Communication – a protocol view

Communication – a protocol view

Photo by Pavan Trikutam

What’s communication? Simply put it’s receiving and interpreting information that has been sent by a sender. The naive assumption here is that you can limit communication to conveying the mere facts. But the human communication protocol includes more and it always applies.

A colleague just approached me, wondering how to get people to act on her findings. She’s a security engineer, so her findings usually include real threats to the business – one would expect the people in charge to not only take this seriously, but also act on it with conviction.

She told me about always having discounted communication skills as politics or games, while in IT, she would only need to communicate hard facts. And she worried about being naive about this.

Well, on the one hand, yes, this notion is naive – there’s always more to communication than hard facts. But it’s naive for different reasons than most people – including her – might initially think.

What’s communication? Simply put it’s receiving and interpreting information that has been sent by a sender (NB: simply sending is not sufficient for communication). The naive assumption here is that you can limit communication to conveying the mere facts. But the human communication protocol includes more and it always applies – to the point where lack of signal is being filled with made-up stuff (I’ll get back to that later).

Let’s look at that protocol. It includes any kind of signal, a body can send. Noise (more than just words, it’s breathing patterns, tonality, cadence, speed, tapping, belly growls), kinesthetics (posture, body positioning, touch, skin temperature), appearance (facial expressions, changes in skin coloration, eye movement), odors (sweat, pheromones). All of these things convey messages and can to some some extent be modulated into conscious communication. But all of these also have a default signal pattern, when not modulated. And these default patterns are readily received and interpreted by the receiver.

So, when focussing on only one channel, words, to convey hard facts, the rest of the channels in the protocol aren’t switched off. They’re just sending the default signals. So whether you’re excited about something, anxious about a situation, bored or sleepy, it’s being signaled. And the other side receives it.

Now, we could have a look at this default protocol and decode it. Run signal analysis to figure out, which signal is interpreted in what way, try to modulate the sending channels into giving out the desired signals to convey send a certain message across all protocols. And we’d not even be the first to try. There’s lot of literature out there about communication, sales, psychology, even how to pick up women, that try to teach this. Unfortunately more often then not, the application of it is imprecise, incomplete or too overwhelming, resulting in appearing incongruent and insincere.

My suggestion as a better strategy, is to influence your internal state. Humanity has always developed strategies for managing your internal state: Meditation, drugs, positive thinking, music, to name a few.

The idea here is, to not spend time and energy decoding the default signal patterns to recreate them, but instead take advantage of the fact that this “just works” and feed it the state we want to convey.

Nested example. Several years ago, I tried to convince to my team to adopt a new and amazing code version control system: git. I listed all the benefits, tried to convince them, that it was so much superior to what we were using, made all the good points, but nobody was excited. They just didn’t care. They didn’t mind the current system.

But I did and so I tried a different tactic. I started using it just for myself, with an adaptor to make it work with their system. That made it still somewhat painful to use, but I enjoyed it so much more. And whether I talked about it or not, people around me could feel my excitement, the pure joy of not dealing with certain things they still had to deal with. I became a beacon, sending this on all channels, and they received it. A few weeks later, most people had started using it and a few month later, we had transitioned completely. Today it’s an industry standard.

Conveying the facts was insufficient, bordering on unnecessary. The key was making myself feel the positive feelings I associated with it and then let the default system take over the communication for me.

“If you want to ignite a flame in others, you yourself first have to burn.” — Salespeople wisdom

Of course this is not trivial or even easy, if you have to present something to people that you feel intimidated by or other wise anxious. It requires learning to control one’s own emotional state, but in my experience, it still yields much better results, than trying to control 10-15 communication channels at once while also trying to make a convincing point.

So now I’ve given this text to my colleague, to take inspiration from and I’m looking forward to seeing her be much more influential in her work, once she gets to apply this.

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