I saying or writing something that the audience could find vague, confusing, or worse?
Encourage team members to talk and to ask open-ended questions of one another so that misunderstandings come more easily to the surface
Role model and encourgae a style of communication that is straightforward, transparent and friendly