Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

The pragmatics of project communication

with 17 comments


Much of the research literature and educational material on project communication focuses on artefacts such as business cases, status reports and lessons learned reports.  In an earlier post I discussed how these seemingly unambiguous documents are open to being interpreted in different or even contradictory ways. However, documents are only a small part of the story.  Much of the communication that takes place in a project involves direct interaction via dialogue between stakeholders. In this post, I discuss this interactional aspect of project communication, drawing on a book by Paul Watzlawick entitled, The Pragmatics of Human Communication.

The pragmatics of communication

Those who have done a formal course on communication may already be familiar with Watzlawick’s book. I have to say, I was completely ignorant of his work until I stumbled on it a few months ago. Although the book was published in 1967, it remains a popular text and an academic bestseller.  As such, it is a classic that should be mandatory reading for project managers and others who work in group settings.

Much of the communication literature focuses on syntactics (the rules of constructing messages) and semantics (the content, or information contained in messages). Watzlawick tells us that there is a third aspect, one that is often neglected: pragmatics, which refers to the behavioural or interactional aspect of communication. An example might help clarify what this means.

Let’s look at the case of a project manager who asks a team member about the status of a deliverable. The way the question is asked and the nature of the response says a lot about the relationship between the project manager and his or her team. Consider the following dialogues, for example:

“What is the status of the module? “ Asks the manager

“There have been some delays; I may be a couple of days late.”

“That’s unacceptable,” says the manager, shaking his head.


As opposed to:

“What is the status of the module? “ Asks the manager.

“There have been some delays. I may be a couple of days late.”

“  Is there anything I can do to help speed things  up?”


Among other things, the book presents informal rules or axioms that govern such exchanges.

The axioms of interactional communication and their relevance to project communication

In this section I discuss the axioms of interactional communication, using the example above to demonstrate their relevance to project communication.

In the presence of another person, it is impossible not to communicate: This point is so obvious as to often be overlooked:  silence amounts to communicating that one does not want to communicate.  For example, if in the first conversation above, the team member chooses not to respond to his manager’s comment that the delay is unacceptable, the manager is likely to see it as disagreement or even insubordination. The point is, there is nothing the team member can do that does not amount to a response of some kind. Moreover, the response the team member chooses to give determines the subsequent course of the conversation.

Every communication has two aspects to it:  content and relationship:  Spoken words and how they are strung together form the content of communication. Most communication models (such as sender-receiver model) focus on the coding, transmission and decoding (or interpretation) of content.  However, communication is more than just content; what matters is not only what is said, but how it is said and the context in which it is said. For instance, the initial attitude of the manager in the above example sets the tone for the entire exchange:  if he takes an adversarial attitude, the team member is likely to be defensive; on the other hand, if his approach is congenial the team member is more likely to look for ways to speed things up.  What is really important is that relationship actually defines content. In other words,  how a message is understood depends critically on the relationship between participants.

The relationship is defined by how participants perceive a sequence of exchanges: A dialogue consists of a sequence of exchanges between participants. However, the participants will punctuate the sequence differently. What the word punctuate means in this context can be made clear by referring back to our example above. If the team member feels (from previous experience) that the manager’s query is an assertion of authority, he may respond by challenging the basis of the question. For instance, he may say that he had to deal with other work that was more important. This may provoke the project manager to assert his authority even more strongly, thereby escalating discord…and so on. This leads to a situation that can be represented graphically as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Illustration of exchange

The important point here is that both participants believe they are reacting to the other’s unreasonableness:  the team member perceives groupings 1-2-3 , 3-4-5 , where his challenges are a consequence of the “over-assertive” behaviour of the project managers etc. whereas the project manager   perceives groupings 2-3-4, 4-5-6  etc., where his assertive behaviour is a consequence of the team member’s “gratuitous” challenges. In other words, each participant   punctuates the sequence of events in a way that rationalizes their responses.  The first step to resolving this problem lies in developing an understanding of the other’s punctuation – i.e. in reaching a shared understanding of the reason(s) behind the differing views.

Human communication consists of verbal and non-verbal elements: This axiom asserts that communication is more than words. The non verbal elements include (but are not limited to) gestures, facial expressions etc. Since words can either be used or not used, verbal communication has an binary (on/off) aspect to it.  Watzlawick refers to verbal communication as digital communication (and yes, it seems strange to use the term digital  in this context, but the book was published in 1967).  In contrast, non-verbal communication is more subtle; a frown may convey perplexity or anger in varying intensities, depending on other expressions and/or gestures that are used.   Watzlawick termed such communication as analogic.

