Communication in the time of COVID

Communication in the time of COVID

If, 18 months ago, I’d told you that you would need the Government’s permission to meet your family, go out for a meal or get a haircut, you would probably have either laughed at me or been absolutely outraged; or both.

However, as we finally start to rescind these unprecedented restrictions, we can reflect on this unusual time, not least in terms of how the increasingly alarming pandemic developments were communicated to the nation. By analysing and understand this, we can all become more effective communicators in our personal, and professional lives.

Whatever your coping strategy during the crisis has been, most of us have watched the announcements from the many and varied Government spokespersons with a degree of interest. Regardless of your personal views of the strategies that have been adopted and the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the actions that have been proposed, most of us have come away from the announcements feeling vaguely dissatisfied. This often had little to do with what was said, and a lot to do with how they said it.
Here at Huthwaite International we have been observing verbal communication for over 45 years and, by using a technique called Verbal Behaviour Analysis, are able to objectively analyse how messages are communicated to us independently of the content.

All communication, including Government Briefings, have two elements; the content, and the way in which it is delivered. Your reaction to content has infinite possibilities depending on what the content is, your personal beliefs and the impact it will have on the people and things you care about. Reaction to the way the communication is delivered is almost universally consistent. Communicate using the appropriate style and it’s nearly always possible to leave your audience feeling reasonably satisfied. So why have the Government been getting it so wrong? Why have so many of us come away from Briefings feeling underwhelmed?
Let’s take a closer look.

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Verbal Behaviour Analysis shows us that everything we say can be broken down into distinct units that we call Behaviour Categories. Luckily, it’s not as complicated as it sounds, everything we say falls into one of just 11 categories. The problem with Government Briefings is that they usually only use two of them.

The first is a behaviour called Proposing. That’s defined as stating something that’s new and actionable – it’s basically telling us to do something. It’s inevitable that Briefings will contain a lot of Proposing, at the end of the day that’s what Briefings are for – to tell us what we can do. But most of us don’t like being told what to do, and so in everyday life, Proposing is often softened or disguised, often in the form of a question (of which more later). It’s the difference between “You must not go to see Grandad this weekend” and “Shall we not go to see Grandad this weekend?”.

Clearly the Government can’t make every proposal into a question and, when dissent is not an option, it would be wrong to try to do so. However, it is still possible, and much more comfortable for us, if Proposals are framed in a more circumspect way. It can be done without diluting the message and can leave us in no doubt that this is an instruction that must be followed. But it can be done in a way that leaves us feeling better about it. More on that later.

The second behaviour used in Briefings is Giving Information, which is basically telling us stuff. It’s what adds detail and clarity to a conversation and it’s not surprising there’s a lot of it in Briefings, it’s the behaviour we use the most in real life too. “I’m going to work now”, “I’m making lasagne tonight”, “Visiting the doctor is classed as essential travel” and “Going on holiday is not” are all examples of Giving Information. Again, it’s a vital and essential behaviour but, once again, it’s usually softened in everyday conversation. We would probably say something like, “We haven’t had pasta for a while so I’m making lasagne tonight”, which has a very different tone to “Only go out for essential travel, going on holiday is not essential travel”. It’s all about how the communication is framed, about using all the Behaviour Categories you need to communicate in an engaging and empathetic way. By sticking to just two behaviours, the Government has taken what I am sure was intended as a concise and clear style, but it comes across to us as cold and unfeeling. It’s a pity, because it’s not that hard to do it well.

Let’s see how.

We said earlier thatVerbal Behaviour Analysis can divide verbal behaviours into 11 Categories. Within that there are three sub-groups:
  • Initiating behaviours – contributions that get things done. Proposing is an Initiating Behaviour.

  • Reacting Behaviours – these allow us to express how we feel about what is being said.

  • Clarifying Behaviours – contributions that add depth, detail and context and fill out the conversation. Giving Information fits in here.

Effective communication has a balance of these three elements. That’s not to say they occur equally, and the right balance will depend on the context. For example, you would expect a brainstorming meeting to be high on Initiating Behaviours, with lots of suggestions of what to do (in Verbal Behaviour Analysis terms, Proposing).

Things go wrong when the three groups become out of balance.

For example, a meeting that’s very high on Initiating Behaviours might be described as “chaotic”, “all over the place” or “unclear about what has to be done”, whereas a meeting that is too high on Clarifying Behaviours may be described as “swimming in treacle”, and one that is high on Reacting would be seen as “emotional or irrational”.

And it’s not only having too much of a category that causes a problem. Sometimes it’s too little of a category that gets in the way, and that’s particularly the case in meetings that are low on Reacting Behaviours. In these meetings there are plenty of ideas and loads of clarity. What’s lacking are any idea of what anyone feels about anything, about what ideas are thought to good ones and which are not. You have no idea who supports the proposals you agree with or who is against them, or if anything, or everything, is OK with the rest of the group.

You are left feeling a bit confused and unsettled, and that is exactly what happens in a Government Briefing. There are almost no Reacting Behaviours, nothing to give you a steer on what your own emotional response should be. It’s clear, it’s detailed, but it’s cold. That’s why we are left feeling as we do.

So what could they have done differently?

Firstly we need to understand what the Reacting Behaviours are, and that’s pretty simple; we either say we like an idea, that’s called Supporting or we say we don’t like the idea which we call Disagreeing. It’s as simple as “I like that idea” or “I don’t like that idea” though, in the latter case we often are a little more circumspect in real life. Expressions like “I’m not sure that will work” and “I don’t think X will go along with that” are typical, but slightly dressed up, forms of Disagreeing. There is a third Reacting Behaviour that is more emotionally charged but that is only usually used in personal conversations, so we’ll leave that one-to-one side.

Whilst most people use a reasonable amount of Reacting Behaviours, (what is ‘reasonable’ depends on the context), there are two extremes.

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Low Reactors avoid using Support and Disagreement so it’s very hard to tell what they are thinking, which makes us uncomfortable. It’s one of the reasons most of us are nervous making presentations, it’s inherently harder to gauge the reactions of a group than an individual. Some individuals will deliberately Low React to gain an advantage – professional buyers are trained to do it, but in certain circumstances it just happens – and when we are the receiving end of that we really don’t like it. Think about the Briefings lead by Chris Whitty – totally devoid of emotion or reactions. We have no idea if he actually likes or disagrees with what he is having to tell us. No wonder he was slated in the press for being a ‘cold fish’.

Yet it is so easy to change, and it’s not about becoming over emotional and wearing your heart on your sleeve. It can be very understated and very professional. A few phrases like “I’m pleased to say…” or “I’m disappointed to have to announce…” add warmth and human character. Chris Whitty could cease to be seen as an automaton and could engage with us all as a real, feeling, human being. So simple but such a missed opportunity.

It’s the same with apologising. Somehow politicians have got it into their heads that saying ‘sorry’ is a bad thing; that it somehow is a display of weakness or, even worse, guilt. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Do you think Boris Johnson is pleased to tell us we can’t see our family or get a haircut? Of course not! And we all know it’s not his fault. So why can’t he just tell us he’s sorry that we have to do these things? It wouldn’t make us feel any better about the restrictions, but we’d certainly feel a little warmer towards him.

Then there is the other end of the Reacting Behaviour spectrum – Donald Trump.

Love him or loathe him, there is no doubt it is absolutely clear where Donald Trump stands on every issue he talks about. Whilst the content of what he said polarised a nation, his style was far less divisive. His admirers saw it as refreshingly open and honest, whilst his detractors had a clear platform against which they could build their opposition. Whilst, in Trump’s case, it was undoubtedly done to extreme, high reaction can be more effective than the low reacting style adopted by many politicians. As with so many behaviours, truly effective communication is about finding the right balance.

Of course, the one big difference between political Briefings and day-to-day conversation is that everyday conversations are inherently two-way – they are a dialogue, whilst political briefings are usually one-way, it’s them talking at us.

This is where the UK Government have missed another trick. Many of the Downing Street briefings have involved three people, standing in a row and making their announcements. That’s three people in the same room, at the same time, talking to the same audience, about the same subject.

Is that a great opportunity for dialogue? Yes.
Is that a great opportunity to support one another’s position? Yes.
Is that a great opportunity for a bit of strategic disagreement, to test arguments and enable deeper understanding? Yes.
Is that a great opportunity to dig down and get real clarity by Testing Understanding (of which more later)? Yes.

Did the Government seize these opportunities to create meaningful dialogue with which we could all engage, and which would give us deeper understanding of the thinking behind, and nuances of, their proposals? No.

Throughout the Coronavirus pandemic we have been seeking greater clarity as to why what some would say were irrational and Draconian restrictions were being imposed. A frank and open dialogue would have helped achieve that, but the opportunity was ignored. It’s easy to see why. The classic format for political debate is a ‘Question Time’ approach, with a panel of politicians responding to questions from a public audience. That is a recipe for disaster from the politician’s point of view and so has been absent from the media. But a Government Briefing, with a controlled dialogue between three people who share the same worldview is something completely different. It can be controlled, but at the same time engaging and informative. A great opportunity, and sadly yet another opportunity missed.

