What is it about people that they can find it so difficult to work together and communicate effectively?
After working in many big corporations, those that call themselves international and multinational, I’ve come to realize that they all seem to share the same unsolvable and known problem of lack of communication. Psychologists have dedicated years of study on this matter, they have done a lot of research and written tons of books on how to communicate properly, new fields of study have been created around this topic, specialists have appeared offering all kind of solutions, giving fancy names to methods and theories that seem to get more complex over time…but still, people do not communicate the way they should.
The moment communication backfired
Why do I use the harsh word “should” to express something that comes so naturally to mankind as communication? Since humanity exists, it has found the most exquisite ways to communicate with others and even created systems and whole nations around those particular ways of expressing oneself. As soon as we are born, the first thing we do (and which defines that we are alive and well) is communicating through a loud expression of anger and unpleasantness (aka, crying) that we are now part of this world. And from that moment on until our last breath we live with the only purpose of communicating what we want, need, think and feel.
So when did the “should” start to take a role inside all this natural behaviour?
- The moment we stopped being natural and started worrying more about the complexity of communication than communication itself.
- The moment we tried so hard to create rules over rules to improve communication systems so much that we got lost trying to figure out what we were originally trying to create.
- The moment communicating started to be more about selling a product or particular personal mark than being oneself.
- The moment mankind started to avoid people and real contact to get immersed in a world of digital languages.
- The moment we got invaded by so much excessive communication selling us stuff that we started to shut ourselves off of the external world and turned inward.
Basically, the moment we stopped communicating due to an excess of uncontrolled communication.
In daily life there are many very common and known situations where lack of communication can be noticed, starting at home. Who hasn’t had the experience of misunderstanding a family member and acting according to that misunderstanding, without even doubting that maybe there is something we got wrong?
Also in companies and corporations we can’t escape this particular issue of not communicating effectively. Individuals not being informed correctly about their goals, whole teams not knowing what they need to work on, or even worse, not knowing what other teams are working on. Supervisors sharing partial information with the teams or other colleagues and then complaining that things didn’t work out as expected. Whole groups acting according to indications which were never really given, thinking they are following some non-existent guidelines, or believing to be aligned with something when they have never been told what to be aligned with.
Many times decisions are taken between a few colleagues in specific meetings without the presence of all the involved parties. New processes are aligned or old processes changed with the belief that the attendees will share this information later on with the rest of the non-present team members, generating a Broken Telephone of partial or inaccurately transmitted information which will only lead to confusion, doubts and incorrect work. Also the opposite happens; generating an excessive amount of meetings and calls involving all – involved and not involved – parties, only leading to lack of interest, lack of participation, partial listening, unclear meeting goals and most of all, mental burn out.
From sender to receiver – simple or not?
Not only do we fail to communicate to the right people, we also fail to express what we need to say.
We have all learned at some point in our lives about the sender-message-channel-receiver model of communication, or Berlo’s Model of Communication. If not, here’s a quick overview:
– The sender is the creator of the message.
– The message is what the sender is attempting to transmit.
– The channel refers to the medium used to send the message.
– The receiver is the recipient of the message.
Effective communication happens when the sender and the receiver are on the same communication level. In this case the feedback that the receiver gives to the sender is important to make him understand that the message has been correctly received. Other factors to take into account are communication skills, knowledge, attitudes, culture, and so on.
Communication can fail in all steps of this flow. For example:
– The sender can have difficulties communicating accordingly: he could be nervous and start talking very fast and in low volume.
– The content of the message can be difficult to understand for the receiver: if a biologist is talking about the function of an organ it could be hard for a non-expert to understand the meaning.
– The channel through which the message is being sent can fail: due to external noise we may not hear the message correctly.
– The receiver could have a bad day and interpret the message incorrectly due to his/her psychological state at the moment of the reception.
At first glance, this can look pretty simple and easy, but each part can include a variety of factors and different situations that will change the outcome of the communication. Correct timing and taking into account different cultures for example is part of the whole communication process and can lead to errors in many fields.
You can express the correct content with perfect communication skills and through the most effective channel, but if you can’t find the right timing to express it, it will not work out.
Or you can have the most receptive receiver, the perfect timing, a great sender and a wonderful content, but if your non-verbal communication has different meaning in the sender’s culture, he probably won’t get the message correctly.
What happens when communication fails?
Not enough importance is given to the consequences of these actions of miscommunication. It’s difficult to imagine the chain of reaction caused by a single small decision taken in a short meeting between two people which then should be (somehow) passed on to others; something that, in most cases, doesn’t occur. Nobody imagines that such an insignificant detail can lead to the loss of a project or even worse, the loss of a client. And even more so, that all this can cause – in a worst case scenario – the dismissal of one or many employees.
