Prattfalls: Better Communication

A long time ago, my manager sat me down to inform me of my next year’s salary. I was receiving a reasonable raise, it should have been an easy conversation. Once we finished the conversation, I left the room and immediately started reaching out to some recruiters I knew with the intention of finding a new job.

Oops.

One of my ex-coworkers at Netflix, since retired, once told me about a book his father had written about library management. This book, Information of the Image by Dr. Allan D. Pratt, is sadly out of print now. I refer to it often because its first chapter has played a transformative role in how I think about effective communication and ways in which we utterly, delightfully, screw it up.

The Image

In my head is an image of the world. Some of it is knowledge (I live in Pacifica, CA; earth’s surface gravitational acceleration is 9.8 m/s²). Some is just opinions and beliefs (I bake a pretty great flourless chocolate cake; I like smoked meats). Some is likely opinions masquerading as facts (but enough about politics).

If we think of the internal state each of us has in our head — “Our beliefs, our opinions, our attitudes … our internal model of the world and how it works” — then the meaning of a communication, in the receiver’s frame of reference, is the mutation of that state (which Pratt calls ‘image’). To quote Pratt:

All portions of one’s image would remain forever private if it were impossible for one person to communicate with another, to attempt to share some portion of one’s image with another. The Latin root reflects this sharing concept (communicare; to share with). In the very act of sharing my image with you, I inevitably change yours. It is one of the basic premises of this work that the purpose of communication is to change another’s image. In fact, communication might reasonably be defined as the process of changing another’s image. To communicate with another is to change that other’s image, to alter it, to affect it in some manner.

So what?

Pursuing this line of thought, it’s useful to enter a moment of communication — one where I’m going to mutate another person’s internal image— with care and consideration, starting with being thoughtful about the present state of that image, being clear about what change I’m trying to accomplish, and figuring out what the best, most likely successful, way to communicate that will lead to the desired change in state. And, of course, ending with validating that the change in state I was hoping for is actually the one that happened. This isn’t trivial. As Pratt notes,

Affecting others’ images by communications is a very risky undertaking. My attempts to alter your image may fail for any number of reasons — indeed, my attempt may have an effect quite contrary to that which I intended. No matter; if I am to achieve anything, I must attempt to do so. My success is dependent on any number of factors, not the least of which is my image of your image. If my understanding of the present state of your image is seriously wrong, I will not succeed in changing it in the way I intend. A large number of often overlooked factors must be taken into account, for your image may be affected at a number of different levels by my communication attempts.

Remember my boss screwing up that conversation?

My boss was trying to tell me I had tons of potential to make more money in my role by focusing on the fact I was getting paid relatively little compared to my peers, and talking about why I was getting paid less than my peers.

In my head, the world looked somewhat different — I had been leading a team for about a year, turned around its ability to execute and deliver value to the organization, and hadn’t gotten a ton of recognition from this boss, or my prior one, for my accomplishments. The interaction between his message and the image in my head was … suboptimal.

So that’s a lot of words. Let me summarize:

Communication only exists as a mutation of someone else’s internal state
Focus entirely on what mutation you’re trying to accomplish
Be thoughtful about how to accomplish that mutation
Validate THAT mutation occurred

This is particularly useful in two situations that I see happen all the time:

Helping Others Communicate

Every once in a while I, or someone I know, has to sit down with someone we know and try to explain to them why they’re ineffective at communicating with others. “Hey, when you keep complaining, people at some point tune you out,” or “if you only give people reporting to you negative feedback, you demoralize them.” I’ve worked with people — particularly those who are by nature more prone to intellectual analysis rather than human empathy — who’ve found this framework for conscious communication helpful.

Difficult Conversations

Every once in a while, we end up having a conversation that we know has more of a potential to go off the rails, or feel unnecessarily bad to the recipient, or where, as Pratt says, “my attempt may have an effect quite contrary to that which I intended.” I once sat down with a manager reporting to me to discuss a performance issue. The goal of the conversation was simple: They had to know at the end of it that they had limited time to turn it around, or they would have to choose between becoming an IC, leaving voluntarily, or leaving involuntarily. But equally, it was deeply important to me that at the end of the conversation they knew I valued them as a coworker and a human being; that I wanted them to be successful; that I wanted them to stay; and that I believed in them. That was the internal state I was committed to them having at the end of the conversation. Being clear about that is critical (though sadly not sufficient) to success in having these conversations.

As for that conversation with my boss …

After fuming for a few hours, I sent my boss a meeting invite for a meeting two days hence. “Hey, I’d love to catch up about that conversation we had.” But the next day, before our scheduled meeting, he came by my desk and asked if we could chat for a few moments. We grabbed a room and he said “hey, I think I totally fucked up that conversation yesterday. Can we try again?”

It went better the second time around.

(With thanks to my coworker Allan Pratt, whose unceasing feedback and care made my team, my products, and me, better; and with thanks to his father Allan Pratt, whose book made me more thoughtful (sometimes :) ) about communication)