It all comes down to communication

It’s a great feeling. You come out of a productive meeting you’ve chaired happy because everyone seemed to be on the same page. They all knew what was expected of them—your requests were very specific—and the next steps you outlined were clear and meaningful. Wonderful! Then, three days later, people are asking each other if they were even at the same meeting. Just because it was clear to you doesn’t mean it was clear to them. And whose fault is that? Sorry to say, but it was probably yours.

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There are many models used to represent and explain different types and styles of communication. At its core, however, communication is about a sender (or encoder) using a given medium to send a message through potential noise to one or more receivers (or decoders).

The challenge in successful communication is that each of the parts of the process has the potential to send the message off the rails. It may be because of their specific limitations, biases, assumptions or, at least from the perspective of the sender and receiver, their experiences.

To make things even more fun, the message you are sending is only part of the story. In fact, as soon as it leaves your mouth (or you hit send), your control over the message is gone. Why? Because people have a tendency to fill in the gaps of your message (gaps that you may not have even realized were there) with their own ideas and expectations. In companies with a lack of communication from the top, the gaps can be huge and soon, the rumor mills take over. And unfortunately, it’s often the worst-case scenario that gets amplified.

Communications problems originate from the sender, not the receiver.

Here’s what’s obvious: Having a clear message is critical. But it doesn’t matter if the receiver doesn’t understand it. Here’s what may be less obvious: This misunderstanding can come from just about anywhere but, in the vast majority of cases, the root of the problem lies with the sender. Yup, if you don’t understand what I am saying, it’s likely that I haven’t explained it well enough. And there may be many reasons for that.

You know how they say non-verbal communications are critical during negotiations? Well, it’s not only during negotiations. How often have you heard someone say one thing, but everything in his posture, his eyes and the tone of his voice says exactly the opposite? It’s a pretty good bet the message failed to get through. If the sender of the message cannot be perceived by the receiver as believing in what he is saying, things will get lost in translation. And that’s just one potential barrier.

Another aspect to take into account is optics. A friend of mine who built a successful small business never uses his luxury car when visiting his customers. Instead, he drives a small, unassuming car, understanding very well that if he were to show up in a luxury car, it would send a clear message of “expensive” long before he could say the first word.

Any number of factors can get in the way of clear communication

Optics also matter in written form. Imagine sending out a message to your most loyal customers about your seminar they can attend “for a nominal fee.” In the same message, you include the titles of a few similar seminars done by other organizations, but theirs are all free. Do you think your customer will feel valued because you provided her all the extra information? Or, will she wonder why you charge her that nominal fee?

Communication starts and ends with empathy – put yourself in your listener’s shoes.

Just like when developing products that delight customers, crafting a clear communication also takes care and attention. It is your responsibility as the sender/encoder to choose the right medium, minimize the noise, and take into account the different biases and perspectives of the receiver/decoder.

A few years back, a newly appointed CEO in a company I worked for repeated the old saying that people have two ears and one mouth and should use them proportionally. Too bad that for him, “people” meant us, not him as he did all the talking and we had to do all the listening! Had he taken his own advice, he would have been a much better communicator.

A wise communicator also knows the transmission of any message is subject to noise. It could be actual noise (trying to communicate on a noisy trade-show floor, for example) or more subtle noise such as the bothersome tapping of the heating-system pipes while you are trying to talk. And attentive sender should be able to listen for cues provided by the environment to help him adapt.

There is also metaphorical noise such as the individual biases, culture or experiences the listener brings to the conversation.

In many parts of the world, English is the main language of business. We can easily forget, however, that for many, English is not their native language. Using complex vocabulary can make communication difficult. What’s obvious to you might be ambiguous—I mean unclear—to them.

Jargon can be very helpful when everyone speaks the same language. For example, the jargon used by an air-traffic controller to speak to a pilot is easily understood.

“Alpha Bravo Charlie, descend to 2,500, cleared for the ILS Runway 27, number two for landing, caution wake turbulence”

What we would call jargon, they would call strictly regulated and defined terminology that both understand because of their extensive training. But if such codification doesn’t exist, stay away from abbreviation, acronyms and other buzzwords.

Often, analogies and cultural references will not work, either. The sender must listen to the recipient, speak his language and understand his culture and experiences to convey a message effectively. Having lived in Canada for almost 10 years, I can confirm that understanding all the Hockey references took some getting used to, eh!

When in doubt, over-communicate.

For some reason, we tend to under-communicate. Perhaps there is an assumption that the other party will know what we mean, an assumption that there is not enough time, an assumption that they will inevitably get the information some other way. Or, perhaps the sender believes the receiver to be a mind reader (as is too often the case!).

Communication can take many forms and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. From speaking and writing to audio/video and presentations, if you want to communicate well, take your time, listen, be empathetic and learn from your mistakes.

Know what I mean?


Original picture and photographer credits available at unsplash.com.

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