Thursday, 6 January 2011

Being a Roman while at Rome.

Communication is the exchange of ideas and flow of information from one person to another. The ways and means for communication are multiple. Words could be deceiving. Voice could vary from thought. That's why communication is looked into as a whole product of words, voice, facial expressions and body language. In customer service, the voice and facial expressions play a vital role in holding a customer with the organization than a well thought and appealingly written script.

We have an example of a high school drop out mechanical foreman of a ginning factory near Coimbatore convincing a Production Manager from US with his broken English and body language on a particular way of repairing a machine, while the educated lot trying with their accentuated English miserably failed in getting the idea across. This stands proof to the fact that communication is not linguistics alone. 

According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. As JD Schramm, of Stanford Business School puts it, it is doing the Eulogy that most people fear than getting into the casket. The best way to overcome fear is to face it. So, the best way to get better in communication of any mode is to practice it repeatedly until one gets comfortable. Well, conquering speech is a millionth particle of success in the communication.

There is a mode of communication which plays a larger role than verbal. That is one of the important survival skills taught in the world. That is non verbal communication. “We ignore these ancient signals at our own peril.", says a study on non verbal communication by MIT's Human Dynamics Lab. The non verbal communication is a complex system to understand though, as evident from easily mistook signals and cues between the continuously and extensively communicating people worldwide.

This group studied extensively about the human behavioral patterns when communication was normal and when communication was curtailed. They studied at a call center where the employees were discouraged from going in groups for coffee breaks to get them back to works as soon as possible, but yet the center was struggling with it's productivity numbers. The employees were finding different ways out to communicate with others during their breaks and were not mindful of timeliness in getting back. Then it was suggested that they be allowed in groups eventually they were getting back to work in time and the productivity stats started hitting the target.

Through this they found that leaving humans virtually incommunicado stoops their creativity to unexpected low and they end up in a nasty mess. It is unwise to have a hard and fast rule to get humans to get creative. Hard and fast rules help only in getting stereo types. In jobs those demand creativity and imagination which include any management responsibility need freedom to communicate and a good understanding of communication as a whole, not just the popular perception that a good speaker is a good communicator.

Here we have some cues to take while a person speaks. Order of things (s)he lists out is important to get his attitude. At times people may jumble the order of things with no malicious intent. May be they are confused at that moment or perhaps not good at signaling. But, a person who is not aware of the signals he is sending may also be signaling thinking or deficient people skills.

We have an example that a company staff got alarmed with rumors of lay-offs and resumes started flying out. When the source of the rumor was tracked, painstakingly though, it was found that a cue of something like that was taken from a closed door discussion between the CEO and the HR Head, which normally happened in open doors. Someone took the cue and the unusually closed door was a valid reason for others to believe that something trustworthy was in that rumor.

This happened to me couple of times. When working with a computer retailer, I was called for an interview with another. My company was kind of a mom n pop shop so the formalities were not cared for much. But the company I went for this interview was a partnership business, and they were about to enter into software business. Norm there was business like conduct. I was sent off with the second question in that interview. The questions were:
  1. Why do you come to interview dressed in business casuals?
  2. Why are you speaking so casually with me?
The culture I was used to till then was calling the boss "Anna"(brother) and his wife "Anni"(sister-in-law). The advise I got from both of them were, "The dress and talk would not matter, as long as you know the job do your work". But I could not convince the other company with this argument as they wanted both work and looks. I spoke with one of my friends and he introduced me to a Scotsman. This Scotsman explained to me why I was not even interviewed in full.

The messages I sent to them with my casual appearance and talk were:
  • I did not care to know about the company before coming to interview.
  • I was not ready for change.
  • I would not suit for cross cultural interactions, which is a must for software companies.
  • I was a happy go lucky person as I did not care to clear my only pending paper in my UG degree. (I told the interviewer that as long as I know the job, degree doesn't matter.) This also made them infer that I won't bother about completing a given task.
Then I took a course in "Personality Development", conducted by that Scotsman, worked with him for a while, where I got an overdose of formalities that alienated locals from me.  

Then it was a Swamiji from Ramakrishna Mutt who listened to me patiently and gave the old saying as his advise and explained it. Be a Roman while at Rome, don't confuse things. That is the toughest job in the world. You first have to understand the modus vivendi of Romans and make up your mind to get accustomed to that, then start living like them. But when change happens you have to reprogram yourself accordingly. In reality change happens so suddenly that you find it difficult to manage, if you fail to take right cues from signals.

Living consciously is akin to a company managing its brand. We are constantly looking for brands and people we can trust. Concluding on such things would demand lot of time and research work, but if we take cues from the day to day happenings things would become a lot  easier.

Words do count, but deeds and gestures matter the most. It is better to be cautious while communicating, since the non-verbal part could easily play spoil sport if we tend to take chances with people who are keen and thorough with picking up cues.

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