What You Heard Is Not What I Meant - One Key Way Communication Breaks Down In Teams and What You Can Do About It
Climber Cathy O'Dowd was the part of the first South African climbing team to summit Everest. As a speaker, she expressly imparts lessons learned from her adventures in a way that can be adapted to business. Here she talks about how vital clear communication is in achieving objectives.
Mis-attributed to George Bernard Shaw, among others
“We won’t move onto the plateau unless we have a reasonable weather forecast.”
For context, the plateau lies at 16,500 feet and is the last obstacle on the way to the summit of Mount Logan, a mountain notorious for terrible weather. It sounds reasonable, right? And yet that innocuous statement underlay the key conflict we faced on the expedition I did this spring. We were using the same words, but we didn’t mean the same thing.
At 19,550 feet, Mount Logan is the second highest peak in North America. The more famous and slightly higher Denali gets over a 1000 ascents a season, whereas Logan gets less than a hundred. To set up the final camp we must cross a pass and drop down onto the plateau. Climbers trapped there in bad weather have suffered terrible frostbite injuries, and some have died. To tackle Logan demands both commitment and care.
Now we were at 17,000 feet, huddled in two tents dug in behind metre-high walls, buffeted by howling wind, taking turns to venture out to dig away the building snow. The pass lay just above us and the moment of truth had arrived.
Making decisions in a pressurised situation calls for clear understanding of your teams meaning
What counts as ‘reasonable’?
What had seemed self-evident when we first discussed it now turned out to be complex and vague. We were receiving weather forecasts by text message, brief cryptic communications made up of acronyms and percentages. Even if such forecasts were truly reliable, they still don’t offer a definitive answer. What matters is how we interact with the conditions, and that depends on the state of our equipment and of ourselves, physically and emotionally.
We were a team of six, with varying levels and kinds of experience. For Robert, reasonable turned out to mean perfect - no wind, blue skies - and with no sign of such weather in our future, the expedition was over. For three of us, myself included, confident in our experience and resigned to a mixed forecast, reasonable meant whatever wasn’t awful. The final two wavered, tired and cold, unsure whether to give up or push onward.
Cathy and the team had varying levels of experience
The choice will always be a 'best guess'. Try as we may to be objective, emotion and judgement always creep in. For those of us who wanted to continue, Robert was giving up, failing at the moment we needed to stand strong. For Robert, we were becoming reckless, pushing on against the odds.
We need to walk an invisible line - determined enough not to give up when the going gets tough, but careful enough not to let blind summit ambition draw us into taking deadly risks. We each have an innate tolerance for risk, but we differ widely in where that line lies. What we consider ‘reasonable’ is fundamentally informed by that tolerance, but it’s too easy to assume that our risk limit is obviously justifiable and must be shared by those around us.
Given that any one person’s ‘reasonable’ is so self-evident that they can find it hard to articulate, we need a tool to uncover the assumptions and tolerances that unpin it. One powerful way to do this is through stories.
Back in the planning phase, we could have asked each person to give an example of weather conditions that had forced them to retreat. And of other situations where they had judged the risk so high that they backed off. These stories can’t be hypothetical - they must be events the teller has been personally involved in. They need to share what happened and how they reached their decision. It’s not about whether they were objectively right or wrong - given that we seldom know for sure what would have happened if they’d picked the other path, that’s a hard judgement to make.
Does your judgement align with the person communicating with you?
What matters is for each of us to think about whether our judgement in such a situation would have aligned with the story-teller. We might have realised that the spectrum of risk tolerance within the team was wider than we’d assumed. That need not be fatal to the project. But it could have led to a more specific discussion about how the team (and the team’s equipment) could be safely split if we needed to separate.
Splitting the team is what we eventually did. Two team members went down, four of us continued and returned safely. However, we did reach the summit in mist and howling wind, and had to navigate back down in a white-out. In a sense, we’d all been right. Conditions were not good but we were capable of rising to meet the challenge.
What can we take away from the experience? If we’d given more thought up front to interrogating our assumptions around what was reasonable and what was risky, and therefore done more planning to accommodate our differences, we’d have reached our final conclusion more quickly and with less resentment and confusion at a key moment in the mission.
For more information or to book Cathy O'Dowd, email as firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 0207 607 7070.