Effective communication is vital to the successful completion of any construction project. Good communication can improve teamwork and lead to better project collaboration. Poor communication can result in misunderstandings, delays and problems down the road.
Communication is simply the exchange of information in order to convey a message and good communication involves being able to transmit your message so it is received and understood by the intended recipients. Seems simple enough, right? If you’ve ever played the Telephone Game you know it’s not always that easy. The game involves communicating a message to a large group of people. The trick to the game is that the message must be passed by whispering it into the ear of the next person in line who whispers it into the next person’s ear, and so on, and so on, until everyone has heard it. The messenger cannot repeat the message and the last person in line must say aloud what they heard. The message usually gets misheard a few times so by the time it gets around the room, “I like lazy Sunday afternoons the best” gets turned into something like “I eat purple pizza and play chess”.
The Telephone Game is a great activity for demonstrating how poor and ineffective communication can lead to misunderstandings and confusion. Being a good communicator is a skill that can be improved upon with practice and training. Here are some simple tips to improving your communication skills:
Establish clear lines of communication. It’s important to determine a chain of command for communication on a construction project. These are typically spelled out in the contract documents and usually require the owner and general contractor to communicate with each other through the architect. The architect is responsible for communicating with its consultants and the general contractor is responsible for communicating information to the suppliers and subcontractors. The superintendent on a project is typically the main point of contact for the general contractor.
The contract documents, including the drawings, specifications, change order forms and requests for information establish the basis for all construction communication. It is important that any direct communication not outlined in the contract documents receives proper authorization and any changes to the scope or schedule that need to be made are documented and reported through the proper channels.
I overheard a conversation the other day between a superintendent and a subcontractor. Apparently, the subcontractor was not going to be able to start work on a project the following week as scheduled. Some issue or another had arisen and it would probably be a month before they could start on that project, and insisted they had told someone at the general contractor’s office. The superintendent was understandably upset by this news, not only would this cause a major delay in the project, but the subcontractor had not followed the established communication chain of command. I don’t know what the final outcome of the conversation was, but it’s probably safe to assume that the superintendent had to scramble around to find another subcontractor to do the work and that the initial subcontractor probably won’t be invited to work with the contractor again.
Establishing a clear line of communication that includes identifying points of contact with contact information for key team members is vital to ensuring that information is getting to the right people in a timely manner.
Choose the best communication method. We communicate in a number of ways every day, both verbally and nonverbally and construction communication is no different. We text, we talk on the phone and in person, we send emails and some of us in this digital age inexplicably still use the old fax machine. On the construction site we communicate through signs, drawings, hand signals and meetings. We compile daily reports, take photos, create requests for information (RFIs) and review change orders.
All methods of communication have their advantages and disadvantages. Choosing the right method of communication can expedite and simplify the exchange of information. Sometimes a quick email is all that’s necessary while other instances may call for a meeting of all key personnel on the project. Items like RFIs, change orders and daily reports are usually laid out in the contract documents with their own specific forms and submittal procedures that have to be followed. For example, if you can’t communicate your email message in one or two short paragraphs, or if there ends up being a lot of back and forth, it may be time to pick up the phone or schedule a quick face-to-face meeting.
There are also a host of Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions available with mobile applications for project collaboration in order to quickly share and disseminate information to all stakeholders on a project. All changes and project documentation can easily be stored and updated so everyone has access to the most up to date information. These SaaS solutions can be a great tool for effective communication as long as all stakeholders have access to it, have been properly trained and are commit to using it.
Methods of communication for specific tasks and information sharing should be established early on in the project and agreed upon by all stakeholders. Any deviations from the prescribed methods of communication could result in messages not being received by the intended parties in a timely manner causing delays in the project.
Listen. Actively listen. When you engage in oral communication, in person or over the phone, you want to be an active listener. Don’t just sit there and absorb the information like a digital recorder, that’s passive listening at best. Try to understand what the speaker is trying to communicate from their point of view. Take notes on key points, don’t just transcribe every word they utter and make notes on details you may need clarification on. Make eye contact and provide nonverbal signals such as head nods to show that you are actively listening.
Don’t interrupt the speaker or try to talk over them. Concentrate on what the speaker is saying and avoid forming a response in your mind until they are through. You could miss a vital piece of information that answers your question if you are focusing solely on what you are going to say when it’s your turn to speak. Once the speaker has finished is the time to ask questions and get clarification on any points that remain unclear. Try and rephrase what you’ve heard and understood in order to verify the information provided.
If in a meeting, seek feedback and ask questions when you have the floor. The whole point of project meetings is to communicate and make sure everyone has a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. Don’t wait until you’ve gotten back to the office or jobsite to send out an email requesting clarification on some aspect of the project because you didn’t feel comfortable asking it at the meeting.
The clip below from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is a perfect illustration of everything an active listener is NOT:
Be clear and concise. When communicating in construction you want to make every effort to have your message understood the first time you send it. Avoid using jargon or terms that the people you are communicating with might not understand. Your message should be focused and to the point. Keep it short and simple as much as possible. If you are working on multiple projects with the same owner or architect, focus on only one project at a time to avoid confusion. The real challenge is trying to be as detailed as possible while using as few words as necessary. Being brief but comprehensive in your construction communication takes practice. Proofread all written message before sending to see if you can edit it down without altering the meaning or leaving out any critical information.
Be professional in your written communication. Avoid using foul language or allowing your emotions is impact your message. If emotions are running high, take 24 hours before sending that email so you can review and make any changes to your message before sending. If a more immediate response is required, read the message aloud to yourself or have someone else take a look at it to get a second opinion. Break large chunks of data up into smaller paragraphs. People tend to scan instead of reading emails so breaking the information up into smaller chunks makes it easier to process. Use numbered or bulleted list when providing lots of information or asking questions.
The following is a BAD example of a clear, concise and professional email communication:
This is a GOOD example of a clear, concise and professional email communication:
Stick to the facts. Basically you want to be the Sergeant Joe Friday of the construction industry. You should only be interested in providing or getting the facts. Don’t overelaborate or include extraneous information in your communications. Unless asked, keep your personal opinions or feelings about a project to yourself. It is, however, important that you share your professional opinions on a project when you feel they could be beneficial to the successful completion of a project. Your company’s expertise is part of what landed you the project, so don’t be afraid to speak up.
In addition to establishing a clear chain of command for communication and determining the best methods of communication to use, you should also discuss how often you should be updating and communicating with the owner and architect on the progress of the project. You may be required to file daily reports, but the owner may only want to be updated every other week.
Another good tip is to document and record all communication you have on a construction project. This is easy to do with written communication and should be filed away for later reference in case there are any disputes or need for clarification later. For all oral communication, make notes of what was discussed along with dates and times of these conversations. If you feel the need to document this, send out a quick email to everyone involved that briefly summarizes what was discussed.
Fun Fact: Jack Webb never uttered the phrase “Just the facts, ma’am” on “Dragnet.” The phrase is actually a truncated version of a line from a “Dragnet” spoof. The actual phrases were “All we want are the facts, ma’am” and “All we know are the facts, ma’am.”