Communication is the means to get things done and an indispensable medium for human relationships. It is an essential ingredient in providing the important services of organizations, as well as a basic source of personal satisfaction. Yet, although communication is the single most important factor in relationships and work success, it is the least taught and most neglected skill we use. We tend to take it for granted because too often we think that communication means, “You listen and I talk.” Or “I am talking, you listen.”
Real communication takes place when the listener understands the meaning of what the speaker says. While understanding the real meaning of the message being sent is essential to communication, it is not easy to accomplish.
Miscommunication is more prevalent than ever imagined. In fact miscommunication is so frequent it can be said to be a normal occurrence. Therefore, any work to create effective communication needs to start with that premise. Thus with that in mind, I will discuss four highly effective tools to ensure that we have understood the meaning of a message or delivered the message we intended to deliver. If any one of these tools is neglected, communication may break down.
The primary–making sure the listener and the speaker have the same Frame of reference.
The second tool–Asking clarifying questions.
The third tool–Paraphrasing is essential. In paraphrasing, the listener rephrases what s/he has heard the speaker say. Paraphrasing serves two purposes. When the listener paraphrases, the speaker can verify that the listener has understood the message. The speaker can also verify that the intended message has been sent, because sometimes the speaker says something different from what s/he really meant.
The fourth tool–listening for the words behind the words, which translates into understanding the feelings behind what is being said. The speaker often does not overly state the feelings associated with a message. However, the feelings are being conveyed through tone of voice and body language. The listener can pick up those non-verbal messages and convey to the speaker that the intimate meaning of the message has been heard.
In summary: the four essential tools in effective communication are:
1. establishing a frame of reference;
2. asking clarifying questions;
3. paraphrasing; and
4. listening for the words behind the words (understanding feelings)
It may seem that these communication tools are for the listener alone and that the listener has the major responsibility in making sure that the message is understood. In reality, communication is a 100% responsibility for both the listener and speaker. If you, as the speaker, want to be sure your message is understood, you can use the same four communication tools. Check with your listener to verify that your frame of reference is understood. Invite your listener to ask clarifying questions–such as: When? Where? How? What? Who.” Ask your listener to paraphrase back to you what has been understood. Taking responsibility for one’s feelings and conveying them with the message will make your communications more meaningful and rewarding. It is also helpful to convey your feelings by making “I” statements. For instance, saying, “I am feeling embarrassed at blowing it,” takes the burden off the listener in reading non-verbal messages. Whether you are the speaker or the listener, it is your responsibility to use the communication tools conscientiously if the message is important to you.
Communication is a more complicated medium than we perceive it to be. Whether listening, reading, speaking, or writing, we have selective listening (reception) and selective speaking (transmission) processes operating at all times. As you read this article, you are selectively hearing my message and I am selectively sending it based on past experience, needs values, images and the language I use. These can all become barriers to effective communication.
As you listen, you filter information in or out based on your evaluation of what you are hearing and your determination if it has value. “Do I need this? Will it give me what I want? Is it important?” If the answers to these questions are “Yes,” you will make more effort to be sure you have understood. If the answers are “No,” You won’t take as much time and effort. Since these questions are usually asked on an unconscious level, you may often allow past experiences to determine what you listen to in the here and now.
As a speaker, you ask, “Is it important to have my message understood? What will I gain if the listener understands?” The greater your need to have your message understood, the more time you will spend making sure you are heard.
The value you put on the information being conveyed also has a great deal to do with how well you communicate. As a listener, the value you place on the speaker’s information will determine how conscientiously you use good listening skills. If you don’t agree with the basic premise or if you believe it isn’t important, you may begin to evaluate the message before the speaker has finished speaking. You may then begin to daydream or mentally formulate a rebuttal.
As a speaker, the greater the value you put on the information the more time and effort you will spend conveying it. If you want your message to be understood, it is important for you to determine what is of value to the listener and deliver the message based on the listener’s values.
When listeners are aware that you place importance on their values, they are usually willing to hear the significance of your message on a cognitive and affective level.
The image that you, as a listener, have of the speaker also determines the level of attention you will give him/her. If you image is one of respect, acceptance, or understanding, you will be more conscientious about making sure the message is heard. If the image is a judgmental one–Does he know what he is talking about? He doesn’t have a Ph.D., how can know enough to teach me?–you will not spend adequate time using effective communication skills.
The same is true if you are the speaker. If your image of the listener is one of respect, understanding, or acceptance, you will spend time making sure the message has been understood. If you lack the self-image and self-confidence necessary to convey your message to doctors, lawyer’s or some other group with whom you may feel inadequate, you will fail to use the communication skills and will not communicate in depth or adequately.
These barriers are in operation constantly on the part of both listener and speaker. In order for effective communication to take place, these barriers need to be checked out. If the listener has an unfavorable image of the speaker, the speaker needs to address that issue and resolve it. The speaker can change a perception someone has by clarifying a misunderstood action or reaction and by sending the message in a way that will meet the needs of the listener.
