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Recognising misunderstandings and improving project communication

Recognising misunderstandings and improving project communication 29.03.2017 - It is important that every project manager understands that communication within the project management team is of vital importance if the project is expected to succeed. This also applies to all other individuals involved in project management. Well organised and balanced communication can avoid many misunderstandings, however it is still also the responsibility of the project manager to recognise misunderstandings within each project team and to specifically work towards preventing them from happening. There are various reasons why misunderstandings arise and there are also many opportunities for them to happen in stressful working environments that are often experienced by project managers. Project Managers need to be conscientious about observing their own teams carefully in order to improve communication.
 
How do misunderstandings arise?
 
A misunderstanding is basically the opposite of understanding. During a misunderstanding the speaker and the receiver either understand the information incorrectly or not at all. This may begin with a really simple question.
During a meeting someone asks, “Where are the plans for the subdistribution boards?” The person responsible for the electrical installation has, however, not yet finished preparing the plans and is awaiting information from the client. He feels as if he is being attacked and receives the question as a criticism. He replies: “I will do it as quickly as I can.” He is annoyed. The person who asked the question is also now annoyed, firstly because he has not received an answer to his question and secondly because he did not consider the question to be a criticism, but simply wanted to enquire about the plans.
 
The Thun Four Sides Communication Model
 
As a responsible project manager, it is necessary to know a little bit about communication and even psychology. The Four Sides Model devised by the psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun is particularly interesting and applicable here. He developed a model that demonstrates that every communication has four facets. Every message can be influenced by the speaker through these four facets and the message is also assimilated by the recipient through these four facets. There are therefore numerous opportunities for misunderstandings to occur.
Firstly, there is the factual content level of the message. This includes the pure facts and information which are communicated on an objective level. If both participants in the conversation only exchange technical information, there are very rarely any misunderstandings. The next level is self-revelation, which is when the speaker expresses something about himself in the message, which may express a particular wish or emotion.  The third level relates to the relationship between the speaker and the receiver of a piece of information. Criticism, praise and recognition can be expressed through the relationship layer through both the words that are spoken and also through facial expressions and body language. Rolling the eyes or frowning can convey a factual sentence in a completely different way. The fourth level is the appeal, which occurs when the speaker urges the receiver to act. The receiver then feels she is being directly addressed and that she is obliged to act.
 
Interpreting and directing the levels of communication
 
In project management it is important to ascertain which levels are being activated and how a misunderstanding has arisen. In the previous example concerning the outstanding plans, an attempt should be made to keep the different levels separate. A simple question would be asked about the plans. This question would be understood by the originator of the plans as a criticism. It is the role of the project manager to reconcile the four levels and to primarily direct the focus of attention again onto the factual level, i.e. to encourage the parties to purely impart information. In most cases an immediate discussion to clarify the situation can help to resolve the problem and avoid any future difficulties. Project managers who already know about the four communication levels and who understand that all information can be transmitted and understood on these four levels, are in a position to react more effectively.
 
Above all, it is important to understand how the receiver can misunderstand factual information due the influence of past personal or professional relationships and experiences and may understand information in a certain context in a different way beyond the purely factual level.
It is often the case that two receivers hear the same information, but understand or assimilate something in a completely different way. In project management, just like generally in life, it is easier to direct communication if you know all the people involved and their relationships with each other. In many cases, a written and objective summary of all the facts can help everyone to put their emotions to one side, which will ensure that only the facts are communicated. This works well in the form of a meeting report. In order to ensure that someone does not “get the wrong end of the stick”, it is particularly important that the project manager always communicates in a factually correct and unbiased way to ensure that other parties are not tempted to take certain information personally or to process it on the relationship level. In addition to technical competence, openness and honesty are the most important factors in project communication.

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