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D’You Know What I Mean? – Musing on Communication

A number of my appliances appeared to stage a coordinated strike during my recent holiday break. In equal parts, believing that a significant pool of the knowledge of the world can be accessed via the phone in my pocket, and cautious of the fact that despite this, people are constantly wrong about innumerable things, I set out to up my domestic credentials by attempting a repair of both our dishwasher and refrigerator. A series of web searches, YouTube videos, and some lurking about in appliance repair forums quickly became the first tools in my box. My approach was simple, I was looking for information and for assistance, or more precisely, I was looking for information that was relevant, that I could understand and that I could ultimately use. During my searching, reading and viewing, the concept of “hearing” versus “understanding” soon crept to mind.

It is accepted that communication is not simply the transmission of information, but the reception and understanding of it too. My foray into appliance repair work reemphasized this fact, and made me contemplate the ways in which we constantly find ourselves as being either the “sender” or “receiver” of information. It is a worthwhile exercise to reflect on how well we are communicating and how well we are being understood, or to ask just how clearly information or messaging is being sent, received and processed by others and by ourselves in our day-to-day work. From a professional perspective, consider how the language we use with our colleagues, clients and funders differs, as does the language we see being used by various courts.

The Supreme Court of Canada recently began to produce their Cases in Brief, to “help the public better understand Court decisions.” These summaries are drafted by communications staff at the SCC, not by the Court and do not form part of their reasons, but are being produced “so that anyone interested can learn about the decisions that affect their lives” by using “reader-friendly language.” The promotion of plain language use is associated with the access to justice movement and can be found in other jurisdictions across the country in documents and efforts relating to court administration and in written judgments from the bench. To be certain, the intent of such initiatives is to promote a broader understanding of the work our courts do and what they are saying. The promotion of plain language is not to challenge the role of judges, lawyers or the courts, nor to dismiss the need to acknowledge and address such things as precedent, procedure or rules of evidence. Plain language initiatives can be regarded as one among the varied efforts being made to help people better understand the legal system, the role of the courts and the law itself. The use and promotion of plain language in court documents is principally due to the influx of self-represented litigants, and can be viewed as an adaptation being made for a rapidly growing audience, and undeniably, adaptability leads to good communication.

Adaptation in communication is the result of a conscious analysis of your audience. We do (or should do) a similar thing when we speak with our clients, colleagues and for some, our funders. From a personal standpoint, working in the land of law librarianship, I can confidently say that my library colleagues across the country possess a fairly clear and thorough understanding of the work we do here in Alberta, as we generally find ourselves engaged in similar types of work and initiatives. Developing such a depth of understanding with users (plus non-users) and funders however, requires a different approach. When aiming for successful reception and understanding (read: communication), you should start by adopting the basic notion that communication is your responsibility. When you commit to this principle, delivery and messaging will soon be adapted to your audiences more naturally and instinctively. Consider for example, if faced with a library user or party who is self-represented and has little knowledge and understanding of the legal matter that they are dealing with, checking your approach at the outset will act as a pre-emptive measure of sorts, moving you away from the rather terrible and quite opposite “LOUDER and slower” approach to establishing understanding that you may have witnessed or even used in the past. To state it plainly, being an adaptable communicator benefits both you and your audience.

This type of approach also extends to those instances where you find yourself communicating with another extremely important audience: funders. There is some truth to the saying that “even if money is not everything, everything needs money,” and so effective communication with this audience is essential. As the ‘sender’ of information about who you are, what you do, where the value is in the work you do, and how this all aligns with the interest of the ‘receiver’ of such messaging is not a simple task. Moreover, if faced with multiple funders with varied interests, the complexity of such a task can soon be compounded. When communicating with funders, you must first be proactive. Being silent, passive or unsure with your communication are makings for a failure in it, and such a failure or breakdown could prove disastrous. To repeat the point above, communication is your responsibility. Audience awareness, adaptability, assuredness, choice of language and the tone of your messaging are all obvious requirements when communicating with such a group. It is essential to know your audience, know your message, and to check for cues of understanding.

If the message is not both heard and understood, the communication fails. The reverse is also true, that when the message is received and understood, the communication can be labelled as effective. Taking a moment to reflect on how clearly information or messaging is being sent, received and processed by others and by ourselves in our day-to-day work is worth some consideration, and I would encourage you to reflect upon it before your next domestic duty or appliance crisis arises.[1]

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[1] Let it be stated: After an extended effort, some frequent head scratching and a considerable amount of patience (though perhaps not absolute faith in my ability) from my spouse, I successfully repaired both appliances.

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