The language you use to convey your message is important, too. Any information can be conveyed in an infinite number of ways. As the speaker, you need to use words the listener will understand. Jargon can be a problem; therefore, avoid using professional argot, regionalisms and ethnocentrisms. You run the risk of losing the listener’s interest. If you are the listener and do not understand the words being used, ask the speaker to explain.
To further create effectiveness in the communication process, you need to be aware of other processes at work within the listener. Developing a frame of reference does not mean simply gathering information so that you can drop the right word at the right time in conveying a message. A person perceives messages in a style unique to that individual’s development. Does the person understand information better when it is presented in a logical, straightforward manner or when it is offered with descriptions and allegories which can be visualized? Or would a combination of both the logical and descriptive styles be more appropriate?
When we communicate, we too often make the unfortunate assumption that people are logical at all times. Such, however, is not the case. Behavioral scientists have long known that we sometimes have trouble reconciling our emotions and our logic. One does not need to be a disciple of Freud to know that our emotions interfere with our ability to reason.
There are physiological reasons to explain the frequent dichotomy between our emotional and rational capabilities. The brain of the Western World human clearly delineates or lateralizes emotions and logic and assigns these activities to opposite sides of the cerebral cortex. The ’emotional side’ is housed in the right cerebral hemisphere and the ‘logical side’ is found on the left. A muscle mass known as the corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres or ‘brains,’ allowing messages to travel back and forth so that the activities of both can be integrated.
The left brain allows one to be logical; it controls analytical ability, order and sequence, mathematics, problem solving, decision making, and formal language. To address the logical brain exclusively, however, is to do injustice to the whole person’s perception, capabilities, and preference in understanding information. Equally as strong, though perhaps more amorphous, is the emotional brain, the right brain. The right hemisphere allows one to have imagination, draw analogies, and be intuitive, artistic, and creative. Since both the emotional and the logical side are involved in your communications, it is critical that you become aware of the role of each and learn ways to appeal to both. You can use analogies to paint a picture which will appeal to your listeners’ artistic, creative inclinations. In addition, you can analyze your rationale for a decision, appealing to their problem solving, decision-making abilities. In this way you can assure that you are communicating with the whole person’s perception capability and preference. This double-pronged approach increases the likelihood that the core of the message will be received on both cognitive and affective levels.
We have discussed the importance of conveying the meaning of your message. How do you do so? Again, it seems so simple–through words, of course. Actually, however, words have the least impact on how your message is ultimately understood. A study done at General Electric reveals that over half the message–approximately 58 percent–is conveyed by body language; 37 percent of the message is conveyed by tone of voice; and a mere 5 percent of the message is conveyed by the words used. In order to send a congruent message, the words, tone of voice, and body language need to be sending the same message. If the words say one thing and the body language says something else, the body language is believed to be the real message.
It is often said that body language doesn’t lie. This is true because body language is an unconscious process interpreted by the right brain of the receiver. Yet it is difficult to interpret body language because a slight variation can mean many different things to different people.
One can, however, make accurate inferences from many body gestures. The eyes and facial expressions convey the majority of body language messages. Flirting is a universally understood form of communication. Since the eyes and mouth are the most distinctive, it is important to study what you are doing with them when making statements. For example, when you say, “No,” you need to give firm, direct (not staring or glaring) eye contact and form the word “no” with the lips wide open and pushed forward, squeezing in the corners of the mouth as the “O” sound finishes. Your tone of voice needs to be firm and at a slightly lower register than normal conversation. Using a lower register does not mean speaking more quietly. It means using a slightly baritone sound. Women have the most difficulty in effecting this sound. Speaking at too high a register sometimes undermines women’s credibility and may cause their statements to be considered insignificant or not worth taking seriously.
Men, on the other hand, have a tendency to speak too harshly, using sharp, hard tones even when the situation doesn’t require it. Men naturally have deep voices; therefore, they seldom need to lower their voice inflection to convey a firm message. Men do need to be aware that their natural tone of voice can often intimidate. Thus, they may need to soften and relax their delivery.
These are generalizations and need to be experimented with. You will need to get feedback from others to determine how your delivery is being perceived. Get several opinions from male and female friends, colleagues, superiors, subordinates, and acquaintances. Although you will receive slightly different reactions, a pattern will emerge which will give you an idea how to ‘specialize’ your presentation when interacting with specific individuals or groups.
Learning to send a congruent message which appeals to the whole person’s perception capability and preference takes time and effort. For those who are concerned that it will take too much time to learn to send a congruent message, think of the time you spend redoing, re-explaining, or rehashing an issue that has gone astray, or the damage that is done when there are misunderstandings. If one aspect is not attended to, the communication process breaks down. In more complicated forms of communication it is paramount that all skills for effective communication are employed.
Dorothy M. Neddermeyer, PhD, Executive and Business Health Consultant with 30+ years experience. She has consulted to Fortune 500 CEOs, Vice Presidents, business owners and people of all walks of life. http://www.drdorothy.net