Psychological factors in communication

People are driven by intuition. Intuition is fed by experience.

People do what they do. It's in their genes or in their culture. Don't try to change their unchangeable ways. If you tried to change (for example tried to introduce CMM), and it didn't work out, don't keep trying. Accept that this is how people are. Don't waste your energy on things you cannot change because they will not change. Try to find out the remaining options, and use your energy on those, to find out what will work. Humphrey wrote an article with the title "Why don't they practice what we preach?". Well, they don't. Now what?

People don't resist change. They only avoid uncertainty. If you want to change the way of doing things, you will have to handle the uncertainty: First present facts to let them believe that there is certainty. And then, within a very short time, let them convince themselves by results, to go from believing to certainty. This way the change is no problem. Of course the facts you use to make them believe must be real and true, otherwise you will loose anyway, and you will never get another chance!

Witnesses to a traffic accident all tell a different story. Are they lying? No. They tell the story from the images developed in their brains.

People don't see much with their eyes. Basically, the brain only processes the signals needed to survive. If you enter a room, you sense just enough not to bump into the furniture. Do you know the number of legs of the table in the room? Probably four. Actually, you don't care. Only if you deliberately check the number of legs, you will see that there really are four, or may be three, or two, ro even only one. To survive, the concept "table" is sufficient, and if somebody later asks you the number of legs of the table, you will probably answer four, because the concept "table" in your mind has four legs.
A picture of our surroundings is built up in our brain by combining known concepts (table, chair, wall, other person, cup of coffee) we got in our brain by previous experience. Details are added only by deliberately concentrating on something special. How many people were in the meeting? You don't know, until you count them while in the room. Afterwards, you may count them, by remembering the people you knew, with a correction of other individuals you remember sitting between known persons. If you didn't know the people in the room, and did not get time to get to know them, you will not be able to tell exactly how many were in the room.

So, if you see a traffic accident, you collect some details, and build up a picture of the situation in your head. Others also build pictures in their head. Because their histories are different, the concepts are different. So the picture is different. Witnesses tell different stories, because they made up different pictures in their head.

The same happens with words. Words are connected with concepts in our brain. These concepts have grown since childhood, based on experiences we encountered. Because the history of experiences of every individual is different, the concepts differ from person to person. The difference of history depend on the distance of existence between the people. Within one family, or between friends, you may need half a word to convey a complete concept. If you write requirements to be dealt with at the other side of the world, the history and culture is much more different, and much more explanation is needed to ensure sufficient unambiguous concept communication. So, if different people hear the same words, different concepts and images develop in different brains. This is an important source of confusion in communication between people.

In my work, sometimes I attend a meeting between an outsourcer and a supplier of development. After a long discussion, both parties think they know enough, and want to close the meeting to go back to work, to do what everybody thinks he is supposed to do. Sitting aside, I just observe the people, and imagine what is developing in their heads. I see different things in the different heads. With my background being different, what I see is not the same as is in their heads. But what I see in both heads is different. So I pose a question to one person from what I "see" in the head of the other person: "I suppose this is what you are going to do ...?" The other person's face changes and he says: "No, how can you think that. I am going to do ... (something like I saw in his head, or may be even another idea)". This moment the first person's face changes: "Hey, that's not what I understood you were going to do!"

Morale: After a meeting, when everything is said, change mode, check whether the concepts in both heads are the same. After another 20 minutes, it is very likely that the people part with a much more equal picture in their heads. If they meet later and show their results, now they see that they worked on the same thing, instead of finding out that they worked on differing things. Time saved.

"But I told you...!". Sorry. What you told evaporated when said. Write it down. By writing it down, you have to clarify the fuzziness that you head accepts, but is not acceptable on paper. And when it is written down, others can read it and comment. This is one way of trying to get the concepts in various heads synchronised.

E-mail is of the same class as aural messages. E-mails not dealt with within one or two days tend to be forgotten.

Niels Malotaux
30 January 2002