Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Caught between the Lines - an experience in dysfunctional communication

More than a year ago, a German organization invited a friend of mine to teach a workshop in Germany. When it came to figuring out the details, I translated correspondence and sometimes negotiated on his behalf.

At first, everything went smoothly. In addition to the fee, the organization, represented by A., agreed to pay for my friend’s flight and hotel. It seemed like a tall order for a weekend workshop, but A. was talking about contracts to be sent out soon.

Some more details needed to be cleared up, a few messages went back and forth. My friend realized that he wasn’t quite happy with some of the details, and asked me to request a few changes. I had a feeling A. wouldn’t be thrilled, but did my best to communicate the request in an open and polite way.

In the meantime, two other prestigious institutions had learnt about my friend’s visit to the country, and invited him to teach. A. knew about this, in fact, her organization had tried to secure an additional engagement for him earlier on, but this had not worked out.

For weeks, there was no response. My friend became worried, thinking that A. must be ill, or have other serious reasons for not responding. He insisted on writing to B., a friend of A., who also knew about project. B. answered after a few days, no, everything was fine, A. would get in touch with us whenever she was ready.

More time passed, during which we heard nothing from A. At last, my friend felt it was time to look into booking flights. The event was only three months away. Still there were no news from A., whose organization had agreed to pay for the flight. It seemed a good idea to touch base with them, and receive a confirmation before booking anything. My friend wrote several messages that remained unanswered. He started to become impatient and angry, understanding the silence as a personal insult. Unfortunately he has had similar experiences with Germany in the past.

At last I wrote - asking whether A. had received my recent message regarding the change of my contact information. I also inquired about the changes in the program my friend had requested, and asked A. to let me know if they caused any problems.

Two days later, A. informed me of the cancellation of the entire project, due to financial difficulties of the organization. She expressed her deepest regrets, and asked me to translate her message - she said she wasn’t able to find the words in English.

I think I did an adequate job of translating the message, but I added the wrong comment: “At least there was a serious reason for her silence.” Of course, I assumed she had been trying to save the project until the minute she informed me of the cancellation.

Shortly after I received the message from A., my friend received an e-mail from the president of the organization- a person we had never heard of before. A copy of that message was addressed to me - to my old e-mail address, which has ceased to function a month ago. I had just asked A. to confirm that she had received my new e-mail address.....

The president's message mainly consisted of the copy of a letter he said he had sent to my friend in June, informing him of the cancellation. The letterhead shows it was sent to the address where my friend teaches during the winter. Normally, the mail is automatically forwarded to his summer home from there, but who knows......

After he sent the letter, the president of the organization apparently never realized that he hadn’t received the confirmation he had asked my friend to send. It’s vacation time in Germany - maybe he went on vacation.

My friend was furious. I was, too. The cancellation was disappointing, but unfortunately this is something you have to be ready for these days. It was the way it was communicated that made us so angry: the lack of transparency, the delayed answers, the lack of responsibility when it came to making sure that important information was received.

If anyone in A’s organization took the trouble to take a step back and look at “the big picture,” they must have realized that their cancellation would have an impact, and possibly jeopardize the other two events. Had everyone been informed when A’s organization decided to pull out, this issue might have been resolved.

How about my friend, an internationally known teacher in his 80s, who has changed many people's lives - wouldn't he deserve to be treated with more respect? How about his work, about which A. published an enthusiastic article in a magazine? How about the students, who will not get the opportunity to work with him?

Are these aspects that matter at all, or is this primarily about the benefit an organization gains from someone else’s reputation - and if things don’t work out, you quietly sneak out the back door and keep a low profile.

As a German citizen I felt deeply embarrassed by the poor handling of the matter on the part of the German organization, sensing issues I had often criticized: the bureaucracy, the habit of hiding behind procedures, the lack of personal responsibility.

When I was ready to lash out at the people who screwed this up, and send them a message telling them what I thought of their behavior, my friend asked me to stop. “It will only create hostility,” he said. I didn’t send the message, because I sensed he was right.

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