Weaving business and people together

Back to the plumbing.

March 2nd, 2017


My central heating has been on the blink for more than two months now. I’ve spent a small fortune, realised again the value of thermal underwear, learned a lot about the impossibility of influencing in certain contexts, and been impressed by a bewildering range of confidently expressed diagnoses.  I wish I had insisted on a lawyerly , ‘no result, no fee’. It still isn’t fixed.

During each visit it’s become clear that there is a massive language barrier, and although every one of the five aforementioned plumbers has not been British-born and is working in their second, possibly third or even fourth language, that is not the main issue. It’s not even so much of an issue that no plumber wants to hear my long verbatim report of what the previous plumbers said. (Clearly plumbing, like hair-cutting, includes training in non-verbally dissing the previous tradesman who fiddled with your boiler.)

The bigger problem is that there is a whole code attached to every trade or profession which is completely impenetrable to an outsider. My plumbing conversations have gone a little like this:

Plumber: ‘Please, where is the manifold?’

Me: ‘errrr… what is the manifold?

Plumber: ‘it is for the underfloor heating’

Me: ‘errrr… what does it look like?’

Plumber: ‘like a piece of plumbing’

Me (increasingly panicky): ‘errrr… is it big or small?’

…and so on. The conversation usually includes eye-rolling, patience, frustration and occasionally laughter. It’s like playing a hideous, hilarious mix of ‘hide and seek’, ‘lucky dip’ and ‘murder in the dark’. It’s also analogous to many conversations in work and non-work life. Like the shared language which divides the nations of the UK and the US, the fact that everyone can speak English deludes us into thinking we can understand each other. Monoglots, in particular, are prone to this. My experience is that the more languages people speak and/or the more internationally they have worked, the better they can decode conversations. Polyglots and global workers also listen a whole lot more carefully than monoglots. Even with careful attention, however, the language of expertise causes more confusion than native languages.

The language of expertise leads to us experience not just confusion, but a huge power imbalance and increasing mistrust. We phone up to try to correct an error in our phone bills and are frustrated by someone who understands the rules of a payment system but is totally unsympathetic to the experience of the customer. We sit with a group of business people feeling increasingly alienated by the jargon which salts and peppers the conversation. We try hard to understand how our economy works but get frustrated because so few people can explain it in everyday language, or using everyday metaphors. It’s easy to decide to give up, or to believe someone else who can explain things very simply.

There are of course enormous risks in presenting things in everyday terms. (At this point I’ll take a nifty detour around the pitfalls of populist political arguments. I might rant, or reveal my current political preoccupations.) But it’s a real challenge for all of us, isn’t it? How to be understood when we are the expert, how to simplify without losing the complexity of the concept.  And when we’re not the expert, how to overcome the fear of looking stupid and persist in demanding an explanation which we can understand but doesn’t over-simplify or even misdirect action. The deeper, scarier risk is that experts end up just talking to each other and those who don’t ‘get’ the expert view become so frustrated that they just dismiss all experts as being out of touch airheads and simply act (even vote) on the basis of uninformed (but perfectly human) bias or prejudice.

All of this underlines two things. One is the need to build trust, whatever sort of conversation we’re involved in. If we can do that we’ll behave differently in those challenging moments of conversation when/if we misunderstand each other. We don’t mind saying, respectfully, ‘please say that again,’ ‘ you’re not being clear’ or ‘sorry, I’ll try to explain that better’ when we trust the other’s expertise and/or intention, when we value the other and both parties have something to gain from the interaction. A little framing around our question or view, a summary to test understanding before we become dismissive. These little behavioural habits make a huge difference to the outcomes in a technical, complex, fact-filled conversation.

The second challenge is the discipline of drilling down to the essentials of our point, so that we develop a clear view which helps us to understand our own argument as well as express it clearly to others. We have to make sure we check whether our view has made sense, that we’ve not overloaded the other with facts which are not central – chunking up our views into bite-sized pieces, without sounding patronising, of course. Not easy.

As someone who likes, once started, to complete things quickly, I force myself not to publish even a tiny blog without passing it by at least two delightfully picky readers, who road-test it for meaning, relevance and grammar. And I re-write at least four times. Tedious, painful, but ultimately more satisfying.  It’s all about manifold.

PS. I once worked with an international agro-chemical company and I asked a mixed group of professionals, mainly experts, what the expression ‘short-term’ meant to them. The manufacturing guys said ‘about ten minutes’. The toxicologists said ‘roughly 40 years’. That still amazes me.

  1. Incisive, instructive and amusing….as always. Thank you Annie

    by: Alison on March 10, 2017 at 8:46 pm
    • thanks Alison 🙂 and thank you to you-know-who for the manifold picture.

      by: Anne Owen on April 12, 2017 at 4:42 pm


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