- Essence of Precision (Part 3)
Communication is like a tango dance. It takes two. And like the tango, effective communication is more than one person passively watching the exotic contours of the other. In that vein, speaking with precision, and the listener engaged with respect, understanding and empathy are the bedrocks that form true communication for the purpose of critical thinking.
The ability to speak with precision does not happen by itself; and likewise, the ability to listen with equally matched precision does not happen under the canopy of darkness. Both are a learned habits premised on a desire for fidelity and exactness. The tenets have to be appreciated first, and then lived.
In all speaking or writing activities, a message is sent, and a message is received. For that reason, precision – in the interaction between sender and receiver – is essential to avoid assumptions and other traits of carelessness that lead invariably to gross misunderstanding.
Power of precision
Precision is a worthy behaviour that helps to avoid ambiguity, generalisations, distortions, omissions, half-truths – the stock in trade, unfortunately, of a good many advertisers who – in their greedy interests – choose to play on people’s naivete so as to mislead the gullible.
It is possible for a statement to be both “Clear” and “Accurate” (as noted in previous columns – parts 1 and 2 respectively) but not “Precise”. Consider, for example, this statement: “Ghana is a great country”. From that account, we hear only superficially that Ghana is great, but how would one fully surmise what that greatness means so as not to leave a lingering doubt?
For the critical thinker, for that statement to be precise, some follow up questions are in order, such as: Could you be more specific? Could you give more details to support the statement?
So, while one may correctly declare that “Ghana is a great country”, the lack of precision may not support the veracity of the message. So, one may then add that the greatness is premised on that small nation’s ability – from 1957, under the indomitable leadership of Ghana’s favourite son, the Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah – to lead and support all African nations south of the Sahara (including the economic giants Nigeria and South Africa) – to achieve their independence from European colonial suppression.
A critical thinker knows intuitively and from practical experience that an unverified proposition can be misleading and costly. No one understands that fact better than, for instance, the legal professionals in the category of lawyers when drafting contracts in clear unambiguous terms, by adding the caveat: “For the avoidance of doubt …”
“The paraphrase rule”
The first principle of communication is that people tend respond to what they think was said or meant, not necessarily to the speaker’s intended message.
There are exercises teachers can try in classrooms and lecture halls to practice sending and receiving messages with precision. A teacher may encourage precision in communication by using “The Paraphrase Rule”. That is to say, before any participant (including the teachers themselves) is made to respond to another participant in a discussion, they must first summarize what the previous speaker said.
If the summary is wrong – indicating the speaker was misunderstood – the speaker must explain further. The respondent then tries again to paraphrase. The process continues until the speaker agrees that the listener has heard the message precisely.
The Paraphrase Rule has several benefits. People must listen more carefully to each other through active listening since they must paraphrase correctly before speaking themselves. The speaker also learns to be clearer and more articulate in their communications by hearing how others perceive and interpret the messages.
Sometimes two people find they only think they agree or disagree on a subject. Often one person agrees with something the other person never meant to say, or disagrees with something the other person never said.
The technique of paraphrasing is more than a classroom exercise. It can be the first step in communicating with anybody.
Besides the need for clarity in personal communication, precision works like magic in every sphere of endeavour – for individuals, industry and nation states alike. Be they watches, cameras, microscopes, robotics, and drones, their functionality begin and end with precision. In this chaotic world, it’s all too easy to blur one’s focus or precision, but on this very same planet we all inhabit, the essence of precision and productivity are clearly visible in places. But it seems some have chosen to be caught in perpetual throes of ineffective habits that breed persistent poverty.
However, like a magical island created out of poetry, the Swiss precision is embedded into the very grid of both the human psyche and the structured systems for seamless mobility. With the legendary national ethos stressing that precision matters, the nation’s complementary structures are managed harmoniously to sync for consistently high productivity.
In the Swiss capital hub of Zurich, for instance, the system of transportation is said to be one of the most precise in the world. One central network alone, Zurich HB, has about 500,000 commuters every day, and is one of the world’s most frequently served railway stations, with about 2,900 trains on timely schedules every day.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) has a reputation particularly in the application of precision in the science fields and is credited with 21 Nobel laureates associated with the institution.