Do You Have Knots in Your Communications Rope?
Look closely at the photo and you will see a system of ropes and knots supporting the hammocks on either end. The knots are useful in this setting but can tie us up in other situations.
The Rocky Mountain Leadership Program
Last week I was reminiscing about the Rocky Mountain Leadership Program that I attended in July of 2008. This was a seven-day government leadership course hosted by the University of Colorado at Denver. The instructional staff was phenomenal, and the program remains one of the best I ever attended while I was in the fire service.
The Gordian Knot exercise
On Sunday afternoon of the course, our class went outside for a group exercise where the instructors spoke about the Gordian Knot, and they gave us our objective. We were to take a long length of rope tied together with a knot and make a square. Sounds simple if you can see what you are doing, however we were blindfolded and could not see.
Once the blindfolds were in place, the instructors moved us around and put the rope in our hands. I had a person to my right and one to my left.
The person in charge of the group issued directions to the rest of us so we could try and form a square with the rope. This was not an easy task, but it was fun, and I heard people laughing. If nothing else, our activity was an attempt at teamwork.
As I received instructions from my right, I told the person to my left to “move down,” meaning I wanted him to move left. I repeated “move down” to him more than once, but I could tell he was not moving. I did not say it aloud, but I thought, “What is this guy’s problem? Why won’t he move down like I’m telling him to?”
The blindfold removed
Still holding onto the rope, the instructors removed our blindfolds and we saw that the rope was not shaped into a square. At best it resembled the outline of an amoeba.
However, I saw the man to my left bent down on his knees. The instructors were laughing and said that every time I said, “move down,” he bent down lower. This man had travelled from South Korea to be a part of the course and his understanding of “move down” was completely different than what I intended. I wanted him to move to the left, but he was following my directions the way that he understood them, not the way I had imagined.
My communication was not clear. Instead of repeatedly saying, “move down” I should have said move to the left. By not using specific directions, I had created a communications knot between myself, the individual to my left, and contributed to our inability to form a square from the rope.
We need to be specific, clear, and concise in our interactions with each other. Regional phrases, slang, colloquialisms, and technical jargon can and will create problems when we are trying to convey messages to one another. We need to think about the intended receivers and speak and write in a manner that they understand. Otherwise, our communications turn into a knot.