It was back in 1980 on Erindale Campus of the University of Toronto that I was first told in a Sociology lecture that effective communication was sending a message from one person to another and having it received and understood in the way it was intended. If the person receiving the message interprets it in any way that differs from the intent of the sender, you have miscommunication.
With such a straightforward explanation of the communication process, why then is it so hard for people to communicate effectively? To answer this question, we have to look at some of the many things that accompany the message when it’s being transmitted to the person receiving the communication. Tone of voice, body language, physical proximity, the method of communication, past histories of the two individuals, context, and the list goes on. There’s a lot packed into how we communicate with others!
You might think that removing all the above would make communicating so much easier and increase clarity, but not so. How many times have you read an email for example and been unsure of the meaning behind the words you’ve just read?
In the workplace, communicating effectively is of great importance to employers. This is evidenced in the number of job postings which include, ‘strong written and verbal communication skills’ as part of the qualifications for the job. For whether it’s with customers, clients, co-workers, Managers or the general public, being able to communicate effectively is critical to increased productivity, company image and your own individual success.
How effectively you communicate begins the moment you come into contact with anyone who works in an organization you’re interested in joining. Whether it’s a phone call to gather information, a cover letter accompanying your resume, or the job interview itself, your communication skills are on display and you’ll be assessed at each one of these stages by company personnel as being a weak or strong fit based on how you send and receive information.
Everyone with something to communicate begins with an idea that they wish to share. People who communicate effectively then do many things simultaneously in just a few seconds. They think of their audience; the person or people who will receive the message. They consider their own relationship with these people and how best to pack the message so it not only gets delivered, but stands the best chance of being unpacked by those receiving the message in the way the sender intends. Should it be a text, an email, in person, over the phone, a group meeting, posted as an announcement on a bulletin board, etc.
But that’s just the method of communication. The words themselves have to be well thought out, to avoid any chance of being misunderstood. Even then, it’s not enough to guarantee success. The tone of voice we use is critical. For example if you shared some exciting news with a co-worker that you’ve just received a promotion, you might be confused if they say, “Gee that’s great”, while at the same time they yawn and roll their eyes. Even though they say the news is great, their tone and body language isn’t consistent with what you heard. In fact, you’re likely to believe the body language and tone over the actual words you hear and be left feeling disappointed they aren’t as excited as you.
Now imagine that same situation happening not just with a co-worker, but rather your boss. The boss tells you to have something done by 1:00 p.m. and you smile, wink an eye and say, “Yeah, I’ll get right on that!”, and chuckle. Your boss is probably left wondering if you are really going to get to it right away or you think they are kidding and have no intention of doing what they just asked. It’s likely they’ll say, “No, I’m serious; 1:00 p.m.” This second communication is also going to be delivered clearer, with little room for miscommunication. In fact, even if you got the message right the first time, your tone, facial expression and body language sent conflicting signals with the words you used. This inconsistency may actually be so confusing to an employer that it could limit your role in a company, causing you to be passed over for promotions because there’s a lack of faith in your communication skills.
Suppose you want to get to know the people you work with and figure having lunch with them one-on-one will give you both sufficient time to get to know one another. You say to someone, “I’d like to have lunch with you one day this week to get to know each other better.” They might be confused, especially if there is little history between you for them to understand the context for your request. Is this just lunch? Are you personally interested in them? Why them? So they might ask you for clarification by simply saying, “Why?” Although your motives are clear to you, what you have to understand is your motives aren’t clear yet to them.
Miscommunication can lead to awkwardness, jobs failing to get done, puzzlement, confusion and conflict just to name a few negative outcomes. Good advice is to consider your audience, how you’ll deliver your message, and checking for understanding once the message is received by asking for feedback.