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Uncommon Sense | Poor communication seldom produces rich results

When Hurricane Dorian turned our three-day cruise into six, I suggested that Emma, my 15-year-old daughter, email her teachers about making up her work. She declined, insisting that in-person conversations would work better. Besides, she explained, “They’re more likely to say ‘yes’ to me in person.” How very un-Gen Z of her, I thought. She’s onto something that many of us seem to have forgotten.

Every day, we see battle lines hastily drawn between the government and contractors, arising and escalating from a simple miscommunication or misunderstanding. Unsurprisingly, in our digitally driven world, we overly rely on email, texts and tweets. It seems like a more efficient way to communicate. Except, when it’s not – like matters concerning government contract administration. Throw in a dollop of complex government regulations, a glut of sloppy writing, a fermenting culture of mistrust and a dash of fragile sensibilities and we have all the ingredients for a firestorm.

As a group, government auditors are viewed as distrustful sorts. Instead of a “trust-but-verify” or “healthy skepticism” approach, they take a “mistrust and find the [insert misdeed here]” approach. “Different” usually equals “wrong,” and attempts at understanding why are often superficial, with preference for assumptions rather than facts and circumstances. As more and more audits are conducted remotely and materials submitted by contractors electronically, the opportunity for government/contractor face time evaporates. A common result is unexpected and infuriating findings in audit reports that contracting officers, who may have little or no relationship with the contractor, accept as gospel.

Contractors aren’t off the hook in this discussion. When asked how often our clients meet face to face with their government contracting officer or their DCAA auditors, many say “rarely” or “never.” Really? Never? Effective communication is built on trust, which comes from getting to know each other and not by swapping emails through the ether. It’s the contractor’s job to educate both contracting officers and auditors about their business. Yet they, too, often prefer fast and easy communications over laborious discussion and teaching. Contractors often wait until after there is a problem to begin discussions. By then, it’s too late to build a strong foundation of trust. Successful resolution needs that foundation.

We all know that the majority of communication is nonverbal. Is something really “fine” if we have a scowl on our face and our arms crossed? We also know that much of today’s written communication is sloppy – imprecise, muddled and lacking context. Too much is left to (mis)interpretation when we skip face-to-face conversations. Initially, in person meetings require a greater time investment. But the respect, understanding and trust that blossom from these relationships usually save enormous amounts of time and energy as the future unfolds.

Let’s be honest – it’s a lot harder to turn someone into the Bogeyman when we know them, when we can look them in the eye. To build trust and avoid or resolve disputes, we have to communicate effectively. Authentically. In person (or at least on the phone). Take time to connect with your government or contractor counterparts. It’s worth it. As my daughter confirmed when her teachers agreed to significant extensions (or even dismissed quizzes so she could focus on current assignments), it’s much easier to agree – and much harder to be dismissive, even when we disagree – when communicating in person.

Jennifer Flickinger
Principal
City buildings and the sky
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