Successful Communication

By Ron Ciancutti

Those who read this column regularly know that many of my theories and conclusions are derived from the notion that things should be kept simple. Everything can be divided into simpler, more manageable elements; achieving goals comes through disassembling the parts, understanding them, and then reassembling them.


I have also observed that any solution to a particular problem, even a current one, has usually been seen previously.

For example, many people believe Henry Ford “invented” the automobile; however, the truth is there were people (whose names are still prevalent in the auto industry today) like Dodge, Rolls, Bendix, and others who were just as far along in their research as Ford. Although it is endearing to envision Ford putt-putting along a cobblestone path with horses rearing up and children running after this newfangled motorized wonder, it probably didn’t occur that way.

Historically, people who were developing motorized vehicles at that time were more interested in designing tractors that enhanced and eased farm work. Since many “similar” ideas were floating around, the final prototype of the car likely was a combination of many of these ideas (e.g., the Bendix company became brake specialists, etc.).

After reading a book about the cause and effect of the way humans communicate, a friend and I attended a seminar on the subject last month. I found that the presentation was matching the high points I personally related to in the book. In fact, my friend leaned over at one point and said, “You could be teaching this class.”

Static On A Telephone Wire
Thus, communication between two people on any issue oftentimes involves two sets of preconceived notions, prejudices, fears, preferences, and impressions that shape the way we deliver and hear the message. So the likelihood of a message being received and interpreted by one individual, repeated to another accurately, and then compounded into the desired result is—at best—remote.

Here’s an example:

Steve, a computer technician, has been working on a project for several months that includes the design of a software package that may cost up to $10,000. He estimates that figure as his budget and obtains approval from the accounting department for that portion of the project. As he begins his research, he learns there are many similar packages already on the market for about $7,500, so he considers buying one of those packages and spending the “extra” $2,500 on support software that makes the project even more capable and marketable. He believes he has made a responsible decision with the money allocated to him.

At the same time, Bernie, the controller who oversees Steve’s expenditures, has allowed him to spend the extra $2,500 because he, too, has been told the original $10,000 budget would not be exhausted on only the original software package. He is glad there is some “wiggle room” for Steve, and is comfortable that the $10,000 is being spent responsibly.

During his divisional report at a staff meeting the following week, Bernie casually mentions that Steve has spent about $2,500 so far of that $10,000 budget. The budget manager, Dan, hits the roof. He knows nothing about the revised cost of $7,500. The $10,000 was budgeted to cover the software package required to make the project work, and now Steve has taken the liberty of spending a fourth of it before the project has even started!

Bernie is afraid to upset the boss further, so he says nothing in Steve’s defense. Dan abruptly ends the meeting, asking his assistant to summon Steve to the office immediately. Bernie is told to attend the meeting also.

Steve arrives, Bernie stands, and Dan sits at his desk, fuming. What is happening?

• Bernie is afraid he said too much.

• Steve is confused about the tenor of the meeting.

• Dan is sure Steve has taken advantage of Bernie.

• Steve believes he has done a creative and responsible job of estimating costs.

• Bernie still has no idea Dan doesn’t know about the modified $7,500 cost.

• Dan is sure these actions were deliberate and intended to challenge his authority.

An argument is inevitable, one that will likely include finger-pointing, accusations, and regretted statements. However, one sentence can change all this, and I think Bernie will say it. “Dan, I neglected to tell you that the original software package cost has been modified down to $7,500, so I allowed Steve the $2,500 re-appropriation to buy the software peripherals because it’s now a better product and still within budget.”

With that sentence all of the potential frustration and anger dissipate. Unfortunately, every person in this scenario has injected preconceived notions, and everyone is on a collision course. Such a simple answer to a seemingly complicated problem.

Emphasis Is Everything
I have seen lately that this type of misunderstanding occurs more often with the increased use of email and text messaging. These forms of communication lack the kind of conjecture and emotion that allow people to be clear in what they are presenting.

As we enter this new age of business and personal communication, let’s be sure to keep in mind a simple screening process to minimize confusion:

• What am I trying to accomplish from this assignment?

• Who is affected and therefore should be kept in the loop?

• Where does this assignment fit in with the company mission?

• When are the deadlines and other deadlines that may be affected?

• How is this assignment supposed to look when it is complete? Do I have a vision of it?

This short list may save countless hours of having to “re-do” procedures.

An attendee at the seminar introduced a perfect example to demonstrate the problem of confusing communication. Read the following sentence multiple times. Put the emphasis on a different word each time, and see how it changes the entire meaning of the sentence.

“I didn’t say he stole it.”

Pretty interesting, isn’t it. I knew that was what you were thinking … well, I assumed.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at