There is one thing that is guaranteed to make any situation in life worse; poor communication.
Throughout human history, miscommunication of various types and origins have eroded empires, marred marriages, broken businesses, and crushed careers.
What’s worse is that few, if any, forecast these potentially hazardous effects of unskilled communication. They believe it to be a skill they will become better at by gaining “life experience” and thus taking it for granted until it is too late.
But what if you had a checklist that could help you proactively identify the various categories in which miscommunications are most likely to originate?
Something that allows you to address an issue before it becomes an issue.
Something that allows you to work with your staff in a thematic, and categorically organized way to improve your chances of getting on the same page?
Something that could help you keep your job and strengthen your relationships?
With the strategies and tools shared in this article, you will have a starting point for doing just that, but you first have to come to grips with a simple truth.
When it comes to communication, none of us are as good as we think we are.
It’s easy to overlook because the principles of effective communication are deceptively simple to understand, yet more difficult than most think to apply.
The Dunning-Kruger effect magnifies our tendency to lean into self-preservation since few of us ever seek formal training or evaluation on topics related to interpersonal skills, and keep in mind, mandatory HR meetings or motivational seminars involving trust falls or coal walking doesn’t count!
There is a reason why public speaking remains one of the greatest phobias experienced by many.
Communication never happens by accident, yet so many accidents happen as a result of poor communication.
Communication is not a singular act. It’s not something that can be learned by reading the leadership book of the week. It’s not something you can merely “pick-up” by watching an eloquent speaker any more than you learn how to master the violin solely by observing an orchestra.
Communication is a skill.
Communication is a strategic enterprise.
Communication is a process.
And like any process, communication has many different components: components that span far beyond the simple verbal and non-verbal elements we hear so much about in pop-psychology tomes, textbooks, or leadership clinics.
Ignoring these components becomes catastrophic to your ability to resolve conflict or lead others if they are not paid their proper due.
These components are not often recognized or thought of by the average individual because they aren’t taught despite the critical role they play in your ability to become a better communicator regardless of whether the goal is simply to catch up with a friend, give a presentation at a conference, apologize to a significant other, or learn how to convey your ideas or feedback to a colleague more articulately.
Let’s get beyond the standard, yet essential advice we often hear about in other articles, including my previous work. Advice stating we should all listen more, maintain excellent eye contact, speak the other person’s name, etc.
Instead, let’s dive more deeply into the things we often don’t hear as much about so we can gain a real edge on the past versions of ourselves and any external competition.
THE 8 COMPONENTS OF THE COMMUNICATION PROCESS
The first thing you will notice about the list below is these aren’t standard “tips” but instead categories that serve as a “go-to” checklist whenever you experience an interpersonal conflict of some sort, or before engaging an audience of any kind.
If you’ve ever experienced a miscommunication in your life, chances are you can identify where it originated via one or more of the components below.
The more closely and proactively you consider each component, the less likely you will overlook the component, which may end up being your undoing if left ignored.
COMPONENT #1: THE COMMUNICATORS
Mentioning that your need to understand the communicating parties seems obvious, right? Yet you’d be surprised to learn how many people don’t fully understand their audience before sharing a thought or idea. You cannot craft a personalized and persuasive message if you don’t know the person/people you are speaking to intimately.
In 2018, the United Staes alone spent $151 billion in advertising, and more than $300 billion was spent worldwide, numbers that continue to increase to this day.
This kind of money isn’t wagered on a crapshoot.
Just as large organizations understand the importance of knowing their demographic and their interests, biases, fears personality quirks, and the like- neither can you. Every successful interaction should begin with what the other person cares about most. Not your agenda. To know this, you must know them, and learn to listen intently.
COMPONENT #2: THE MESSAGE
Getting your point across is a matter of clarity, conciseness, and simplicity. At its core, the message is about WHAT you are trying to say.
Think of it this way, if your main point was on a billboard, and an individual was driving past it on the interstate, could they understand what you are saying in the 3-5 seconds it remains in their field of vision?
If not, your message isn’t clear enough.
When conveying an idea, especially one we are passionate or knowledgeable about, we are often verbose because we are too close to the information itself, or the emotions we are experiencing.
We forget about the curse of knowledge and the fact that just because we can hear the beat of a song in our mind, others likely couldn’t trace the tune if we tapped it on the same desk and made them guess what it is.
Focus on the content itself. Create a clear pattern of thought, and try to configure your ideas so that it is easier for your audience to understand.
Remember, skilled communicators fashion what they say and do on an ongoing basis in response to the goals they are pursuing and the likelihood they will achieve them.
COMPONENT #3: THE MEDIUM
Becoming a better communicator relies on much more than the things you say and how you say them, it’s also about the medium in which you choose and whether it fits with the broader context and goal.
Medium is all about the means you choose when conveying a message. These means have interrelated elements and can include the following subcategories:
- Presentational: How we alter inflections in our voice, face, or body.
- Representational: How we draw upon imagery such as paintings, photos, emojis, etc.
- Technological: The use of internet, phones, television, radio
For example, choosing the technological medium of a text message to quit your job or break up with someone you’ve been in a relationship with would be an example of poor use of a medium if your goal is to communicate skillfully and respectfully to the other party.
Why? Because texting in these types of situations is impersonal and unprofessional, it also lacks in what is known as social presence and media richness.
Social presence is the degree in which a medium is experienced as warm, thoughtful, personal, or meaningful. The lower the social presence, the colder the message, and the messenger will seem in context.
Media richness is similar to social presence but is primarily defined by the wealth of information different media forms carry.
