Communication Breakdown

Sometimes, when solid waste managers believe they see an issue or project clearly, they assume that everyone else certainly must see it the same way.

However, in some cases, the audience has a much different perspective and a more limited knowledge of the subject than the speaker. Or, perish the thought, maybe the speaker didn't do a good job of explaining the topic in a manner that the audience could understand.

Although people use the same words, they don't all have the same vocabulary and words can mean different things to different people. In order to communicate properly, both the speaker's and the listener's perspectives and language must be in synch.

As a listener, I am hopelessly addicted to plain language and substantive discussions. The use of jargon, acronyms, initials and double-speak dissolves both my understanding and enthusiasm for the subject being discussed.

Sometimes, the speaker wants to show off a little about how "with it" he is by using jargon to an audience that may be as jargon-deprived as I am. A speaker does not educate or persuade anyone if he insults, confuses or bores his audience.

As managers, we cannot disguise our own lack of knowledge behind language that we have no real understanding of ourselves. No one who cares about the person or group with whom he is trying to communicate wants to make his audience feel stupid.

The only sure-fire way to avoid miscommunication is to determine your audience's characteristics. I am not talking about "dumbing down" your remarks, but rather presenting them in the audience's language, taking into consideration its level of knowledge on the subject.

Audience perspective often is grounded in its occupation. For example, in an operations employee's mind, plans to start a recycling program will spark visions of the vehicles needed, personnel to be hired and routing issues, while a politician's prerogative will be on funding and on the constituents' concerns.

If many differing agendas are applied to the same issue, the likelihood of misunderstanding will increase unless some translation takes place. Someone must be on hand to translate the idea into terms and scenarios the other person/group can understand - and, hopefully, accept.

Translation is the art of arbitrators, public relations experts, facilitators, counselors, consultants and anyone else who takes the time to make sure that all parties arrive at the same understanding. Arbitration translates the concerns of each side in a dispute, while facilitation focuses on conducting meetings logically and fruitfully.

The object is to have a person or team adept at making sure everyone's views are heard and understood by the group. This entity ensures that the rules are understood and followed. It also helps dissolve disputes and gets the discussion back on track, leaving the participants free to debate, rather than direct, the conversation.

There is no need to hire a professional to conduct every meeting, but any level of supervisor can benefit from acquiring these translating skills. One hurdle is evening the playing field during discussions by realizing that all participants are not always equal: No matter how much the higher-ranking individuals at the meeting avow neutrality, those lower on the echelon are aware of rank.

Whether the situation is a customer complaint, supervisor-employee interaction, interdisciplinary problem-solving session or any of the other myriad interactions that transpire hourly, a manager should strive to see the other person's point of view. This allows the speaker to couch his argument in terms he knows the listener will comprehend while simultaneously showing that he understands his listeners' concerns.

As a solid waste manager, you already should be familiar with the concerns of those with whom you interact - employee, customer or boss - because you have "been there." As either a customer of your own solid waste service or as a keen critic of your provider, you probably have been an attendee at many of the discussions you now hold. Likewise, you should be familiar with the local politicians' concerns. It is safe to assume that they want to do the best job they can for their constituents but that they don't have much knowledge of your concerns.

Understanding is a two-way street. Learning as much as possible about the world of your employees, customers and politicians aids you in helping them understand your perspective.

You must be able to listen to your own words from the perspective of the audience you are addressing. If you feel you are not doing this, run to the nearest mirror and help that poor dude understand that he is the one who must learn to listen.

Got a question about your solid waste operations or just want to sound off? Contact Bill Knapp at 3336 Vista Ricosa, Escondido, Calif. 92029. (760) 741-5349. Fax: (619) 740-9177. E-mail: