Covid confusion: What we have is a failure to communicate...

He, and the country, need proper direction with a clear message delivered by one person, preferably a leader, says Trevor Laffan
Covid confusion: What we have is a failure to communicate...

MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT BEAT: The Government should learn about communication from the Defence Forces, suggests Trevor Laffan

LIKE most people, I have been compliant with the restrictions imposed on us during Covid-19.

I’ve done what I’ve been asked to do, but the longer it goes on, the more frustrated I’m getting, and as I am your ‘average man in the street’, I reckon I’m not the only one.

I have no problem following orders as long as the plan makes sense, but headless chicken style leadership frustrates me.

I need proper direction with a clear message delivered by one person, preferably a leader. It’s difficult to stick to a plan that lacks structure and varies in context depending on who is delivering it.

The problem I have with the Government’s handling of the pandemic is that I can’t figure out who to listen to. Many people appear on our TV screens telling us what to do: politicians, experts from NPHET and the HSE, and a host of independent experts happy to throw in their tuppence worth, but the messages are often mixed and that makes it hard to have confidence in the messengers.

It shouldn’t be difficult for the relevant stakeholders to get into a huddle, consider the expert advice, come up with a plan and deliver clear instructions in one voice to the rest of us.

It shouldn’t be, but it is, and that’s not going to change either as long as we continue with the Chinese whispers style of information dissemination.

Chinese whispers, a game many of you will be familiar with, is often used as a warm-up exercise in situations where people come together for the first time. It acts as an ice breaker, designed to break the initial tension and get people talking to each other.

I hate these things normally, but this one is a bit of fun and there is also a practical side to it. It can be used as a training aide to illustrate how stories can sometimes become altered in the telling. How an account of an event described by one person can be unintentionally distorted when it has been passed on a few times.

It’s a technique that is also used to demonstrate to police officers how an account of an incident from a witness, given in good faith, might not be accurate or reliable. It shows too how several witnesses to the same event might give different accounts, with some details getting lost in the telling.

It’s a simple exercise that can be played out anywhere, and the more people who are involved, the better. In short, the first person whispers a little story to the person next to them and that person then tells it to the next person and so on. It continues down the line, one at a time, until the last person has heard it.

The last person to receive the message then relates it back to the group and it usually happens that the story at the end of the exercise will be bear very little similarity to the original version.

It proves that, while we all hear the words, we don’t always hear the same message. It demonstrates the importance of having a good communication system in place in any organisation, to ensure that the right message is getting through to the people who need it most.

Many organisations suffer from Chinese whispers and, during my time, An Garda Siochana was no different. Instructions coming from garda management in the Phoenix Park often got distorted as they travelled down through the ranks to the garda on the beat.

What began life in the Commissioners’ office as a duck could end up as an octopus by the time it reached the various stations around the country. Not deliberately, it’s just because we hear things differently.

The military are better in that regard, and I think the police and Government could learn something from the way they communicate with their troops.

I spent a year in a military camp in Cyprus when I worked with the United Nations. Once a week we had what they called an International Briefing. It started at 8am on the dot and anyone who wasn’t already in position when the Commanding Officer (CO) entered the room, remained outside. Everybody had to be in place and ready to go at the appointed time and there were no exceptions.

Each section, or department, had a seat at the table and that seat had to be occupied by the head of that section. If he or she was not available, then the next in line took the seat.

The position or seat never changed, so when the CO wanted to know something specific, he referred to the seat where the person from the relevant department should be sitting.

There had to be someone sitting there who could answer his question and while the face of the person might change, the seating arrangement remained the same.

The CO would go around the table and take reports from each section and then he would give his orders from HQ to his people for transmission to his troops.

There was no questioning these instructions, regardless of what the individuals might have thought about them. They were not open to interpretation or discussion.

The meetings were formal, structured and stuck to the agenda. They were fast, efficient and effective. It took a while to get used to that style because it was a new experience for me. Meetings at home were different. They rarely started on time, seldom kept to the agenda, and dragged on until everyone lost the will to live.

The Government should be doing better though. They’re paying dearly for communications experts and PR consultants, but still can’t get it right. I know where to find the right people to help — give the Defence Forces a shout.

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