The ability to speak clearly, eloquently, and effectively has been recognised as the hallmark of an educated person since the beginning of recorded history. Systematic comment on communication goes back at least as far as The Precepts of Kagemni and Ptah-Hopte (3200-2800 B.C.) Under the label ‘rhetoric’, the study of the theory and practice of communication was a central concern of Greek, Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and early modern education. In the United States, rhetorical training has been a part of formal education since Harvard’s founding in 1636. It continues to be important.
Communication is a process of transferring information from one entity to another (Wikipedia).
Everything is Communication
Everything we do has something to do with communication. Often we think it is something that happens when we are talking or listening. We accept that the person hearing the information doesn’t necessarily need to be present (e.g. watching the television or listening on the radio) but we know that for communication to have taken place, something must have happened within the listener. It also has to do with understanding the intent of the person speaking and acceptance of that information or the meaning intended by the speaker.
But communication is more ubiquitous than that. Communication – the passing and receiving of information – happens within us as much as between speakers and listeners. The messages beliefs, values and stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, is also communication. Our self-concept, what we think we are capable of, the self-talk that fills a busy mind, is all communication. This internal stream of thoughts, particularly if unchecked, confounds our openness to possibilities for change with ourselves as much as with other people. This self-talk also colours our beliefs and expectations of other people. It inhibits our ability to remain open-minded and available to others so that we truly listen and make decisions based on deep understanding or a filtered version of what we anticipate another is saying. The quality of communication also depends on the ability of the speaker to galvanise their thoughts, access sufficient vocabulary, and adapt their message to suit the audience, convey feelings as well as content, and adopt sophisticated skills to investigate social dynamics and potential conflict. Communication is as much relationship building as it is conveying of information. Communication takes place within the context of relationships: relationships with ourselves, with others, with ideologies, with belief systems and in the case of politics, with a nation or globally. So whilst communication between audiences has something to do with understanding the intent of the person speaking and acceptance of that information and its meaning, the context of relationship must always be taken into account for what is not said is as powerful as what is said. It is however, more complex which the following examples indicates.
Two managers work in the same organisation. Brad, a senior planner has called a meeting with Helen, the marketing manager of a medium sized PR company. The purpose of the meeting set out in the email sent is to discuss the timeline needed to launch a new product to their existing customer base. The meeting begins and Brad shares his department’s progress in finalising the product and Helen listens avidly, nodding and adding the appropriate aha’s which Brad assumes indicates that she is impressed or at least understands what he is saying. We might assume from first glance that the outcome of the meeting will be considered a success with the product soon to be launched on the market. If we had the ability to read minds however, we might find that something else is being communicated. Imagine that Helen has a strong attraction to Brad but has never expressed it, believing that workplace romance is unprofessional and probably a recipe for disaster. But alone with Brad in this meeting she finds him irresistible and during his presentation she hasn’t heard a word about the project. She thinks he likes her because the more she nods and expresses understanding, he becomes more animated, laughing and clearly pleased to be in her company. Brad, on the other hand, has a girlfriend, a successful career woman who works long hours. Because he wants to start a family, he has developed an irritation with ambitious young women who even offer to work on the weekend to finish projects. Realising however, that his quarterly performance depends on launching this product, he hides his prejudice and works hard at impressing Helen with his skills – in the boardroom that is, not the bedroom.
This simple example highlights that what is intended is not always what is heard and understood. In order to be effective communicators, we must develop sophisticated skills to check this out. But this is only a part of what makes communication effective and this is why most communication skills training often fails to deliver beyond rudimentary skills development. We must become experts at communicating with ourselves – the intended messages from within that are often hidden and yet sabotage us effectively communicating and achieving the outcomes we want – in the boardroom or the bedroom, and everywhere in-between in fact. These two aspects – inner and outer communication – when refined, create what is known as Calm Communication. This highly sophisticated process of communication is the hallmark of effective leadership and is an essential ingredient in enjoyable and highly satisfying relationships.
The cost of poor communication We only have to look around us to see the fallout of poor communication. Misunderstandings and prejudice between people, broken relationships, divorce, conflict between neighbours, resistance to organisational change, team conflict and potential war between international leaders. The most challenging part is the fallout of people’s needs not being met when they find themselves misunderstood, their message judged or criticised and the overall quality of the interaction seriously compromised. The solution is to understand that effective communication is only possible when the filters are understood and replaced with ways to challenge what we believe we are seeing and hearing with what is actually seen and heard (or intended).
How to become an effective communicator
Learning to communicate is something that naturally happens within the context of our family and socialisation. Innumerable external influences affect the extent to which that process is successful to an individual learning to communicate effectively – with themselves and other people. However, it is as if becoming an effective communicator is left to chance. Apart from having to speak publicly in exams or assessments throughout the process of education, most people learn that their communication could be improved when their relationships fail, conflict occurs with their friends or clients and opportunities are lost. Forward looking organisations invest in communication training but the emphasis on skills training alone produces limited, long-term results. The reason for this is that the person hasn’t changed on the inside. How a person feels about themself and their abilities contributes enormously to their ability to communicate effectively. At a conscious level, they may work hard to improve their confidence, their rapport-making skills and even their ability to have difficult conversations. However, they often find that they attract similar people and the same situations that keep them trapped in similar outcomes and similar relationships. This is because of hidden, unconscious factors that must be addressed or else the same patterns will continue throughout the person’s life – often leaving them bewildered as to why they keep attracting the same outcomes. It is only when skills-training is combined with overcoming and changing their internal dialogue, that a person can truly connect with others and communicate effectively rather than sabotaging their speaking or listening.
