Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Communication: How Hard Can It Be? (Part 1)

We talk, text, email, call, and converse nearly every day of our lives, and yet Communication is hard. In fact, I would say that Communication is the most often misunderstood job of a leader. How often have you misread an email, or added context to a text message? Listened to a voicemail that makes no sense? Or been part of a conversation that apparently had no point?

The primary reason for this is that Communication is complicated. And by the way, most of the time what we think of as Communication (which we do every day) is only the throwing-up of information without ensuring Receiver comprehension, and we do it every day. Most people, in fact, are not very good at communication. I know that I still fall into the traps of Communication, and that in the end it was my fault for not taking specific items into account. But we'll get to that in a later blog.

First, let's explore the process of the Communication Cycle and where it can go wrong. Then we can discuss how to ensure your Communication (and my own) is clearer and more effective.

Step 1. The Communicator has an idea (represented by the light bulb), which he wants to share with a Receiver.

Step 2. The Communicator must decide how he / she will transmit this idea. What method / medium will they use? Text, voice, body language, facial expressions?

Step 3: The Information method of communication is implemented and has to pass through not just the Communicator's contributing factors, but also the Receiver's factors (these factors will be explored in the next blog). Not to mention any static or noise that may impact the message (bad phone reception, noisy room, misspelled words, improper word choice, etc.).

Step 3a: These factors can cause the message to nose dive into the ground, fly over his / her head (in other words, be misunderstood at a minimum, missed completely at worse). If you are lucky, the communication will be received.

Step 4: The Receiver receives the method of communication, translates it (the gears) and generates his / her own idea of what was communicated, which may or may not (most likely not) be exactly what the other person was thinking (notice the light bulb is different).

Step 5: The Receiver is now the Communicator and has to go through the steps (starting at 2) to confirm understanding (this is called Feedback).

Step 6: The original Communicator decides if the Receiver understood the original idea based on the feedback received (again with all the potential factors impacting that decision).

Can you see where breakdowns happen? First, let me point out that a lot of different methods of communication do not allow immediate feedback, or can even circumvent feedback. When a person sends an email, he or she may think they are being clear, and the person receiving may think that he / she understands; but in reality they are thinking of two different things. The Receiver may not send the necessary feedback to confirm understanding, and the original sender may not seek out that feedback to assure understanding. Only later, after work has started (or worse, completed) do the two get together and find out that they had separate ideas. Then what happens?

Sadly, this instance isn't limited to email. All methods of communication are susceptible. Even face to face conversations end with misunderstanding because the Communication Cycle isn't completed. I honestly run into this with my own children all the time. I give instructions, ask if they understand, and get a "we understand" answer. What I have learned (to my chagrin) is that I cannot take the "we understand" statement at face value. They are only saying that because they think that is what I want to hear, not because we have a clear understanding. How often does this happen at your team meetings? Does your team tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than confirming understanding? Until I realized it, this was happening a lot more than I would have liked.

If you think about it, this is why "Active Listening" (don't groan, I rolled my eyes too the first time I heard about it too) is so important. By it's very nature you are seeking to understand the other person by rephrasing things you hear in your own words to ensure that you are getting the right idea. This automatically provides the Feedback portion of the Communication Cycle. It also makes the person feel like you are actually listening to them, thus improving their mood and improving potential future Communications.

In the end, it is the drop-off of the Feedback portion of the cycle that means we as leaders should be asking questions to ensure that people understand what we Communicated, as well as following-up later to ensure confirm the understanding and ensure proper progress. One of the most powerful tools a leader can use is the question: "Would you please confirm your understanding by stating what the expectation is?" (when offered in a non-offensive manner). Or an easier question during follow-up:"What are you working on?"

But the Communication Cycle is even more complicated than what I've described above. You remember those wavy lines? Those wavy lines don't just represent the actual static / noise that could interfere with your communication. Those couple of wavy lines represent all the things that can interfere with clear communication. Next week we'll discuss what those wavy lines really mean.

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