As mentioned in the last post, everyone and every organization have some struggle with its internal communication. In most organizations, it is assumed that if a person becomes a manager of leader, he or she must possess strong communication skills. However, the reality for most of us is that effective communication is a rare skill that is not evenly distributed across our leaders or peers.
Maybe you recall as a kid playing a game where one person whispered something to another and then he or she passed it to the next to move the message around a circle. As a child, the message never seemed to come out right in the end regardless of how many kids were in the circle. What always made me wonder was how it somehow came out either much naughtier than the original or completely incomprehensible. As adults, we come to realize that even face to face communication between two people that know each other well and want similar things can lead to very different interpretation of a message. More than several times, I have worked with groups that described interaction with coworkers as “trying to talk to someone that speaks a completely different language.”
What does it mean when we feel this way? What goes wrong?
Most of us recognize that there are verbal and nonverbal elements of communication. However, there are more factors that go into the act of communicating. Figure 1 illustrates a very simple process model for communicating between two people.
The relationship between the sender of the message and the receiver frames the communication process. Is the person communicating my boss, someone in authority, someone I trust, or someone I know? As the sender, do I know the receiver well, do I know the best way to communicate with that person, do I know the person’s history, fears, or concerns? Next, the characteristics or predispositions of the sender and the receiver play a role in message creation and receipt. As humans, we filter everything we hear or read based on our own experiences, opinions, and frames of reference. Similarly, when crafting a message, we initially assemble it based on what we know, the action or outcome we want, and how we understand things work. Next, we usually ask how the message will be received by our target audience. External characteristics definitely play a role such as the way we look, speak, dress, and clothe ourselves. This forms part of the “packaging” with the message. The environment or where and when we present the message serves as another level of filtering. The cliché that “timing is everything” could not be more appropriate. A well-conceived, noncontroversial message can easily take on a different slant when presented at the wrong time. Finally, the content, substance, and delivery of the message play a role in the outcome of the communication.
Based on this process, where are things likely to go wrong?
The key areas that we can change the most when we communicate are the environment and message. We can change the relationship, but typically there is an investment of time that is necessary. The most static or unlikely to change is who we are and who the other person is. Given these limitations, what can we do?
- Create the message taking these factors into consideration
- Prepare for the common response failures (don’t listen, misperception, and don’t react)
- Devise methods to reinforce the message
Create the message taking these factors into consideration
When we are busy or distracted, we make the mistake of downplaying the importance of specific communication. Moreover, it is much easier to assume that the message will be received as intended verses spending the time analyzing how it will be received and making adjustments. I heard a manager once explain this perception as “what can go wrong: it comes out of my mouth and it goes in their ears?” Each of the factors presented in Figure 1 should be considered as part of the communication process. When communicating with employees as a group, the best alternative should be selected. When communicating with employees one-on-one, the message should be customized to maximize your chance of success.
Prepare for the common responses (don’t listen, misperception, and don’t react)
It is part of human nature to not listen to everything, misperceive when we filter everything with our own perception, and not react unless absolutely necessary. When we design a message, these human factors should be considered as well. You should ask yourself as the communicator: How will I make sure that receiver listens, interprets the message as intended, and acts on it in the appropriate manner? The most obvious way is to know the audience and determine the best methods of communicating and motivating those individuals. It is much easier to get your desired reaction or response out of an audience you know.
Devise methods to reinforce the message
As good communicators, it makes sense to assess who received the message and devise alternative methods for communicating with those that the message does not reach the first time. Even the best communicators would claim less than a 100 percent success rate with their audience. Furthermore, organizational data reinforces the notion that even in organizations that value communication, most only reach 65 to 70 percent of their staff sufficiently. Feedback is the best method of accomplishing this critical step. A good communicator is open to answering questions as well as suggestions on how to improve.
In the next post, I will examine these issues further by exploring the twin desires of communication: understanding and action.