For example, compared to an in-person conversation (presentational medium), a text message cannot convey anywhere near the same amount of information regarding body language, the tone of one’s voice, or even the impact a decision has on the individual conveying the message.
Another example of weak social presence and media richness would be two colleagues utilizing the format of email to resolve a deeply personal conflict with one another.
While email can be great for archiving and documenting the incident itself, resolving personal conflict is still best-done face to face, or through an intermediary, so presentational elements are emphasized, and more clarity of intent and emotion can be observed.
COMPONENT #4: THE CHANNEL
Simply put, the channel is what is responsible for connecting the medium, the message, and the communicators with one another. DeVito, (2013), hits the nail on the head when he describes it as “a bridge.”
It is the wifi signal that allows you to send the email.
It is the sound waves that carry your voice to your boss’s ear.
It is the cell tower and/or satellite that allows you to make that call on your cell phone.
Choosing the right channel is critical for getting your message across so that nothing gets lost in translation due to spotty reception, or any other form of interference.
As a rule of thumb, the clearer and more direct the channel- the higher the likelihood your message will be received.
COMPONENT #5: THE CODE
Have you ever traveled to a new country to find out a gesture or phrase you’ve been using did not mean what you thought it meant?
If so, you understand what is meant by code.
Code is the system of shared meaning by a group of people. It is the legend on the map we read to better understand a region’s topography or the route we wish to travel.
It designates signs and symbols as either appropriate or inappropriate based on the values of an individual, group, nation, or organization.
Get the code wrong, and even the most well-rehearsed and manicured message won’t mean much, and could likely get you in a heap of trouble.
Great communicators abide by the age-old Dale Carnegie principle of first seeking to understand before attempting to be understood for a reason.
COMPONENT #6: NOISE
Becoming a better communicator requires one to cut through the myriad things that can interfere with the message and its intended effect on a given audience.
Noise can be thought of as any form of interference with the success of your attempt to reach another individual or group of individuals.
It’s paramount to note that the use of the term noise itself doesn’t have to refer to sound whatsoever.
Types of noise can include someone using too much jargon when they speak, someone being distracted, emotional states, the media, the effects of the use of drugs or alcohol, our biases, poor acoustics while listening to a podcast, the guy coughing during a movie, and yes- even a baby screaming in the background when we are trying to catch-up with an old friend.
It is helpful to categorize anything that could degrade or distort one’s intended message or any communicative act as noise.
*Bonus Tip: Like code, noise can also be attributed to cultural/ethnic differences and perception. Thus, these components are closely interrelated.
COMPONENT #7: FEEDBACK
Truly effective communicators and leaders crave feedback in various forms. The skilled communicator craves feedback and wants to know how to provide more personalized and meaningful feedback.
Feedback, in general, is how we can better ascertain the extent to which the intended message was received and the impact it has had.
It plays a central role in any interaction and can span from the reactions we see in others’ facial expressions to…
COMPONENT #8: CONTEXT
It is best to think of context as the situation, circumstances, and setting in which an event occurs.
In simplest terms, Context = Common Ground.
It is what two or more people need to know to understand an action, motive, or utterance. Communication always occurs within a particular context, and it is context itself that has a powerful influence on each interaction and the outcome.
Without context, questions cannot be answered thoroughly.
Without context, we erroneously judge others without knowing all of the facts.
Without context, anything we say or do is easily misconstrued in the public eye.
Non-exhaustive contextual categories can include the following elements:
- Physical: Location where a conversational event took place (rock concert vs. funeral)
- Temporal: Timing of a message (asking for a raise when the boss is in a poor mood)
- Cultural: What instructs one how to act based on the values and norms of the collective
- Relational: The relationship between the parties (father and son, siblings, rivals, etc.)
- Situational: Defined by the event itself. (was it self-defense, left early due to family emergency, etc.)
Think about your most recent interactions. How are you going about defining the context so that someone can more easily understand what you’re trying to accomplish?
Don’t be surprised if you get vague or superficial replies from others, if you haven’t gone out of your way to make the context more clear.
The greatest distance between two or more individuals is miscommunication.
There is a difference between being someone who is easy to understand and being someone who is nearly impossible to misunderstand.
Just as a great detective looks for what is missing when it comes to solving a mystery, a great communicator looks to ensure they consider all of the components above when it comes to connecting with others.
Is it hard? Absolutely.
Can it be frustrating? Without question.
Yet nothing is more costly than losing time, results, relationships, and possibly even your reputation simply because you didn’t take the time to dive more deeply into the one thing that makes all of us human- the capacity to communicate at a higher level than any other organism on other.
Make the language you speak one of self-awareness and genuine interest in those around you’ll be well on your way to leading at a higher level in both your personal and professional life.
Since you’re still here…
If you or your organization are interested in enhancing your communication skills, be sure to look into our Apprenticeship Communication Workshops. These are the only workshops of their kind that are backed by science and hallmarked by interaction, case studies and evaluations as opposed to death-by-PowerPoint.
To date, we have welcomed leaders of all ages from over 30 professions and 22 countries including Australia, Mexico, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Brazil, Africa, China, India, Norway, and Poland. It is this level of diversity that allows attendees to gain valuable feedback based upon a wider variety of peer perspectives.
Adler., R., Elmhorst, J. and Lucas, K. (2012) Communication at Work: Strategies for Success in Business and the Professions, 11th edition. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill
DeVito, J. (2013) Essentials of Human Communication, 8th Edition. Boston: Pearson Education
Hargie, O. (2017). Skilled interpersonal communication: Research, theory, and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Minakova, L. Y., & Gural, S. K. (2015). The Situational Context Effect in Non-Language-Majoring EFL Students’ Meaning Comprehension. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 200, 62-68.