The Way We Communicate: Forever Work in Progress

 Dec 29, 2015    by Dr. Gustavo Bisbal


Throughout my professional career, whether during job interviews or in response to the curiosity of colleagues, junior professionals, or students, there is a recurrent question I have been asked many times: If you were to do it all over again, what would you change? The immediate reaction provides an easy answer that I can deliver almost automatically: “Just about most of it!” I say without hesitation.  I then proceed to elaborate on how I should have tried to move from my native Argentina to the United States much earlier in my life to pursue a graduate education.  Or I fantasize about how I should have dedicated myself to chasing my early dream to become an underwater wildlife videographer.  Sometimes I chart hypothetical pathways to more lucrative careers, perhaps as an environmental attorney or even as a sports figure.  These are all true alternative scenarios I could have tried to tweak somewhere along my road and, who knows, perhaps I could have even successfully changed the eventual directions and outcomes.  But while this response provides entertainment value and is designed purely to promote a sure smile among the ones asking, there is a second, much deeper answer that emerges when I reflect in a more realistic context.

If I could change anything, I would try to become better, faster, at engaging in and promoting successful communication.  What is successful communication?  I will simply define it as everything we humans do to exchange messages that resonate with one another.  If the message didn’t resonate, if the exchange didn’t help us understand each other better, then the communication failed.  There are two important aspects nested within this rather rudimentary definition.  The first one is that communication – in order to be successful – must be a two-way, or a many-way street.  To and from and then back again.  Now you are the broadcaster (of the message), the next minute you are the recipient, taking turns at switching roles back-and-forth.  Communication intended only as a unidirectional process without the invitation or the opportunity for feedback and response is either a sign of insanity (as in talking to yourself) or dictatorial recalcitrance (assuming that the world is really listening to you).  Whatever the reason, this kind of communication is, quite frankly, boring.  The second, more subtle, aspect of the definition I provided is that the goal in communication is for a successful exchange of messages.  Success, in this case, hinges on a mutual process of effective delivery and receipt, NOT to be confused with reaching agreement or necessarily changing each other’s mind on an issue.  These latter outcomes are the product of negotiation, values, baggage, and a whole lot of other elements far beyond just successful communication.  If I manage to trulyunderstand what you are saying, and I feel that you truly understand what I’m saying, then I call that successful communication.  The message has been delivered and picked up.  The exchange took place and now we understand each other better, even if our respective original ideas remain the same.

The opportunities I encountered throughout my academic education and professional appointments substantiate and confirm my strong belief in the value of successful communication.  Initially trained as a scientist, I learned early on, the codes and requirements of adequate communication among scientists.  Writing two Master’s theses and a Ph.D. dissertation – all of them in English, of course! – set a high bar for me during my graduate education in a foreign country.  There were many drafts and gallons of red ink poured all over them before the communication between myself, my advisors, academic committees, and the Graduate School was successfully completed.  The exchange of messages continued during the publication of articles in refereed journals and presentations at professional conferences.  English and red ink followed me since then and I’m sure the story would’ve not been all that different had I pursued an education in the social sciences instead of natural sciences.  But a degree in communication, journalism, literature, or anthropology could have helped me be a better communicator.

I eventually ventured into the world of policy and administration working for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and later for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  This was truly a different planet.  The language was unusual: it had to be far less detailed and descriptive than what I used when writing a scientific article.  A science paper started with an introduction and continued all the way until the conclusion section delivered the punch line, the true nugget behind the research.  In this new planet, a policy memo had to start with the bottom line first and leave the details for another time.  Completely upside down!  Anything in excess of a page was considered way too long for busy administrators and executives.  Get to the point, fast.

Later, I left that planet, too, and entered a new galaxy called the U.S. Department of State.  For five years I served in the U.S. delegation to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.  There I negotiated conservation and management measures with 24 other nations with completely different approaches to the meaning of resource conservation and how to achieve it.  I also led U.S. delegations to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which assembles over 140 nations, to promote U.S. objectives on everything from international marine science, to tsunami warning networks, to promoting capacity building in African nations.  The curve was rather steep in order to learn what resonates with 140 different Foreign Ministry Officers, Ambassadors, and foreign delegates.  Writing a decision memo for the U.S. Secretary of State containing negotiation facts for an international search and rescue agreement for the Arctic Ocean, or a classified cable for the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing who is about to approach the Chinese government on matters concerning illegal fishing, required an intellectual transformation as painful as a brain transplant without anesthesia.  Somehow, the days in which I had to describe the diet of larval fish in the Journal of Fish Biology were a distant memory.  And all throughout, the successful exchange of messages had to continue.

And here we are today, both you and I, dealing with an issue as contentious as climate change.  A big salad of science, policy, emotions, beliefs, politics, interests, values.  It is in these kinds of complex issues where the value of good communication is at a premium.  We recognize this urgent need not only in the Northwest Climate Science Center, but also throughout the entire CSC network.  Our support for efforts like the NW CSC Climate Boot Camp or the Early Career Climate Forum is geared toward fostering effective communication.  Young professionals engaging in the transaction of listening to one another, comparing notes, refining their skills on how to handle different messages, learning to keep an open mind that manages to accommodate diverse opinions.  These types of initiatives hold a great deal of promise if we are to chip the huge climate rock in front of us.  Perhaps the only promise…

Modern technology is on our side and I’m grateful for the opportunity that this blog posting provides to share some thoughts with you and capture your reactions.  I’d like to pause here and leave you with a final reflection.  Recent improvements in our website and the adoption of a Communication Strategy provide evidence that the Northwest Climate Science Center has placed dedicated attention to recognizing our many audiences and the styles they prefer for the exchange of messages.  The development of successful communication skills is a never ending effort.  Nobody starts out very well, and no one becomes perfect at it.  You and I can only get better.


This post was written by Dr. Gustavo Bisbal, Director of the Northwest Climate Science Center and originally appeared on the ECCF website on June 4, 2013.

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Dr. Gustavo Bisbal