by Scott Simpson
Senior Fellow, Design Futures Council
April 19, 2021
Seeking Clarity Amidst Cacophony
The world is teeming with messages of all sorts, swirling around us as if we lived in a giant blender. Visual media include film, broadcast and cable TV, and signs of all kinds telling us what to do, where to go and how to get there. Aural media include radios, telephones, formal speeches and presentations, music of all kinds and routine conversation, not to mention random background noises like the sound of an approaching car or the chirping of bluebirds overhead. Graphic media include books, newspapers, email, texts, tweets and websites of infinite variety. Advertising, of course, is ubiquitous — it seems to permeate the air that we breathe. All of this screams for our immediate attention. How in the world are we to make sense of it?
Fortunately, the human brain is equipped to distinguish between the urgent and the mundane, at least to some degree. Still, it’s often hard to separate the signals from the noise. Effective communication, not to mention our sanity, requires that we prioritize. The irony is that in order to take it all in and make sense of it, we have to filter most of it out.
And that’s just the signals we receive. What about the signals we send out? All of us clamor for attention. We want to be heard, but even more importantly, we yearn to be understood. We are constantly broadcasting a stream of messages: through our appearance, our posture, how we behave, how we speak, how we listen and how we respond to others. To compound the confusion, most of the time we broadcast conflicting signals, full of ambiguities and contradictions.
Is it any wonder that there is so much confusion in the world or that people are so frequently misunderstood? In truth, it’s amazing that we communicate as well as we do.
Effective communication requires simplicity and clarity. The first and most important step is to engage the attention of the audience. How will people know we have something useful to say and that it’s worth listening to? Why should they care? (Here, it helps to remember that what’s important to us is unlikely to be equally important to others.)
The problem of communication in the design and construction industry is particularly acute because we use many different languages during
the life of a project. There are written and spoken words, of course, but there are also graphics (both hand-drawn and computer-generated)
that compress the three-dimensional qualities of space into just two dimensions. The graphic language of design — plans, sections and
elevations — is an abstraction that requires a certain skill to decipher, and very few clients are truly fluent in that language.
While clients are highly intelligent, they are also frequently confused as to what is meant by “design intent.” Then there is
the language of finance: budgets, spreadsheets and balance sheets.
These are things most clients understand quite well but are baffling to many, if not most, architects. It is just as difficult to translate design value into business terms as business value into design terms, yet both languages are crucial to the success of any project.
On top of that, the skills of many different people are required to bring a project to life: clients, architects, engineers, consultants, suppliers, contractors and subcontractors, not to mention financiers and the authorities that have jurisdiction over the project, such as zoning and planning officials. Each of these experts has his/her own special language, acronyms and folklore. All of them bring their special expertise to the table, but it’s a challenge to communicate effectively across the silos.
The first rule of communication is to be truly observant. Listening is more important than speaking. Why? Because to respond effectively to the situation at hand, you must first understand the context. There are lots of ways to do this, many of which have nothing to do with the spoken word. If you doubt this, just imagine that you’re in an airplane watching a movie without the sound on. Can you follow the story line? Do you know who’s happy or sad and why? Can you sense which of the characters are friends and which are the antagonists? Can you anticipate what’s likely to happen next? Do you know how the story will end? That understanding comes from being attuned to the context; none of it comes from the soundtrack.
The second rule of communication is to have something useful to say. In a world where we are all clamoring for attention, this is surprisingly rare. We are often tempted to “clarify,” “amplify” or “echo” a point of view offered in a meeting without adding any real value. There is no need to repeat what is already obvious. Before you speak, consider if what you are about to say will really contribute useful information or change the course of the discussion in a meaningful way. If not, keep quiet. Remember the proverb: “Even a fool is thought wise if he remains silent and discerning if he holds his tongue.”
Good communication starts with careful listening and a true economy of speech, but there’s much more to it than that. Here are a few tips:
Above all, keep it personal. The most effective communication occurs when people are truly on the same wavelength; messages are sent and received with total clarity. That is not to say large-scale communications cannot be effective, but the most meaningful are those that involve a personal connection of some sort. What’s truly important to you? If you want people to care, let them know how you really feel and why. That’s how to achieve true commonality of purpose. When that happens, anything is possible.
In this noisy, confusing and raucous world, can you still hear a pin drop?
You can if you are paying attention.
Scott Simpson is a Senior Fellow in the Design Futures Council and a regular contributor to DesignIntelligence.
In September 2020, DesignIntelligence hosted a virtual conference on The Future of Environmental Responsibility. A stellar cast of presenters shared thought leadership on a wide range of sustainability-related topics. In closing our event, Dave Gilmore challenged participants to continue the conversation…the challenge was accepted.
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