In the context of our example, the digital aspects of the communication refer to the words spoken by the team member and the project manager whereas the analogic aspects refer to all other non-verbal cues – including emotions – that the participants choose to display.  The important point to note is that digital communication has a highly developed syntax but lacks the semantics to express relationships, whereas analogic communication has the semantics to express relationships well, but lacks the syntax. In lay terms, words cannot express how I feel; my gestures and facial expressions can, but they can also be easily misunderstood. This observation accounts for many of the misunderstandings that occur in project and other organizational dialogues.

All communicational interchanges are either symmetrical or complementary, depending on the relationship between those involvedSymmetry and complementarity refer to whether the relationship is based on equality of the participants or differences between them. For, example the relationship illustrated in figure 1 is symmetrical – the PM and the team member communicate in a manner that suggests they see each other as peers. On the other hand, if the team member had taken a submissive attitude towards the PM, the exchange would have been complementary. Seen in this light, symmetrical interactions are based on minimization of differences between the two communicators and complementary relationships are based on maximization of differences. It should be noted that one type of interaction is in no way better than the other – they are simply two different ways in which  communication-based interactions occur

Communication can be improved by strengthening relationships

In the interactional approach to communication, the relationship between participants is considered to be more important than the content of their communication.  Unfortunately, the relational aspects are the hardest to convey because of the ambiguity in sequence punctuation and the semantics of analogic communication.  These ambiguities are the cause of many vicious cycles of communication – an example being the case illustrated in Figure 1.

Indeed, the interactional view questions the whole notion of an objective reality of a particular communicative situation.  In the end, it matters little as to whose view is the “right” one. What’s more important is the recognition that a person’s perception of a particular communicative situation depends critically on how he or she punctuates it. As Watzlawick puts it:

In the communicational perspective, the question whether there is such a thing as an objective reality of which some people are more clearly aware than others is of relatively little importance compared to the significance of different views of reality due to different punctuations.

In their book, they also point out that it is impossible for participants to be fully aware of the relational aspects of  their communication (such as punctuation) because it is not possible to analyse a relationship objectively when one is living it. As they put it:

… awareness of how one punctuates is extremely difficult owing to another basic property of communication. Like all other complex conceptual systems which attempt to make assertions about themselves (e.g. language, logic, mathematics) communication typically encounters the paradoxes of self-reflexivity when trying to apply itself to itself. What this amounts to is that the patterns of communication existing between oneself and others cannot be fully understood, for it is simply impossible to be both involved in a relationship (which is indispensable in order to be related) and at the same time stand outside it as a detached, uninvolved observer…

The distinction between content and relationship is an important one. Among other things, it explains why those with opposing viewpoints fail to reach a genuine shared understanding even when they understand the content of the other positions.  The difficulty arises because they fail to relate to each other in an empathetic way. Techniques such as dialogue mapping help address relational issues by objectifying issues, ideas and arguments. Such approaches can take some of the emotion out of the debate and thus help participants gain a better appreciation of opposing viewpoints.

To sum up

The interactional view of communication tells us that relationships are central to successful communication. Although traditional project communication tools and techniques can help with the semantic and  syntactical elements of communication, the relational aspects can only be addressed by strengthening relationships between stakeholders and using techniques that foster open dialogue.

Written by K

October 7, 2011 at 5:14 am

17 Responses

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  1. Great post. We are championing Collaborative Project Management as a discipline in our OU. It is a long journey, considering we only use “seat of the pants Project Management” at this time. I hope to use your posts and blog-roll to stimulate some thought. 🙂

    Sastry Tumuluri

    October 7, 2011 at 1:56 pm

  2. Sastry,

    Thanks for the feedback, I really appreciate it! Given your interest in collaborative PM, you may want to have a look at project alliancing if you haven’t done so already. Also – and this a shameless plug – Paul Culmsee and I look at some aspects of collaborative project delivery in our forthcoming book.




    October 8, 2011 at 7:43 am

  3. Kailash

    Your blog is a further nail in the coffin containing the obscure meaning of ‘communication’ in the world of work. It today for most means everything and nothing, yet underneath we all see a vital function. “Communication around here is dreadful”, we hear players retort. In reality, this is mostly an expression of frustration; it has little meaning to them or their audience. Our concern for the heart of this matter has been too easily brushed over for too long.

    What I call ‘Engagement’; that which enables a group to harness their collective will, skills and knowledge depends upon respect, skill, courtesy and a need to consciously invest some planning into our conversations. As Alain de Botton says, “Improvisation in preparing a meal is unlikely to produce good outcomes …. but we show no such caution and modesty when it comes to conversation”. Nothing is more important to our behaviour in managing a project than effective conversation.

    In Britain there is some confusion over what is polite. Our traditional and often formal politeness is being undermined by changes in the way that society works. Someone on the radio this morning suggested that our courtesies mustnow be driven more by our understanding of what the other person needs to sense from us, than by what may be accepted norms or convention. Your point about empathy rings very true here.

