Introduction – what is communication actually?
Communication entails passing a message from one party to another, or others. That would seem, as such, fairly simple. However, if we analyse it further, we will see that it is actually very complicated.
There are four ingredients to a message:
- factual content – what information is being exchanged and how do we determine what qualifies as information? Does this include opinion, persuasion etc.?
- relational context – what is the link between the parties who are communicating and what is the situation in which they are communicating?
- expression – what else is being communicated through mood, attitude, emotional wrapping, speed of transfer, completeness?
- feedback from the receiver – there is always communication in more than one direction and this also has many different elements.
If this wasn’t complicated enough there is also something else going on. The message, to start with, is encoded. before it can generate feedback it has to be decoded by the receiver. And then encoded again.
We, therefore, need to choose just the right form of communication, and the right timing to give ourselves even a fairly remote chance to get our message across as we intend. Many forms of modern communication deny us the facilities to succeed in this. This is confirmed by the well-known claim from Mehrabian – 38% of meaning comes from voice tonality (all mothers with small children know this), 55% from body language, and only 7% from words.
Some of my own experiences
When I arrived in the Netherlands I was told by my boss that, as much as possible, we would be communicating in Dutch. My first reaction was that this would not give me much opportunity to contribute as much as I would like to. After all, I had come here for a reason. He said he was prepared to sacrifice this initially so that I could learn Dutch more quickly. In his view this was important because I would never understand the Dutch if I didn’t know their language. Further, if they were not allowed to use their own language then your chances of knowing exactly what they wanted to convey were not very great.
I learned from this fairly uncomfortable period of my life that it was impossible to communicate properly without understanding. And this is not easy even when you know somebody very well (see the ingredients listed above). You are then aware that you are often assuming what people are going to say, based on your own theory of what they are likely to say. Sometimes you don’t even need to finish what you are saying before somebody has already concluded that he knows what that is, and either doesn’t concentrate any more or interrupts.
In a bilingual environment in which I live and work (but the same applies to communication dominated by more than one form of jargon) you become very lazy with word choice. In a closed family circuit you are convinced you will be understood even if you have used your own unique composition. On the other hand it heightens your awareness of feedback because something can always go wrong.
Some tips when communicating
- Practise explaining something to somebody who is unfamiliar with the background. You will notice how often you can’t complete your story because you don’t know it well enough to do it proper justice, and you begin to use very general terms.
- Structure communication in layers of depth so that complete understanding is reached in stages, sometimes with intervals in between, creating chances to obtain feedback, saving the detail until last. You have then got something to hang it up on. In a report, you should work similarly, pushing the justification of the facts to the appendix.
- If you happen to work in a hierarchical structured organisation, it is necessary to communicate upwards and downwards continually. This is to facilitate a move in either direction. But you should realise that this may entail different types of communication.
- Create empathy in communication by being genuinely cautious and concerned about the other parties involved, listening with unhindered concentration, removing your mask (being open) and being bold when necessary.
- Think of the questions which need answering, not only the questions which are asked. Then consider asking the unasked questions, being sure to have (at least in due course) answers for all of them).
- You can never overcommunicate about your plans and what you are thinking. It is often desirable to return repeatedly to the message you want to get across, but in different ways.
- Assume that your readers or listeners are as intelligent as you are, but just happen not to know something which you do. That something needs to be communicated in clear language.
- Communication, to be effective and consistent, needs a vision. You communicate to help you get to where you want to go.
- When you communicate there is often a distinct element of persuasion. But when do you know that you have successfully persuaded? That is normally when you have created the opportunity for the message seemingly to come from the receiver. He has got to have believed that he thought of it first or at least took the decision (to be persuaded) himself.
Conclusion and exercise
Communication is complex because no parties involved have a complete set of information or answers. So there is considerable judgement and sensitivity involved. But the most encouraging aspect is that you can always get better, in fact much better.
To do that you have to be very critical about your performance, and even when you think you did well, don’t take this for granted, invite feedback, but in a manner you can do something with. Every day you will have communicated many different times, in many different ways, even if you did not say anything. Remember, according to Mehrabian, 53% of communication is body language. Select a number of these instances and evaluate your performance. what did you learn from it? What are you going to do differently next time? Do you need any help to get better?