This completes thoughts posted at jimmillikenproject.blogspot.com on October 24, 2011
People problems are broad at the bottom and pointy at the top.
It’s a pyramid-shaped representation so beloved of us in the people business. As with all clichés, it can be quite useful once you actually look at it.
In this case, it displays the reality that there are lots of simple problems in our daily lives (the wide base of the pyramid). Then there are others that tend to be progressively fewer but more serious in an ascending hierarchy until we get to the very few things that truly bedevil us.
An important truth is that some problems originating at the bottom can rapidly zip up the slope and escalate into hugely damaging results if we mishandle them. The punch in the nose rarely comes from nowhere.
Let’s define. First, the pyramid. Then, the birth of the punch.
The pyramid has five levels, reading from top to bottom:
Here’s where the punch comes in:
Say, someone in the group does something that really screws things up for everyone else. The consensus among the person’s colleagues is, naturally, that this person just doesn’t care. We’re all busting hump here, but this guy is a (whatever). If someone doesn’t physically punch him out, the attitudes do the job.
Well, it turns out he was never told what got to everyone else, so he acted in a way that was perfectly sensible considering what he knew. Now, embittered by the unfair treatment he has received, he sets out to make life miserable for everyone.
The originating problem was that he lacked the right information (bottom level of the pyramid), because of a failure of communication (method), and people reacted by condemning his commitment (values). Attacked at the deepest and most treasured part of his self-esteem, he decided to pay them all back (goal).
So, we as good communicators take this as our guideline:
Start at the bottom. For both prevention and solution, start at the bottom.
At the commencement of any work/relationship with other people, we make sure we have gathered the right information – done our homework. Bottom level of pyramid: Check.
Then we make sure our partners in this joint enterprise have the same information, and understand it the same way we do. We both may change our perceptions and our plans based on this explicit exchange of understanding and intention. METHOD level: check.
Who’s going to do what? We specify the steps, the schedule, the reporting and consultation and the outcome. We work out any gaps, overlaps, whatever. ROLE level: check.
What is our partnership going to accomplish? How do we describe the intended outcome? Do we agree on what it is, and what its benefits are to be? GOAL level: check.
Why are we doing this? What makes this effort, this inconvenience, this discomfort, worth it to me? How do I convince my partner(s) that I care enough about this that they can be confident I’ll go through with it? VALUES level: check.
Obviously, this whole business of developing successful relationships is accomplished by, and dependent upon, honest and competent communication. Good communication – as clearly effective as a punch in the nose. No waffling, no uncertainty, no fogginess. We work at it.
As problems arise along the way, the pyramid is equally useful. For one thing, if we employed it properly at the beginning, the point of breakdown is easy to spot.
We start at the bottom. Did everyone have the same, right information? Did we all establish and follow the proper method? Did we fulfill our agreed-upon roles? Etc. Of course, the method would have included monitoring, adjusting and communicating as we went along.
The punch in the nose implies an obviously more personal moment than the project or organizational situation on which the foregoing is mostly based. But the essentials are the same.
Whether you’re arranging a business meeting or a marriage (careful here!), the approach should ensure maximum upfront understanding.
Understanding is a goal, a desired outcome. The road to it is communication. A method. The substance is information. The values are the deeply shared driver of it all. The roles . . . well, there’s the continuous challenge, more charming and unique as the relationship is more personal.
Communication infuses it all – an incredibly complex, multilayered dynamic that involves words, tone, facial expressions, positioning and movement of limbs, questions, responses, listening, thinking, planning, goal-setting and on and on.
We need to understand that it’s worth thinking about, a lot. A punch in the nose – real or symbolic – is a notice that we need to brush up.