    Best regards

    Martin Price

    October 10, 2011 at 7:41 pm

  4. Martin,

    Thanks for your comment! Your point about effective conversation is an excellent one that is often missed: PM books and methodologies speak of the need for effective communication, even verbal communication. However, the latter is not the same as conversation.




    October 10, 2011 at 9:47 pm

  5. The role of the non-verbal in communication will often lead to someone mis-citing Mehrabian’s work on non-verbal communications (which often gets around as ‘90% of communication is non-verbal’). Just to offset this; refer to http://extremepresentation.typepad.com/blog/2006/09/93_of_communica.html


    October 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm

  6. Hi David,

    Thanks for your comment and the link – I was unaware of Mehrabian’s work. However, note that the interactional aspect of communication is more about the relationship between the parties than the mode of communication (verbal/non-verbal) they use.




    October 18, 2011 at 5:22 pm

  7. Kailash

    Please help me. You say ‘PM books and methodologies speak of the need for effective communication, even verbal communication. However, the latter is not the same as conversation.’

    As I read this, you are drawing a distinction between verbal communication and conversation. I don’t recognise the difference. Have I missed something?

    The mis-representation of Mehrabian’s work is widespread and I think has done some damage to the popular understanding of the role of conversation.

    I recommend ‘Crucial Conversations’ by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler….a valuable contribution to the understanding of and importance of conversation in all that we do.

    Best regards

    Martin Price

    October 18, 2011 at 5:55 pm

  8. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I was drawing a distinction between verbal management decrees or commands on the one hand and dialogue on the other. The former might be considered verbal communication but is definitely not conversation.




    October 18, 2011 at 6:05 pm

  9. Kailash

    Thank you for your clarification. There was a failure of communication here! I mis-read you completely. I am interested in your initial presumed meaning of verbal communication, as you applied it. Conversation has I think a profound role in enabling society. It has the particular qualities of interaction and spontoneity.

    Would I be correct to infer from your remarks that you see conversation to be a sub-set of verbal communication? Where does dialogue fit I wonder.

    Best regards


    Martin Price

    October 18, 2011 at 6:36 pm

  10. Martin,

    Sorry – I meant to write “conversation” rather than “dialogue” in my previous response. As I see it, conversation is indeed a subset of verbal communication. Dialogue is a different beast because it involves debate and usually lacks the element of spontainety that is so important in conversations.




    October 18, 2011 at 8:01 pm

  11. Kailash

    Thank you for this conversation! …albeit non-verbal !!

    Best regards


    PS. Do you share your email address?

    Martin Price

    October 18, 2011 at 9:57 pm

  12. Hi Martin,

    Thanks. I have enjoyed this conversation too, as I have many others with you.

    I’ve sent you an email.




    October 18, 2011 at 10:23 pm

  13. […] I have discussed in this post, communication is just as much about context (e.g. manager-subordinate relationship within an […]

  14. Thanks for the THOUGHT provoking article!!

    I have couple of questions here:

    – In current world that is completely globalized where we have occasions that team members and managers are geographically apart, how do you feel that the communicative aspects (facial and semantics) can be improved?

    – How do you think the pre-conceived notion of team members about project managers due to stained relationships in the past can be addressed through this model especially in this global village where there are less opportunities to have face to face communication?


    April 16, 2015 at 9:31 am

    • Hi Karthik,

      First up, thanks for taking the time to read and for your thought-provoking questions 🙂

      Indeed, communication becomes a whole lot harder in distributed teams because of the lack of opportunities for face-to-face interactions. Nevertheless, I think it is still possible to improve communication by paying due attention to the relational aspects that are highlighted in the article. For example, people are often reluctant to raise their concerns directly, but will nevertheless hint at them via their tone or lack of enthusiasm. Listening for such cues can help one understand where the real roadblocks lie,

      As you point out, strained relationships due to past encounters can complicate matters considerably. One of the things I have found helpful is to broach these issues directly with the people concerned. Such conversations can be difficult to begin with, but can often (though not always) lead to a resolution of longstanding differences, at least to the point where one can make a new start (at a professional level, if not a personal one). If nothing else, it can help one understand the other person’s “hot button” topics, and find ways of avoiding them.

      I realise this is far from a complete response to your questions, but I hope it gives you a flavour of how the interactional viewpoint can help one address some of the thorny issues in project communication.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment, I truly appreciate it.




      April 17, 2015 at 12:19 am

      • Thanks Kailash:) Appreciate your time and response 🙂


        April 17, 2015 at 7:49 am

  15. […] dialogue is the most effective mode of communication.  Backing for this comes from the interactional or pragmatic view, which is based on the premise that communication is more about building relationships than […]

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