But even without looking at these extreme cases, we can also talk about the more subtle consequences of lack of communication: discontent, confusion, incorrect estimations, delays, unhappy clients, overlapping work, unnecessary discussions, and so on.
First steps into effective communication
Of course there won’t be a universal formula on how to avoid miscommunication, but there are a few things we can work on to try implementing small improvements on our daily work to start generating change.
- Think first – then communicate
Many times we have a thought and feel the urge to communicate it right away. This leads to impulsiveness while expressing ourselves which can cause misunderstandings because we haven’t organized our thoughts yet and the message can be expressed in a distorted way, possibly causing bad feelings, confusion, or just lead to an unnecessary discussion. It’s important to be sure what we want to express, to whom, and how we want to share the message. Then of course it will be up to the receiver to interpret it correctly, but at least we’ve done all in our power to send the message accordingly.
- Find the right moment
Let’s say we’ve thought our idea through, we’ve been analyzing it for days and now we feel it’s time to get together with that person and talk it over. You find that person and start talking, but only to find the other party somehow distracted, in a defensive position, apparently in a hurry, not wanting to listen closely to what you’re saying and finally closing the conversation leaving the communicator completely frustrated, possibly angry, asking what he did wrong.
Probably we didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just that we didn’t check if the timing was right. We rushed over, just thinking about our great idea, and started talking. We didn’t stop to check if the other person was available at the moment, and even if he were to be, if he’s really in a position to listen closely and be open minded. Maybe he/she’s tired because the kids didn’t let him/her sleep last night, maybe he/she just came out of a 3-hour-meeting and is just thinking about having a coffee-break, maybe he/she needs to deliver a project and is close to the deadline, thinking about everything that’s left to do…
Finding the right time is key for any good conversation.
- Find the correct space
Who hasn’t had this experience? You’re making yourself a coffee in the office and suddenly someone starts addressing you about a project. Probably the issue is important, and surely enough it’s something that must be discussed, but the kitchen is not the best place to do so. There are certain types of conversation that need to happen in closed spaces, including only the people involved, trying to avoid having important conversations on hallways, shared spaces, or recreational spaces.
- Be empathic
Let’s face it. We don’t always agree on everything. The beauty of multidisciplinary teams is that everyone is different, and even though we celebrate that difference, it can also lead to conflicts if we don’t try to understand and accept that not everyone will agree. This doesn’t mean that your idea isn’t good or won’t be implemented, it only means that probably not everyone will see it the same way you do. So how to cope with these differences? Compromise, be open minded, embrace change, allow yourself to think of other possibilities and maybe, just maybe, someone else can be right too.
- Be an active listener
There is a widespread idea that listening comes naturally since we are born with the sense of hearing. So it should be easy, right?
But in fact, there’s a big difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is referred to as the act of perceiving sound, while listening is an active and conscious decision which requires concentration and the willingness to understand what is being said.
And even within our listening skills we can listen passively just hearing what is being said to us, or decide to be active listeners, involving all our senses. By listening actively we focus not just on the voice, but also on facial expressions, posture, the pitch that’s being used, the moments of silences and pauses, the glances and different looks that we can perceive through eye contact, and so on.
As active listeners, we can also ask relevant or clarifying questions, try to summarize the speaker’s idea to see if we got it right, or we can reflect the message that has been given to us to reinforce it and demonstrate our understanding. These are just a few examples of active listening skills that require a lot of dedication and practice and are not as simple as initially thought. Nevertheless, the benefits of active listening can be so rewarding that it’s totally worth the effort.
What to expect?
Surely this list can be extended and deepened with many more factors. Also, each topic is a whole world by itself and can be discussed thoroughly, but I prefer to communicate just the right amount of ideas to get us started.
It may seem simple to stick to these 5 recommendations, but the difficulty lies in its simplicity. Simple doesn’t mean easy. We as human beings tend to feel attracted to complicated-looking tasks since it may appear more important that way. But reality is that we actually can’t keep up with the most simple and natural behaviors such as…correct communication.
In the end what matters most is the intention behind our attempts of communicating effectively, not having any expectation of a perfect outcome right at the start.
When we truly concentrate and put our hearts into a real, honest and pure conversation we open ourselves up to a whole new world of sensations, ideas and thoughts and this can look frightening if we are used to having it all figured out and under control.
The possibilities are infinite when we allow ourselves to communicate freely and without the interference of misleading messages. Only at this point we can truly start to create something new.
So the question I leave you with is…are you willing to start communicating effectively?
Written by Michelle de Nevares,
Project manager at GM2.