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The Effective Communicator

Create or Cripple:  Communication and Contract
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Life is a series of agreements.  We live and work with multiple personal and working relationships.  Each of these relationships involves a complex pattern of communication.  Each aspect of each relationship is continually negotiated.  Each aspect and each negotiation is an instance of communication.

Agreement is another word for contract.  Most "contracts" are informal.  But ideas change, plans develop.   When one person's idea changes in such a way that it affects others, others need to be informed.  We have heard phrases related to this:  "Keep in touch," "Let me know how it develops," "Keep me in the loop," "Send us a memo on that."

Crippling the Team
At one point I worked with an international agency where the leadership of our region was always shooting themselves in the foot.  I was part of the creative support and production team, involved with such areas as media production (CDs, web sites, photos, etc), research, promotion and technical support for on-the-ground teams in several countries.

The location was good, the working situation in the team was dynamic, the pitch offered a good challenge that would be rewarding.  The head office was always frustrating their team and crippling their own projects by their lack of communication and disregard for the creative talent they had recruited.

We would be given a general idea for a project.  Initial consultation with the regional CEO or an admin, one or more of us would ask questions on desired result, target audience or clients, details desired, etc.  Often after they presented their general idea, they asked us just to run with the idea and be creative.  So the team would launch ahead in creative fervor.

The Debilitating Process
That was not really what they meant, though. Even when they had given specific directions and specified outcomes.  After working diligently in excited energy to develop the product, presentation or concept, when the task leader would check in again with headquarters, often it was “Oh, we’re not doing that anymore.” Worse yet was “No, no, that’s not what we said.”  When we all jolly well knew that was just what they had said.  And then a whole new idea would come out.

It’s not like this happened once or twice.  This was the modus operandi!  Can you imagine?  After their initial consultation or instructions to the team, they had gone on thinking along other tracks, and already moved on to another concept.  But did they inform their hard-working highly-motivated creative team?  We wanted to help the company, to be part of something we believed in.  But our leadership kept deflating the team, discounting and (perhaps inadvertently) dismissing us.

Quashing Talent
You can guess what that did for motivation!  How long do talented (well, even if I do say so myself), energetic and motivated creative persons put up with that.  We found other ways to support the work teams or task forces we had access to.  We found other creative outlets for our interests.  And ultimately, we all moved on.

After three years of that nonsense, their whole creative team was depleted.  We were all out of there!  Their whole creative support team moved on to other positions, where they would really be allowed to make a contribution, where they would be part of the process, not just sidelined by their own leadership.

They had ignored their contract with the creative team.  The oral agreement (or even often in email!) was ignored, dropped, forgotten.  The team was disrespected and discounted.  Agreements meant nothing.  Suffice it to say, that is not effective communication.

I bet you have you own stories.  For example, a committee meets.  Work assignments are given.  Members begin working on their specific assignments:  drawing pictures, conducting research, gathering materials, enlisting participants.  Meanwhile the chairman has been thinking and his idea gradually changes.

He goes on with his new ideas and leaves the others hanging, ignoring what they previously agreed on, discounting their efforts.  When the committee comes back together, there will be hurt feelings, resentment, resistance, discouragement.  That is not an example of an effective communicator.

Cooperative Energy
We all reflect on needs, approaches, programs, structure. If one member, even the leader, fails to keep in touch, fails to communicate effectively with other members in the work group, the whole group is affected adversely to one degree or another.  The committee chairman, ministry director or task force leader must keep every one updated if he is to be effective.

Thus we are in effect continually renegotiating the contract.  This may be informal but is quite complex.  Consensus in the work group comes about because of communication which facilitated updates of the group contract.

This applies even to our informal conversation:  For example, I was in a group once for a dinner.  Some of us were jokingly speaking of some philosophical concept.  It was about people who say "I know..." when they were really mistaken.  Someone asked a question "Can you know something that is not true?"

Someone not involved in the discussion said, said in a very authoritative tone:  "Let's cut out this nonsense and talk about something sensible."  He didn't negotiate.  He just bullied himself into the conversation and put himself in opposition to the rest of the group.  He cut off or prevented communication.  He created resentment.  He –in short – was not an effective communicator.

The topic of discussion was a serious philosophical question, a real logical problem for anyone who takes his language seriously.  But this shallow person had no discernment, and inadvertently showed his ignorance by usurping authority over the free discussion of the whole group.  You can imagine this shut down all conversation for a few minutes.

Negotiating The Contract
How could he have handled this differently?  First of all, he could have acknowledged those discussing the current question as viable human partners in life by negotiating a conversation contract with them.  He might have said something like this:

"I can't follow what you are talking about.  Are you serious or just joking?  Can you clarify what you mean?"  Or more radically, "I don't think this conversation is involving most of the group.  Could we talk about something else?"  At least that would show respect of rother members of the group.

The Effective Communicator never discounts or despises those he or she wants to communicate with.  The Effective Communicator considers every individual as a viable human partner in the various processes of life and work.  It is difficult to communicate with someone you cannot respect.

A Moral Violation
Why do leaders or managers compromise or sabotage their own authority by their disregard for their employees?  Don’t they see that this is immoral?  How can they treat their teams like they don’t count?  How wasteful of the company’s money and talent! How hard can it be to maintain communication with your key people affected by changes in direction?

We would save energy and maximize our effort if we informed others involved when our ideas affect the joint efforts, plans or relationships within the group.  Negotiated ideas become the group's ideas.  Informed partners are involved partners.  Involved partners are committed partners.  Committed partners are motivated partners.

The Effective Communicator continually negotiates his contracts through updated communication.


Includes content from the article “Communication through Contract” published in the series The Effective Communicator in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, a cross-cultural communications newsletter, Nairobi, Kenya, June 1997
This article written and first posted on OJTR 14 October 2008
:ast edited 7 August 2013

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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