The next group of Behaviour Categories are the Initiating Behaviours, the behaviours that lead to actions. As we’ve already said Proposing – telling us what we should do, is quite rightly central to the Briefings but, because it’s a monologue, an opportunity to do better has to be missed.

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That’s because, in a monologue, you can’t use the second Initiating Behaviour, a Category called Building. Building takes someone else’s Proposal and changes it by addition. It sounds like this; “Let’s go out for lunch” (Proposal). “Yes, and while we’re out let’s plan what we are doing at the weekend” (Build). The Build takes the initial idea and modifies it. It’s a lot more effective than the alternative, which usually is disagreement – “Let’s go out for lunch”. “No, let’s eat in and plan what we’re doing at the weekend”.
As we’ve said before the three-way Briefings are the perfect opportunity for dialogue and this is another opportunity to exploit it. By using Building to develop and add to proposals, the presenters appear more concerned about each other’s view and end up presenting us with a collective decision that’s been reached by discussion. For us that’s a far more palatable outcome than a blunt instruction from one or other of the individuals.

Finally, we have the Clarifying Behaviours – the behaviours that add detail and context and that take up the bulk of most communications.

We’ve talked about Giving Information, the most widely used of the Clarifying Behaviours, and there is not much else to say. Giving us the details behind each proposal is fundamental and, whilst you might not agree with the content, largely uncontentious. If the Government have been guilty of anything here it’s they haven’t done enough. The confusion about if/how far you could travel to exercise during the first lockdown was a classic example of simply not giving enough information.

Let’s move on to a behaviour that the Government have been really good at, Summarising. Summarising is exactly what it says, a concise and accurate recap of what has been said before. Throughout the pandemic we have been given a regularly changing summary, always in the same three-phrase format, that captures in a nutshell the current advice. ‘Stay alert - Control the virus- Save lives’, ‘Hands – Face – Space’, and ‘Stay home – Protect the NHS – Save lives’ are all great examples. Succinct, to the point and easily remembered. Summarising to perfection.

At Huthwaite we say there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour, just appropriate or inappropriate, depending on the circumstances. But this next behaviour is as close as we get to an all-time winner, Seeking Information. In plain English, that’s asking questions; and it’s one of the most powerful behaviours there is. At the most basic level asking questions is about giving us the information we want or need, and that’s the crux of their power – questions are about what we want to know, not what the other party wants to tell us. And we all know, getting what we want is a big deal for most of us. Questions enable us to focus the conversation on what’s important to us, and if that’s not enough, the person asking the questions also controls the conversation. Asking questions puts you in charge and enables you to thoroughly understand a proposal, buy into it, and carry it forward with conviction – exactly what’s been needed in the current situation.

Finally, there is a behaviour that’s a subset of Seeking Information called Testing Understanding. These are questions that specifically ask for more information about what has been said before. They can be used to genuinely seek clarity, “So are you saying we should only exercise with one other person?” or, more strategically, as an alternative to disagreement. In this second form they are a great way of pointing out the flaws in someone else’s proposal in a non-confrontational way. For example, “Your proposals for pubs are ridiculous” is confrontational and will be simply dismissed, whereas “Are you really suggesting we should treat city centre wine bars in the same way as rural gastro-pubs?” is likely to get the other person thinking a bit more about their suggestion and paves the way for a meaningful discussion.

Testing Understanding is a great way of pointing out flaws in a plan – but, once again, it requires dialogue, something that has been in short supply over the last year or so.

The ultimate problem facing Government when it comes to communication is a simple one. Effective communication is almost always a two-way conversation but, by necessity, most communication about COVID has been one-way monologues, and we can’t blame the Government for that.

Even though it’s less than ideal, effective communicators try their best to mitigate the problem. The Government have had limited opportunities to communicate effectively and have not always made the best of them. It’s hardly surprising, the debating chambers of Parliament are not conducive to effective conversation – and that’s where most politicians hone their communication style. Regardless of how you feel about the policies, or the individuals deciding them, they have not done as much as they could to win us over. It is what it is, let’s hope they don’t get another chance to practice again soon!

And, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll remember I said Verbal Behaviour Analysis has 11 categories and we’ve only looked at nine. That’s because the other two can only be used when there is an actual dialogue. If you want to find out more about them, and discover more about the sales, negotiation and communication skills that will help set future leaders apart from the rest, and thrive in business both today and in the future, download our whitepaper report for the latest research, insight and guidance.

About the Author
Rachel Massey

Written by Rachel Massey

Rachel is responsible for Huthwaite’s strategic marketing and communications across the globe. With over 20 years marketing experience, Rachel has shaped brand architecture, driven digital strategy, created content, produced events and built communities for organisations from small businesses to global brands.