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Fixing Communication Bugs

Internal Communication

29 February, 2020

Evan Carmi, Engineering Manager at Airbnb, explains how to successfully fix communication bugs by being aware of the difference between intention and impact.

Problem

As humans, we inevitably encounter situations where our communication ends up in misunderstandings. Oftentimes even simple messages could be lost in translation. Once when I was coaching a senior engineer I realized how hard they were struggling to understand what I was saying. They found my guidance confusing -- I wanted them to go outside of their bubble and meet new people while at the same time I wanted them to be focused and align all of their activities with an overall goal. Clearly, there was a discrepancy in what I was trying to communicate (my intention) and what they heard (the impact) -- we encountered a communication bug!
 

Actions taken

I find it helpful to always be aware of a few common communication bugs, the most key being -- What I say is not the same as what someone hears. Therefore, I try to differentiate between my intention (what I want to communicate) and the impact (how it lands on someone else).
 

I can’t be fully responsible for how someone understands my message, but I need to be aware of the impact it could have. If I share something, and someone seems offended, did I intend to offend them, or did they misunderstand what I was trying to convey? In software engineering, bugs are cheap to fix if found early, and expensive to fix if not found until late. The same applies to the communication. Finding out someone heard something different than what I intended to convey early allows for it to be easy to correct and fix. When this happens, I can ask the recipient to say what they heard me say, and then try to communicate my message again until I feel we’re both aligned. In this way, I try to reiterate my message until the impact of my message matches my intent.
 

Because of the translation layer, I try to verify that the translation (how what I say is heard) is accurate instead of simply assuming that it is. A misunderstanding could occur because of a great many reasons, including cultural or personal history and previous experiences. All this can add to the complexity and nuances of communication. You can often notice impact watching body language, how someone responds, and the best way to check impact is to ask directly.

 

Lessons learned

  • Do not assume that just because you had good intentions in what you said, that the person receiving your words heard you.
  • Always be mindful of the difference between intent and impact! Tools such as Brene Brown’s The Story I’m Telling Myself is are a great way to name explicitly our interpretations of situations and verify that perspectives match.
  • Starting with understanding the other person’s goals and motivations often is a great place to start.

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