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Jul

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Communication

The irony about an introduction to communication as a topic is that if ever there was an exercise to find the single word that could be described as having the most multiple meanings, then communication would be a strong contender.

Within this overall  programme of study, the focus is on those aspects of interpersonal communication which most effectively support personal development; however, these aspects will invariably end up being transferred into wider areas of communication such as newsletters, emails, marketing and promotional material, that you may be involved with as part of your organisation’s responsibilities.  In essence, this material will relate to one-to-one type conversations (ideally face to face), but much of it will also be of use when addressing groups.

The starting point for this small area of study is that the readers of this material are essentially competent. However, a cursory glance behind the Blue Door will highlight other topics that are less well known, or not known at all, but which might add value to someone looking to develop their skills in what is widely acknowledged to be an important area. This material includes only some of these topics, since the subject of communication is a course in its own right – the extent to which others are explored depends on individual personal interest.

Most of us as humans are born with the ability to vocalize: we are not born with the knowledge and skills that define competent communication. This ability to communicate effectively comes through effective teaching and learning and many teachers feel it is part of their role to help students develop their own communication skills, whatever that might mean.

Before exploring a significant, but not widely known, theory about the subject, the following quotes show that communication has been under the spotlight for some considerable time, and is likely to be in the future, particularly as we all become more reliant on digital technology in our communication methods.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” – Tony Robbins

“I’m a great believer that any tool that enhances communication has profound effects in terms of how people can learn from each other, and how they can achieve the kind of freedoms that they’re interested in.” – Bill Gates

“Communication is the cornerstone of effective project management, and yet most of it is done ad hoc, driven by individuals, personalities, and preferences, rather than by needs, protocols, processes, and procedures.” – Carl Pritchard

Communication Model

Shannon and Weaver introduced one of the first standard models for basic communication; it was based on technical communication systems, but has subsequently been extensively developed.

Although dated, it still has much to offer as a vehicle to create ‘shared’ understanding.  One of its criticisms, from those looking for universally accepted and robust model that could be applied in a wide range of circumstances, was that it was best applied to inter-personal communication, which suits our needs.

The process consists of various discreet stages, starting with an information source, and an intent to send a message:

Sender:  An individual who decides upon the informational content of a message

Encoder: A method is chosen by which the message can be identified: words, pictures, signals, expressions, non-verbal communication, etc.

Channel: The message, in whatever encoded format, travels allow the chosen channel, where it often encounters ‘noise’ which may impact on the clarity of the signal

Decoder: The signal is received and is converted back into a message – the opposite of the encoding process: the reading of words, listening to the oral message, interpreting the picture, picking up on the nonverbal cues, etc.

Receiver: The person that has received the message from the sender

All this is simple enough, and in essence is very straight forward.  However, in reality the simple process is fraught with hidden complexities.

Sender.  Issues to consider:-

  • To what extent is the information content accurate and correct?
  • Does the message contain material that is easy to understand; it is constructed in a way that will enable the receiver to make sense of it?
  • At what level of language has the message been constructed?
  • Overall is the message clear, concise, considered, coherent, complete and courteous?
  • Does the sender have a legitimate and suitable reason to send the message, and most importantly, does this require the consent of the receiver?

Encoding. Issues to consider:-

  • How competent is the sender at preparing the message for the channel they have chosen?
  • Have they got the knowledge skills and experience required to make the correct choice of channel
  • How much freedom do they have in terms of selecting the most suitable channel?
  • To what extent is the sender limited by time and money?

Channel. Issues to consider:

  • Which channel is the most appropriate: in today’s world the list evolves on a regular basis?
    • Face to face spoken word
    • Telephone message
    • Postal letter
    • Web page update, blog
    • Email, text
    • Social media – Facebook message, tweet on twitter
    • Skype call
    • Pinterest image
  • What is the guarantee that the channel is correct?
  • Can this channel be accessed by the receiver?
  • How much noise is likely to be encountered using this channel?
  • Is the channel secure (assuming the message is confidential or meant for one person only)?

