Communication

The human mind sees the world, like looking through a reflective window.

I like to share some experiences I had with communication on the work floor, not so much about communication between two people, like a wife and husband or two friends but within groups. Communication between two or more people is hard, that is a statement that most people will agree on. Why is it hard, and what can you do to improve it is another thing entirely. People disagree why this is hard, you can read thousands of books about it. Ironically we probably misunderstand each other also when we discuss these matters.

I have no special knowledge about communication, the only thing different between me and most other people is that I not only ask these questions, but I also like to look for answers endlessly, as some kind of obsession. I learned the most from others by reading there books, specially about philosophy and psychology. There are also many good lectures on the internet from all kind of sources like universities and companies like the great courses. You will enter a “rabbit hole” if you search for answers but that should not stop you.

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One of my first jobs was for a small company with two owners and up to 4 employees. I was a surveyor there Communication was pretty straight forward, go to this place in that country and measure this and that, you have 5 day’s. That was more or less the extent of our communication. I drove with my assistant, in most cases to former east Germany, booked a hotel and worked the rest of the week. This was in 1996 and we used one of the first GPS systems to make a grid that other surveyors could use. The equipment needed several hours to get a fixed point within a couple of centimeters, pretty slow compared to the modern equipment.

Communication was easy, I had one colleague to deal with and my boss was far away and had given me a clear job description. In these cases, where there is a clear job description and both parties understand it, there is often no communication problems besides unintended mistakes like a wrong address or wrong telephone number. As long as the job description is given in such a way that both parties understand it and that it is checked there should be no problem. My boss went with me my first trip to make sure we were on the same page, after that it was plain sailing so to speak.

This was one of my better experiences regarding communication and work culture. The years before this job had a bigger impact when it comes to the origin of my interest in communication.

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I was drafted into the military in 1992 in the Netherlands as one of the last. I didn’t want to go to the regular army but to a more specialized group if possible, the Dutch Marines. My family is not specially militaristic, more the opposite if you look at my mother who raised me and my younger brother and sister. I even went to a “vrije school” or what they might call a Waldorf school in English. An all free and peaceful education. So my first day at the recruiting station where we got tested was my first glimpse of the military system. It was all nice and clean with clear but friendly orders for where to go and what to do, I liked it so far and when I and one other where the only ones left after 2 days of testing and probing I was not only proud to have made it but was also looking forward to the training.

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I will not go over all the experiences I had during the 3 years in service but there is one experience I tell often if I discuss the positive sites of the hard militaristic training. Imagine 25 young men, all around 18, 19 years old, that have never met and come from all different places and backgrounds. We had our first week in the field, they wanted to put us all through the wringer. They gave us the parts of one of those big field tents and we had to build it. It took us for ever. The passive ones where standing around, the know it all loudmouth didn’t know what he was doing, an other small group started building, you get

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the picture. There were obviously people that knew what to do but were not noticed or didn’t lead, it took a while and slowly the tent was built. Fast forward half a year and the group dynamic was changed, it took maybe half an hour to build similar tent. Why? Part of it is that all the little ego’s that were bickering with each other the first week had now a similar experience, the hard training. We shared more now than we did before. We shared literally our blood, sweat and tears sitting in the freezing cold in our fox holes. You see this often if a group of people share a experience that leaves a deep mark. People that have been in the military know immediately what I mean, that experience of a strong team is hard to find in a more regular job.

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If I have to pinpoint the differences between my experiences within the Marines and within “normal” society, then you might call it trust. Trust that the people with whom you work have the same goal, simply said. I was stationed in Cambodia in 1993 with around 20 other Marines in a remote camp in the northern part of the country. After years of unlawfulness we where there to be the police and help the refugees settle and we had to disarm all the military groups that were spread around the country. As Marines we still had our own characters and communication was not always what you want it to be but when it comes to trusting each other there is no comparison with other work environments. I could dislike an other Marine but if it came to doing our job we did it without politics. If I went to sleep I trusted my colleague that he had cleaned his weapon when he had guard duties and that he paid attention. I am sure that within the police force, firefighters or other dangerous jobs you have similar attitudes if it comes to doing your job regardless of what you think of you colleague.

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I trust my colleagues wherever I work, but there are big differences. In my experience there is normally within a company a shared goal or a reason why you work together. I have worked for several museums as a wooden boat builder and we, as a museum always wanted a nice exhibition, preserve history and have more visitors. Those are our shared goals but I as a boat builder also want better tools, the museum staff wants more help behind the counter, and the administration better software . These are all valid goals, but the result is that the shared goal gets lost in the pursuit of these individual goals. With the Marines we had also different ideals and goals, but our main goal was clear, make sure no one dies. In our normal jobs there is not so much to lose besides your job. There is often little urge to work closer together, to become a better team. The incentives are missing to motivate everybody to become a better team player.

Is there a solution? I think it is really hard for us people in the rich and comfortable western countries to give up our privileges. I know for myself that I can work in a strong team like I did when I was a Marine, but for the last 25 years I worked more individualistic. There is a reason I work as a boat builder, it’s something not everybody can do and that can put you just outside of the group so you can do your own thing. It protects me from the group dynamic that with witch I have a hard time dealing with.

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I think it is difficult to force people in a specific direction. Most companies these day’s have rules and guidelines but they don’t get enforced enough out of fear of encroaching on someones privet sphere, “I do it my way”. As a Marine we had endless routines, at first these are quite boring but under pressure you are glad you practiced certain things endlessly, the routine free your mind so you can focus on more important things. Many people don’t like to be molded into a system like that, saying that they want their freedom. I had a colleague once that searched for his tool for hours, and then I asked him: “how free are you now?” My tools are at there marked spot in my well organized toolbox. Structure can be seen as limiting, but it works, its freeing, something less to worry about.

The same goes for running a project. A standard way of running a project, from building a house to organizing a party is to invite all the people involved, determine what the goal is and when it should be finished. What often happens is that this first meeting is done with part of the people involved and after that no followup meetings and often chaos. It is important to regularly meet with the people that work on the project to align everything and most important, show that the team has the support of the rest of the company. Regular meetings and checkups make it much easier for project leaders that rely on others within the same company to feel secure that they can meet there objectives. If there are no good ways to stay in contact with your colleagues you will slowly loose control over your project. If everybody agrees to meet at certain times and have certain tasks done you might loose some freedom but the specific project has a better change of succeeding.

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There is much more to say about this. After rereading it I realize that I am not a writer or communicator… I will write about it more but I want to end with a personal note. I have sometimes wondered why I invest so mush time wondering why we are what we are. Why I expect more from myself but sometimes also from others. It has to do with my experiences in Cambodia. The people there had often lost everything, grew up in refugee camps and had very little in material goods and opportunities. But the way those people looked at life was… different then I was used to. It looked like they had more piece with there fate and where more “open eyed” towards life. Back home I got rather depressed by all the people with all there things and opportunities, all the complaining, about how heavy life is. If you are born in a rich country you should count your blessings, and in my opinion you are obligated to make the most out of it including at your workplace. Don’t take life for granted.

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