On Listening to the Cynics

Real Complaints    14.6.23

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You’ve spent years collecting and analysing recordings of professional conversations to identify key communication skills for a specific professional role. You’ve run stakeholder training design workshops to translate the findings into training and you’ve just delivered a pilot training event. You ask for feedback and a voice from the back, let’s call him Jake, says, “Aren’t you just putting lots of new words to things we already know?”

How do we respond to this kind of cynical reaction to communication training and what do these cynical voices have to offer us in the development of our training resources?

Developing good communication training programmes is challenging. We all communicate all day every day so, in many ways, we are already all expert communicators. At the same time, communication is often a source of problems in our personal and professional lives. Hence, the proliferation of communication training courses. Communication is a very context sensitive activity: what we say will have different effects in different contexts. Most of the time, there is no golden rule or simple trick that can fix communication problems. But a growing body of research points to the value of training based on detailed analysis of how people actually communicate in specific settings to understand what works in practice.

So is Jake right?  Are we just telling people what they already know? And if we are, then why is training that is built from analysis of what people already do yielding such positive results? And how do we answer the “Jakes” in our training audiences?

The short answer to Jake is both yes and no. This apparent contradiction comes from the ambiguity around what it means to “know” something and is at the heart of the idea of reflective practice, which is so essential to professional development.  Our knowledge about communication is mostly implicit knowledge: we don’t explicitly know what we know. This is partly why role-played conversations are nothing like real conversations. And in the case of professional communication, evidence shows that good communicators don’t precisely know what it is that they do that makes the communication effective. More generally, there is lots of evidence showing that we recall what has been communicated but not how it was communicated. What good communicators recall or perceive as the key to their effectiveness is firstly typically not accurately recalled and secondly often not actually what differentiates the good communicator from the less effective communicator. So, the longer answer to Jake is that good professional communication training is about making implicit professional knowledge explicit, so that that knowledge can be applied to reflect on future practice. The feedback on training based on recordings of real conversations consistently points to the powerful effect of the authenticity of the training resources in supporting personal reflection on professional practice, precisely because it draws attention to natural ways of communicating effectively.

So we can defend our value to the Jakes in our training audiences, but what about the value of the Jakes in our audiences for us as training developers? Firstly, and most obviously, it’s always good to be forced to articulate the value of the training we offer. More importantly, though, listening to the Jakes in the audience help us design our training to pre-empt cynical voices: it’s got to be better to engage participants from the outset than explain why they should have engaged when you get to the end! What’s more, every cynical voice gives us additional insights into the implicit and explicit knowledge in the profession, which we can feed back into the training design to help the training become more effective.

The Real Complaints training package has been developed through multiple stakeholder events and piloting events. The positive feedback received at each event has reinforced the evidence for the value of the training, but as the Real Complaints training development team, we have been grateful to the occasional Jakes in our professional audiences. Their cynicism has helped us fine-tune the training, while the positive voices ensured that we didn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. All of which underlines the value of stakeholder events and the value of the diversity of voices at those events.