Beware Those Communication Icebergs

No more Titanics if we know what's below he waterline!

No more Titanics if we know what’s below the waterline!

Different cultures adopt different communication strategies. The British are famous for their coded language – saying one thing, but meaning another. ‘That’s a good idea’ can in fact mean that they think it’s a terrible idea!

Personally I find the approach of certain nationalities, such as the Dutch and Germans, to be typically refreshing – I usually know a bit more what they are thinking and where I stand. But in many situations it can be very important for there to be no misunderstandings.

And there’s a useful way of checking, whatever culture we are working in. The tip is to imagine seeing communication as if it’s an iceberg. If you remember your science, you’ll appreciate that only about 10% of an iceberg is above the waterline. Only the ‘words’ they are using and their ‘actions’ (both as they are speaking and subsequently) are visible.

90% of the iceberg is under the water. What the other person is thinking, their values and the belief systems they are using to base what they are saying are not visible. They are not stated. We may be making a big mistake if we just listen to the words and interpret them literally. We may be making a mistake if we make assumptions or form a hypothesis about what was intended and why.

So what can we do about this? The simple answers are:

  • Summarise what they are saying to ensure we’ve heard it correctly and understood it. This at least gets the shape of the visible iceberg correct. Though it doesn’t shine much light on what’s below the waterline.
  • Ask probing questions, such as ‘to ensure I get this right, I feel it may be important to know a bit more about what’s important to you here? ’This may be trickier to do in practice, because it can feel intrusive to do this. It helps if we have good rapport with the other person so they know there is no negative intent in your questioning.
  • Assuming you have a long term relationship with the other person (a work colleague), notice patterns in their behaviour. These provide clues as to what’s important to them

So whatever the nationality of the other person, look out for those icebergs. We don’t want to see any more Titanics!

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