They Don’t Understand (aka “Why Do We Need Another Meeting sef?”)

People learn best in different ways — obviously. Many learning models have been developed by psychologists to shed light on this fact.

The fact that people absorb information in different ways means we have to communicate the same message in different ways if many people are to appreciate it fully. An obvious statement, but quite a few of us don’t act on that insight.

One of the most venerable such models is the VAK model, first developed in the 1920’s. Outside of psychology and pedagogy it was quite popular amongst early management gurus and is still widely in use.

I’ve found it very practical, and also useful in explaining to people in my team why there’s no silver bullet — no “one best mode” or “one best tool” — to disseminate information around a company.

The VAK model basically says that each of us digests information in three “styles”, everyone operates with a mix of all three, and most people have one dominant style. The styles are:

Visual — absorbs information best through the eyes; seeing and reading.

Auditory — absorbs information best through the ears; hearing and listening.

Kinaesthetic — absorbs information best through touching and doing.

The people who never remember a verbal conversation you had but can recite lines from an email you wrote to them last week are dominantly Visual. The people who always want to meet or “discuss” and never finish reading the memo are dominantly Auditory. The people who read the memo, listen carefully to your lengthy speech, and then say “let’s start the process and then we’ll understand it better” are probably mainly Kinaesthetic. Keeping these differences in mind can help you overcome misplaced frustration with your colleagues.

Over time I had to learn to mix styles of communication. I consciously use a mix of our corporate collaboration platform (messaging — visual), email (messaging — visual), team conference calls (auditory), and physical meetings (kinaesthetic) for different matters arising.

Nobody operates in only one mode, obviously, and one can improve one’s functioning through practice. Over time I learned I operated primarily from visual and kinaesthetic perspectives and less from the auditory perspective (as my long-suffering wife knows well) and so I had to consciously work on my listening skills, and not expect that everyone would understand all the emails I had sent as quickly as I may have written them.

This is also part of the reason why, for now, we cannot do away with physical meetings. Even in purely intellectual work, like software development, as long as human beings are doing the work there will be a need to satisfy the kinaesthetic impulses within the team.

There are lots of websites on the VAK model, including some with free self-testing functions. Other interesting models include the Belbin team roles model and Myers Briggs (MBTI), although I think the latter two are less useful than VAK for startups and small companies.

If you’re growing a team you need to raise your own level of awareness about how to effectively communicate, and these tools help.