Communicating, or attempting to communicate, is something that we’ve all been doing for as long as we can remember. For this reason, many of us assume that we have mastered communication. So we seldom think about what exactly we are doing when we are communicating.
But let’s just step back a minute. Let’s think about what communication really is.
Communication is the process of bundling up the thoughts in your brain into packages called words and sending them (via speaking, email, etc.) to another person. That person then has to unbundle your packages (words) and interpret them as best he or she can. Good communication exists when your thoughts have been replicated in someone else’s brain with minimal distortion.
You might think that as long as you have a clear idea and clear words to describe it, the process would be easy. But that’s not the case. There is something else that can interfere. It is what linguists and communication experts call “noise.”
In order to understand what “noise” is and how it gets in the way of communication, we have to understand the nature of words – those devices that we use to package up ideas. Words are tools and very imperfect ones at that. They are tags that we stick onto reality. When I say the word “chair,” we all probably know what I mean. But if I say the word “honorable,” we may have a far more difficult time agreeing on what that particular word implies.
The more abstract the thing I’m trying to describe, the more difficulty we will have agreeing on what my words mean. Then, as you start stringing words together into sentences, and you string sentences into paragraphs and add body language to the mix, your meaning can become very difficult for the person receiving the message to interpret correctly.
So, how is it that two different people can interpret the same word or sentence so differently?
Every conversation has a history.
Think of someone that you’ve known for a long time. You’ve had many, many conversations with this person and because of that you can make certain assumptions and choices when you have conversations with them in the future. You can leave a lot unsaid because you are essentially picking up from where you last left off. Also, people who have known each other for a long time don’t need to spend much time figuring out what the other means when they use words and phrases that describe abstract concepts. In a sense, it is like they are sharing a dictionary in which they have both agreed on the meaning of each word, symbol, and phrase. People who have known each other for a long time can also avoid the use of certain words and phrases that the other party may find upsetting or counterproductive to the transmission of the message. When you communicate with someone who you don’t know very well, you run the risk of assuming they know what you mean and you also run the risk of saying a word or phrase that has a very negative connotation to them which they may have obtained from a past conversation you weren’t aware of.
When you talk to someone, you enter into that person’s system of meaning.
The person you are communicating with grew up in a particular part of the country, during a particular time in history, was raised by a particular family, belongs to a particular economic class, and has a particular education. All of these different factors create in that person a very particular system of meaning. If you and the person you are communicating with are very similar, then chances are you will be able to communicate very effectively. They will probably interpret your words, phrases, and sentences with minimal contextual interference.
Another complexity to add to the concept of communication is the fact that we don’t use only words to communicate.
There’s body language. Crossing of the arms, direct eye contact, leaning back, and fidgeting all communicate a message. Messages can also be insinuated by saying certain things in the presence of certain people or by choosing to respond quickly or slowly to an email. Our non-verbal communication can reinforce the message we are trying to get across or obstruct it.
So, how do good communicators communicate? First of all, good communicators make a conscious decision to share the ideas that are residing in their brains with all the other brains in their organization. This means ensuring not only that their direct reports get it, but also that key messages are communicated faithfully throughout the organization. When people are left in the dark, no matter where they are in the organization, they tend to feel excluded and unengaged.
Secondly, good communicators attempt to empathize with those who are different from them. Most leaders are communicating with a broad array of people from different backgrounds, cultures, and generations. By being cognizant of the different histories and contexts of those within their organization, good communicators are able to step outside their own narrow perspective and imagine how their words and sentences might be misinterpreted by or resonate with different groups of people. They modify the delivery of their message accordingly.
Lastly, good communicators realize that good communication is best understood and practiced as two or more parties working to arrive at a shared meaning, not as a simple linear process between a sender and receiver. Good communicators are always asking and listening for feedback so that they can clarify their message.
Effective communication is one of the primary skills that every leader must have. Casting a vision, getting buy-in, solving problems, motivating, teaching, delegating—good communication is at the heart of each of these. It doesn’t matter how extensive your vocabulary is, it doesn’t matter how confident you are as a speaker, if you cannot communicate effectively, you cannot lead effectively.