When Techies Speak, the Devil's in the Details

Every IT professional has been here: A business person asks you a question, and your thorough answer just isn't good enough. You try to give more specific information in an attempt to break through the communication barrier. But the more you try, the worse things seem to get. In the end, the business person is seething with impatience, so you start to get confused and angry.

Both parties walk away from such encounters convinced that it's hopeless to communicate with "those types" of people. They both say of the other, "They don't get it." And as a result, the business people stop asking questions, and we, the IT people, are relieved.

I'd grown so accustomed to this type of disconnect that I had come to see it as a natural part of working in organizations. But a recent interaction made me realize that it is one facet of a deep divide between business and IT, and that understanding the root of the disconnect is crucial to resolving it.

I was talking to a smart and articulate business person. Our conversation was following the seemingly inevitable course toward disconnect until we took a step back and examined what was at the heart of our conflict. The conclusion we came to was fascinating: It wasn't the language that was dividing us ; it was the fact that technical and nontechnical people have completely different perceptions of what constitutes a good answer.

The frustration that these conversations normally produce arises from our completely different understandings of what is true in the world -- as well as our incompatible ways of thinking about truth, identifying it, defining it and feeling it.

The business person had asked me a simple question about a project we were working on, and I had responded with an itemized list of the six key elements that related to the question. As I introduced each item, she became increasingly agitated. I had seen this reaction many times before, but it had never made any sense to me. After all, I was doing a great job of explaining things; my list was quite complete.

Because, for me, a technical person, details reveal truth. Broad, sweeping statements are vague and untrustworthy, nothing more than assertions. They need to be deconstructed, clarified, qualified or proved before I believe that they embody any form of truth. Analysis is my chosen method for discovering truth. Big things are broken down into manageable components that are then examined individually. If the parts cohere, then the whole makes sense.

But for her, a nontechnical person, details cloud truth. Broad statements give her a handle on what's at stake, so she can test the truth of an idea against her internal sense of what's what. Essentially, she wants to "feel" the truth. Too many details interfere with her ability to process the explanation, thus preventing her from "getting it."

In my answer, I focused on completeness. That's my form of truth. To her, it felt like I was being evasive, and that I was overly concerned about trivial matters and unaware of what was important. If I had offered a high-level answer that focused on one or two key ideas, she would have been much more receptive. She explained that she would have eventually been interested in the details, but only after she had gotten the gist.

So, think twice before you assume that a more detailed explanation is a more credible one. You might be talking to someone with a very different experience of what it means to "get it."

Paul Glen is the CEO of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to unlocking the value of technical people. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com .

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