How to Improve Your Communication with Clients
Using communication theory to create better relationships and outcomes.
Control or Collaboration?
When I start a new consulting project, one of the first undercover assessments I make determines my communication plan with the client. I call it the control-collaboration-control continuum. On one end is full-client control. They make all the shots and need complete control of the project. On the other end is consultant control. The client wants very little involvement and expects the consultant to do the work and come back with results. In the middle is a collaborative approach.
This is rarely a dichotomous choice. In reality everyone, including our clients, move back and forth on this continuum depending on the stage of the project or needs of the team. Yet, this shift is never explicitly called out or discussed. It just happens. So, we must look for cues and talk about our expectations openly.
Almost no one says they don’t want to collaborate. This would imply an unwillingness to cooperate, a show of ego in poor form, and push away others who may have something to offer. Yet, many people show they do not want to collaborate — through filling all the conversation space, making unreasonable demands, or redoing someone else’s work. That’s why I don’t ask, “Do you want to control this project or collaborate with us?” If you listen long enough, people will show you the answer to that question.
During the early stages of getting to know a new colleague or client, I look for these behaviors. Specifically with clients, I need to understand where they fall on the control spectrum. I listen to how they talk about the current and past projects, their expectations, their response to suggested regular meeting times (do they want daily, weekly, or ad-hoc meetings), and who else from the organization they invite to the project team. These actions signify something more than meets the eye. These actions (along with nonverbal cues and the structure of the engagement) signify something about how the client views communication.
The Nature of Communication
How you view the nature of communication, its ontology, has significant impacts on your life. I mean ‘ontology’ in a philosophical sense, which is concerned with the nature of being or existence. This is a core belief rooted in our deepest parts. These views guide our impulses and assumptions as we move through life. In communication theory, there are two basic ontological positions that underly all theories, the realist or objective stance and the nominalist or subjective stance.
The realist believes that reality is composed of tangible things that can be experienced with our senses and that everything is controlled by a cause-effect relationship. When these cause-effect relationships are uncovered, we can predict future events fairly accurately.
The nominalist believes that reality is subjective and that our personal understandings and interpretations are all valid. They do not believe that the world can be explained through cause-effect because many things happen randomly or coincidentally. We cannot predict with certainly what will happen in the future, so it’s best to think in probabilities.
The realist and nominalist positions underly the two primary conceptions of communication.
James Carey, drawing from the ideas of John Dewey, wrote in a 1989 essay titled A Cultural Approach to Communication, “Two alternative conceptions of communication have been alive in American culture since the term entered common discourse in the ninetieth century … We might label these descriptions, if only to provide handy pegs upon which to hang out thought, a transmission view of communication and a ritual view of communication.”
A transmission view of communication is the commonest understanding of communication. Information is transmitted from me and received by you. We organize around this conception is all areas of life — lectures in a university, safety videos in the plant, announcements at the company town hall. The realist primarily views communication through this transmission metaphor. They deliver objective information and expect us to receive and understand it.
A ritual view of communication is actually an older conception of communication. Carey writes, “A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space, but towards the maintenance of society in time.” This view is organized around the idea of drawing people together toward commonality. The nominalist primarily views communication as ritual. They want to understand how others interpret the world and not assume that what they say is understood as intended.
Control <> Transmission, Collaboration <> Ritual
All people cannot be generalized or fixated into one of these two categories. We all rely on both the transmission and ritual views of communication. How we choose which conception to lean on relies on our personalities, contexts, and needs of others. However, conflict arises when people interact in a specific context under different conception of communication.
It’s been said that Mark Zuckerberg starts every meeting with the question, “Is this a decision meeting or a discussion meeting?” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is known for instilling the “meeting memo” into the company culture, where meeting organizers are required to write a detailed justification for the meeting and desired outcomes. Perhaps unintentionally, these strategies attempt to expose the view of communication all meeting attendees can expect: 1) objective information to receive and use for decision-making to or 2) subjective information to take as a perspective in a larger discussion.
The control-collaboration-control continuum tracks along these conceptions. In control situations, a transmission view of communication is more commonly deployed to assert and decide. In collaborative situations, a ritual view of communication opens up possibilities for understanding and creativity. As a project or initiatives unfolds with a group of people, an awareness of these states will create better communication environments.
Why All This Matters
Too often we blame project failings or client problems on communication. While this may be true, it’s not specific enough. What’s likely is that we didn’t share the same conceptions of communication at the right times. We tried to control when they wanted to collaborate. They wanted to make swift decisions while we wanted to foster discussion.
Communication theory is instructive, but practice is meaningful. Take time to consider when you’re operating under the transmission or ritual views of communication. Are your coworkers and clients doing the same? This level of attentiveness and awareness will help improve your working relationships and make for more successful projects.