Effective Communication: Introduction
September 6, 2021
By Greg Henson, President
The conversation went something like this:
My spouse (in conversation with a colleague of mine): “Hey! If you see Greg in the office, can you ask him to call me? I can’t seem to reach him.”
My Colleague: “Greg is in Texas today, isn’t he?”
My spouse: “Really?”
My Colleague: “Let me check with [another colleague] …Yes, he left this morning.”
My spouse: “That’s funny! That’s why I can’t reach him. He’ll respond when his plane lands.”
In case it is helpful, here are a few other important details:
1) When I left the house that morning (literally, as I was walking out the door), I said “Hey! I am leaving.” Then I waved and walked out the door.
2) At that precise moment, my spouse was on the phone with her doctoral supervisor.
3) Our kids were in the middle of their morning activities, which often include embracing the new day with as much energy as possible (running around with fervor as if sleep is an unwelcome companion that keeps them in shackles during the night).
Needless to say, this was not one of my best moments in effective communication!
The reality is that communicating well is a demanding task. It is hard for couples and families – people who, at least in our case, are around each other all of the time. It is even more difficult for organizations or groups of people who may not be in the same room (or even the same region or country). Within Kairos we have students, mentors, faculty, staff, therapists, board members, partner organizations, and collaborators spread out around the world. With nearly 4,000 people who speak languages ranging from Spanish or English to Mandarin or French and more, “demanding” may not be a strong enough word to describe the task of communication.
Over the past few years, we have been developing an approach to communication that is effective given the global scope of Kairos. We have identified four goals that guide our communication efforts as well as a few practices that shape our day-to-day work. We are going to spend the next few weeks sharing how and why we approach communication within the context of Kairos. Today, I am highlighting the four goals we have for communication: Tell the Story, Be Transparent, Encourage Collaboration, and Build Trust.
Goal #1: Tell The Story
Much work has been done on how the human brain responds to story. We are learning that good stories cause the brain to release oxytocin (what Dr. Paul Zak calls the “moral molecule”), that stories impart not only information but also meaning, and that we are neurologically-wired (or genetically predisposed) to respond to stories. In my opinion, the most fascinating of these realities is that, as MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, meaning is narratival. I find this fascinating because it has been scientifically researched while also being something that has been a key philosophical conversation over the years. Basically, humans learn what something means by virtue of the story in which that thing is embedded. To put that in plain terms, if you want to make something meaningful, put it in a story. If you want to understand what someone else means, you must understand the story in which they have embedded it.
While the various components of a story are important, it is the wider narrative provided by the story as a whole that reveals the true meaning. Professor Snape when viewed through the wider story of Harry Potter is much different than Professor Snape when viewed through an early book in the series. The life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus described in the gospels carry meaning within each book but that meaning is enriched when the wider story of God’s people and the promise to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 can be seen.
Stories are powerful. When we share a story, we should be prepared for it to impact people in different ways. This is even more the case when the story we are telling is The Story of God.
Within Kairos, I think it is important for us to remember that our primary task as people who name Jesus as Lord is to “make disciples.” Everything we do and say must be done in such a way that we are telling The Story of God – a story of redemption, reconciliation, and revival. Our job is to tell The Story, not simply our story. We are not the primary characters in our own drama. Instead, we are participants in the grand narrative of God making things “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
It is important to have this clarity because we need to constantly be reminded that our work is not about us – lest we begin thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. Rather, we give glory to God and call attention to the good work God is doing in and through Kairos. Such clarity also helps us narrow the scope of what we communicate.
Organizations, especially schools, tend to approach communication with the goal of sharing “all things in all ways”. Such an approach tends to dilute the message an organization shares because it is sharing thousands of little disconnected stories rather than “one story.” For example, we devote endless amounts of time to “marketing” specific programs or tracks to specific groups of people as we bow to the “god” of market segmentation (as if what we are doing as a school is selling degrees to a mass market).
Rather, to effectively make disciples and share The Story, we need to narrow the focus of what, when, and how we communicate. In doing so, we will find that sharing The Story requires us, as an organization, to define the organization’s narrative (story). To put that another way, we need to clarify the narrative of the organization and how it fits within The Story of God. Such clarity often means 1) communicating less frequently but more consistently, and 2) reducing the number of “storylines” (e.g., departments, programs, centers, offices, governance structures, strategic initiatives, hierarchy) in favor of a common theme (e.g., a particular platform, team, and/or strategic direction.). Everything we say (which in turn means everything we do), needs to be part of that common theme.
Goal #2: Be Transparent
Next, in the context of organizational communication we must be transparent. In practice, this means sharing information, ideas, challenges, and opportunities freely. In my experience, organizations tend toward keeping information siloed (a kind of “need-to-know” approach) or keeping it hidden. If we are clear on our purpose (The Story) and common theme (e.g., a particular platform, team, and/or strategic direction), then being transparent should be simple. Everyone needs to have access to the same information at the same time and in the same way. Obviously, there are situations when information cannot be shared due to laws and regulations (e.g., HIPPA, FERPA, etc.), but those laws do not impact the majority of institutional communication. We tend to hide things like budgets and financial information, challenges we may be facing, or new information we have learned that we think might give us a “competitive advantage.” Instead, we must be transparent. A lack of transparency erodes trust and hinders collaboration.
Goal #3: Encourage Collaboration
Just as a lack of transparency hinders collaboration, being transparent is one way to encourage it. However, transparency alone is not enough to encourage collaboration. Our practices of communication must encourage everyone within an organization to work together. To achieve this goal, we need to consider the importance of alignment (how well everything we do is mutually reinforcing in the same direction) and “cross-knowledge-ability” (how much each person knows about the organization as a whole). Our day-to-day practices can foster alignment and cross-knowledge-ability or they can reinforce opaque and siloed communication. This means we need to think about how and why we meet, the language we use to describe our work, and how our work is defined, prioritized, and accomplished within the organization as a whole.
Goal #4: Build Trust
Our prayer is that our efforts in communication build trust within Kairos and with those God places in our care. We believe that trust is built when 1) all have the same information, 2) all understand the same story, and 3) all are working together while pulling in the same direction. At the same time, however, it takes time to build trust. Therefore, we invite faculty, staff, students, therapists, and mentors (i.e., all participants) in Kairos to extend trust before it is earned. Yes, what, when, and how we communicate will build or erode trust, but we must start by extending trust. Transparency, collaboration, and a focus on The Story will help us strengthen the foundation of trust that must exist in any healthy community of people.
Over the next few weeks, we will look more closely at a few ways in which we strive to achieve these goals within Kairos. As the story I shared at the beginning will show, however, all of us are a work in progress. My prayer is that leaning into the practices will help us achieve these goals!