The Business of Communication

I’m sitting at Ronald Reagan National Airport, waiting for my first work trip to start. I told my (then soon-to-be) supervisors during the interview process that I enjoy traveling, so my number came up for this trip…to Detroit. My more senior coworker went to Seattle earlier this month, and the other new guy went to Atlanta a week after that. I must have drawn the short straw.

Nonetheless, I’m interested in how this experience will go. I am well-rested from the weekend and have participated in enough meetings over the past three months at my company to anticipate at least a little excitement from this first visit with this lab. Scientists and business people collaborating—you know something awesome is going to happen. And it’s probably going to revolve around miscommunication.

I like to read relationship forums for the same reason I like to watch the Maury show—entertainment, first and foremost, but also the assurance that I’m doing better than somebody. I’ve yet to read a well-thought out answer on these forums with the response boiling down to more than, “Well, have you talked to him/her about it?” It’s a simple question, and the original poster always comes back with a defensive “of course!” Of course, if the couple had actually been conversing, not just talking, then one of them would probably not be asking anonymous internet strangers for help. (Or going on the Maury show, free trip to New York or not.)

Matt and I consider one of the strengths of our relationship to be our detailed level of communication. I think we both attribute a lot of this to the long-distance nature of our relationship, where we had to use our words to explain how we were feeling. When most people would kiss and make-up or go into separate rooms to fume, we were stuck, staring at each other on webcam. We couldn’t ignore our problems or the whole interaction would unravel. Thankfully, we both thought the other was worth fighting/conversing for.

The people I am meeting up with on this site visit I’ve only “met” in conference calls. I don’t even know what they look like. So far, we have only been able to rely on words (and screenshots) to convey our project. These face-to-face interactions are invaluable. My team is working on a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) to be used within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratories across the United States. It is supposed to harmonize synergies…or something. No really, despite all the business talk, it’s a good idea for the science. But the functional (scientist) and operational (program manager) sides don’t always understand one another. Often, the scientists in my company don’t understand the needs of the other scientists at individual sites.

I can hear the frustration on both sides of the phone call when a point of contention arises. Why didn’t you listen to us? We already told you all this. I’m just the notetaker, but for any in-person meetings I always have to stop myself from looking around at everyone in the room with a surprised “Did you just hear that?!” look on my face (what can I say? I watch Maury; I love me some drama). I’ve been very impressed with the business-y responses I’ve seen from the program management team, of which I am a part. I wish my thesis committee meetings had all gone so cordially! I used to make sure I was in the lab whenever Eric had a committee meeting, because it supplied my much-needed dose of drama for the day. I’d have Nathan and sometimes Eric’s wife on Gchat, ready to supply updates from the field.

Now, I’m working with the people whose job it is to keep everyone happy. I do not think it is in me to do that on a daily basis in the way my supervisors do, and, if I may generalize for a moment, I think the division between the heated scientists and the cool-minded business people is clear. And this is not just the FDA scientists; my company’s scientists can also get heated in a way the program management team does not, at least not in a group meeting. It was one of the first things that my Quality Assurance team brought to my attention in my meeting minutes: I use too many emotionally-charged words. My initial reaction was that what constitutes an emotionally-charged word is subjective in and of itself, and I nodded along as I was told that my choice of verbs was too opinionated for meeting minutes. It’s the nature of my writing, academic or otherwise, to try to tell a story, and I can follow the meeting better when it is written as:

Bob argued that the system needed the additional features, and Steve countered that the features would affect overall functionality.

Rather than:

Bob said that the system needed the additional features, and Steve said that the features would affect overall functionality.

Was Steve saying that as an aside to Bob’s point, agreeing with him? I don’t know, it just says “said,” so there is no flow.

Once I got over my pet writing preferences (ok I’m not really over them), I understood that the bigger picture was to not make anyone feel like they have been characterized incorrectly. I could poll all the attendees at the meeting and they could all say that Bob was definitely arguing, but Bob is going to become defensive at the wording in the account. So we use “said”…every…time.

We also want to appear unified as a company, so our minutes refer to the “Dovel Team” rather than to a particular individual answering questions. If a lab user wants to know if something is plausible, we don’t sit around arguing for half an hour about whether it is a dumb request, we make note of it, legitimately follow-up with the lab later, and in the meantime continue with the scheduled agenda.

But all the objectively-worded meeting minutes in the world will not take care of the fundamental issue of miscommunication. Conversations require a level of mutual respect and understanding among all parties involved, which I think already exists in these meetings. Once that criterion is met, there should be some active listening going on, ensuring that everyone understands each other before moving onto the next topic. And then no one feels misunderstood or ignored. Except for everyone on the Maury show.