Noise: From a technical point noise represents any unwanted additions to the transmitted signal which cause distortion or error in transmission. From an interpersonal point of view, there are a significant number of areas for potential noise to enter the system, where the signal could become distorted; all of which may well impact on the accuracy of the message being sent:

  • Other sounds which may make hearing hard
  • Intentional , or unintentional non-verbal communication
  • Subtle or not so subtle changes to voice tone
  • The speed at which the message is being sent
  • The work environment – which could be distracting for any one of several reasons
  • Levels of fatigue
  • Perceptions of power, hierarchy
  • Level, type and quality of the work relationship

Decoding. Issues to consider:

These issues are based on the assumption that a message has been received by one channel or the other

  • Is the receiver capable of getting access to the message from the particular channel?
  • How competent is the receiver at making sense of the message that they have received?
  • Do they have the desire and inclination to decode and make sense of the message?
  • To what extent is the receiver limited by time and money

Receiver.  Issues to consider:-

  • Were they expecting a message in the first place, are they willing to accept it?
  • Does the message contain material that they understand; it is constructed in a way that will enable them to make sense of it?
  • Can the reader understand the content of the message, given the level of language at which the message been written?
  • Is the receiver in the right state of mind to receive the message content, regardless of how well it has been written?
  • Does the receiver acknowledge that the sender has a legitimate and suitable reason to send the message?

This model represents what happens with interpersonal communication most of the time.

A sends a message to B, expecting (hoping perhaps) that it gets through safely and accurately.

The component that is missing from the original model is the feedback loop or feedback process.

This is a more contemporary image of the communication cycle; it includes the feedback element.

“What is the shortest word in the English language that contains the letters: abcdef? Answer: feedback. Don’t forget that feedback is one of the essential elements of good communication.” – Anonymous

In this model:-

  1. A sends a message to B, expecting (hoping perhaps) that it gets through safely and accurately.
  2. B then receives and decodes the message, makes as much sense of it as possible and then sends the message back to A saying “this is the message that I think you sent me”.
  3. A then compares the message they thought they sent, with the message that B has just confirmed they received and has to decide whether or not they are same.

This puts into context the following quote attributed to various different people:

“I know that you believe you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you think you heard is not what I meant.”

The Reality

A comprehensive understanding of this seemingly simple model puts great power into the hands of the either the sender or receiver; power in terms of having the ability to ensure that the interpersonal communication process is effective and regularly achieves its objectives. In short, to ensure both the receiver and the sender have a SHARED UNDERSTANDING of the message

As a sender, assuming I manage all the potential issues previously mentioned, I can TAKE responsibility for seeking information and clarifying understanding back via the feedback loop.  This act could take 3 seconds: I simply have to look at the non-verbal feedback coming back to me from the receiver to give me an indication as to:

  • whether my message was clear and made sense
  • was unambiguous
  • was something they agreed with, or not

As a receiver, I can TAKE responsibility for seeking information and clarifying understanding by:

  • clarifying what I have heard, simply to confirm that I heard it correctly
  • clarifying what I have heard, if it doesn’t make sense
  • asking questions to understand any ambiguity
  • seeking more information if the message is not something I agree with

More generically, I could take a similar view about the need to ensure shared understanding by taking a moment to consider whether an email I have received might have a different meaning to the one that I currently think it has, and then write a response to clarify the content or to explain how I have interpreted it.

Or I could take a few seconds to re-read an email that I have written and try to read it from the perspective of someone else: could what I have written be taken the wrong way, is it ambiguous, could it cause offence?

The opportunity of using the feedback loop either as a sender or receiver occurs many times on a daily base. The consequences of regularly committing to use your understanding of this model are significant:

  • Each individual knows what is expected of them, how it should be done and by when
  • Department A genuinely understanding what department B is doing
  • Less mistakes
  • Work not being duplicated
  • Valuable work resources – people and time – not being wasted
  • Projects and tasks being delivered on time
  • Less time spent sorting out errors – with obvious cost savings
  • Preservation of the integrity and quality of relationships through the elimination of blame!

“Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.” Brian Tracy

The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through. – Sydney J. Harris

“Many relationship problems are rooted in a communication break-down. These can be as simple as not really hearing what the other person is saying, because we get caught up in our own fixed perspectives.” – Sumesh Nair

“Two monologues do not make a dialogue.” – Jeff Daly