The Right Communication Tool

By: Sylvia Dresser

Communication takes on even greater importance in a small-staff association. Here's how one organization found a process that works for them.

In any group, communication is a key element, but in the small-staff association, it's even more so; after all, there's usually not much choice about who to communicate with.

The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) is a small-staff trade association with three full-time employees and one very part-time employee. Two of us live in the Chicago suburbs but work out of two different offices. The other full-time person lives in Maryland and the part-timer lives in North Carolina.

Needless to say, phone and email are very important to us. Without the visual cues that one has when in the presence of someone else, words themselves take on a greater significance.

When you work with just a small group of people, communication issues become magnified and therefore take on a greater significance.

I was fortunate to be introduced to a communications model by some colleagues who are members of our association. The Process Communication Model (PCM) was developed in the 1970s by Taibi Kahler, Ph.D., and is based on the principles of transactional analysis.

Although the model was first developed to be used in the therapeutic context, it has been studied and proven to hold true in all contexts and has many applications in the business world, the classroom, and other places.

Each of us has all six of the personality types defined by Kahler. Those six types, however, are present in differing orders and in differing strengths. Each person's profile is termed his or her "condominium." Each of us has a particular preference, although there are life events that could make a profile change over time.

Small-Staff Stats

Name: Association for Challenge Course Technology
Location: Telecommuters located across the country
Staff Size: 3 full time; 1 part time
Budget: $500,000

After talking to the staff about PCM, everybody was willing to participate in having their profiles done and learning how this knowledge could be put to use when communicating with each other. The other benefit, not explicit initially, was an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, our own communication styles, our needs for recognition, what motivates us, and what happens when we are in distress.

For me, as the executive director, PCM has not only shed light on the other staff members but has also given me tools to interact more productively with board members and other association volunteers.

For instance, my profile showed that I need to know why something is important. This trait has resulted in prior supervisors thinking that I am somehow defiant, since they took my questioning as an indication that I did not want to do something, when in fact I only needed to understand why I was doing it. Similarly, one of the ACCT staff members needs to know the logic and research behind what he is doing and have the goals of the project laid out clearly.

Two other ACCT staff members like to create cozy, homelike environments for their work areas. Fortunately, those two staff members work from a home office, where they can create exactly the kind of space they need to feel comfortable. They are also very good at creating harmony and have the capacity to smooth out the rough spots that sometimes occur with volunteers by letting them know that someone really cares.

I also discovered that at least two ACCT board members thrive on action. They want to see things happen; they are charming and persuasive. Their best work on the board comes when they are in positions to use these traits to take initiative and make things happen. I also know that if I want one of them to do something, it's best to communicate with them in a very directive manner.

There are many personality-type assessments out there, and they all offer something to promote self-understanding and some sense of how to work with other people. PCM takes this further than any other model I have worked with and has also allowed me to learn about myself in a different and very meaningful way.

I have found over the course of my life that anything that contributes to this kind of knowledge helps me to be a more effective staff member and leader and to be more comfortable with the person I am. Somehow, when you are in the position of working with just a small group of people, these issues become magnified and therefore take on a greater significance. Any tool that helps us, then, is a great learning experience.

Sylvia Dresser recently retired from her position as the executive director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology. Email: [email protected]