Practical ways to improve communication
Whilst learning to be an effective communicator requires a depth of internal change coupled with skills training, there are some things that can be done to immediately improve communication – in the boardroom or the bedroom – and everywhere in-between. When used, these techniques will have a positive impact on all your relationships and go some way to you achieving the results you want in your work and personal life.
1. Keep Expectations in Check Expectations serve to focus our conversations to achieve satisfactory outcomes. When working with others to achieve a goal, they are essential. However, internal expectations of others regarding how they should, ought and must act because they are part of a particular social grouping, interfere with our communication, particularly if we don’t even realise they exist. Assumptions about different social groups, nationalities, Corporate Warriors in certain blue chip companies or generational groupings must constantly be challenged to preserve the uniqueness of individuals. A good rule of thumb is to question your expectations about any group to which a person might belong and remain open-minded to how the individual you are taking to might different from that stereotype.
2. Question everything – yourself included Calm communicators have a default button that ensures they question everything on a regular basis – themselves included. They ask questions of other people to ensure that what they think they have heard is what is intended. They question their reactions and opinions on things to minimise blindspots or prejudices that filter. When they have strong reactions to what other people say, they examine themselves closely, aware that buttons may have been pushed for them. They don’t assume that their strong reactions to things are always because of strong values on a topic; new information may remind them of something or someone to whom they have a strong reaction to in the past. They become aware of their unconscious counter intentions that become apparent through interactions in everyday life and they work to remove them from their lives where they no longer serve them.
3. Share differences and set up regular times to communicate and question In both relationships and teams, a context can be set within which differences can regularly be discussed. If done in an exploratory way, it becomes an opportunity to share different perspectives and clarify misunderstandings. If we only wait until differences somehow interfere with achieving an outcome, then the conversation becomes a difficult one where the stakes are high, opinions differ and emotions are raised. Making time to discuss differences when each are not pressed to get an outcome right away, allows trust to develop in a relationship. Then when crucial conversations occur in the future, there is credit in the bank, allowing differences to be explored without conflict. When recruiting employees, attention is focused on what can or might be able to do. Great lengths are taken to correlate existing abilities and aptitudes against measures of future performance. Personality and team role types are also used to evaluate the likelihood of a person meeting the job requirements and working well within the team. However, cultural and social norms often only become apparent ‘on the job’. If a team culture is developed which encourage discussion of the meanings behind expressed and implicit values and norms, then opportunity exist for innovation and creative ways of solving problems. The same is true when recruiting a partner – becoming a calm communicator allows differences to be examined without threat, ridicule or antagonism.
4. Create new shared meanings – Anyone who has ever been in love experiences a culture of two, each person tuned to each other’s dog whistle that only the other person can hear. Alas, if the relationship ends in tears, those shared meanings somehow don’t seem to coincide. However, what was created in the union was an experience of perceived ‘we-ness’. The likelihood of the relationship continuing and being sustained over time, has a lot to do with the ability of the partners to tolerate differences that previously were not apparent in the honeymoon stage. They still might find their hearts moved by a shared song or mutually enjoyed movie, but for a healthy relationship to develop, each must realise their different identities. Likewise in organisations, the cohesiveness of a team depends on the extent to which the members uphold norms that are important to them as a group. Generational differences make team working challenging when people from different generations are trying to agree on how best to work together. These different expectations of work and life impact enormously on modern day organisational behaviour and together with high turnover and the reality of change and multiple careers over a lifetime, impact on the community which we call work. However, for all teams to work effectively there must develop a sense of ‘we’ which requires a leadership style that encouraged shared meanings that produce productive results and individual and collective satisfaction.
What Is Communication?
Communication is the currency with which we navigate our personal and professional relationships. The difference between good and bad communicators is not based on skills ability alone. When a person has a good relationship with themself and takes full responsibility for their part in creating their outer reality, they are empowered to change and improve their interactions.
By developing a self-questioning mindset that constantly asks ‘What is my part in creating what’s happening here?’ they are empowered to change something about themself rather than hope for circumstances to change or blame others for their experiences. The reason that a high level of self-awareness is essential in effective communication is that there are hidden, unconscious factors that influence our behaviour as much (if not more) than conscious ones.
This is evident when a person realises that they keep attracting similar outcomes in their life and where similar games, dances and dynamics keep playing out in their life which they feel powerless to change. Without changing one’s internal dialogue, challenging the inner saboteur and finding the source of one’s destructive, self-sabotaging behaviour, a person is doomed to get similar outcomes – regardless of whether those outcomes assist them in getting the results they want.
Becoming an effective communicator is only possible when skills-training is combined with a person developing an on-going ability to be self-reflective, take responsibility and in every conversation, see their part in creating the results they get. When these abilities are combined, they directly contribute to a person achieving the relationships they want as well as making them powerful communicators who have impact and influence on others.
Clare Mann is an Organisational Psychologist, Bestselling Author of numerous books and Existential Psychotherapist with extensive international experience facilitating individuals and organisations to create extraordinary results.