Communication: What did you just say?

Communication processThe communication we all need” is one of the most popular posts on my blog.

In the following, I will expound additional ideas about the most interesting human art and the most effective lubricant for all interpersonal interactions.

“Communication is the transporter of success.” – Alexander Christiani

The hidden faces of communication

Art

We might think communication is about the stories the neighbour related us on a sunny morning or the rumours we unintentionally overheard. We might also think that communication is about the sounds produced by the vocal cords and/or the nasal cavity. And indeed, we are actually not far.

Chinese culture and in this case a Chinese word can, however, tell us a bit more about communication. 演讲 is composed of two characters meaning to perform and to talk respectively. Good communication involves, thus, not only the action of talking, but also the art of performing.

As an art, communication does not have a prescription nor hard coded rules, but rather depends on the creativity and imagination of the artist and of you as an artist.

Preparation

Steve Jobs was undoubtedly one of the greatest communicators of all time. Each of his presentations would be awaited enthusiastically and end up become one of the most interesting spectacles ever worth watching and re-watching on Youtube. What is not evident in his presentations is the amount of preparation put behind the scenes. Walter Isaacson describes in his book “Steve Jobs” how much importance Steve would not only put into each of the words used, but also e.g. into the position and the hue of the lights at every moment of the presentations.

The third component

School has always put special emphasis on two components of our verbal communication:

  • Vocabulary: Word variety and the subtleties in meanings, and
  • Grammar: The correct formation of a sentence, the structure or usage of the proper grammatical form; among others: plurals, singulars, active voice, passive voice, etc.

A third related factor is the actual content of the message, which is as important as, if not more important than the well-taught building stones of verbal communication mentioned above. You might feel bothered by somebody’s grammar mistakes, but imagine how you would feel if the message were filled with low quality content. Wouldn’t that be the equivalent of verbal garbage? The equivalent of junk food in our information diet.

In human interactions, I believe, the actual content plays a more important role than vocabulary and grammar. While people will most probably not get into a fight because of minor grammar mistakes, conflicts might generate if the content of the message is in some way harmful. We should remember that not all information is equal. Some words/content might be cheap and popular, but they are not necessarily good for our health, psychology or relationships.

Factors influencing our communication

Our communication will most likely have certain objectives. In the same way that we need a mirror to assess our own appearance, we need our listener’s feedback to control the effect of our communication.

Therefore, interaction with the listener gains in importance, so that we can verify whether our message has been understood has intended. Whenever the feedback hints us at certain ineffectiveness, we should be flexible enough to change our communication method. Perhaps one has to need to express it differently or one has to search a completely new story. Perhaps it is only a matter of time or language.

To understand what should be done differently, you should understand what has interfered with a successful communication. Factors that might be influencing the process include the following:

Basic understanding:

  • Content: Is the content suitable to the audience and correspond to their level of understanding? Is the content too technical or too broad? Are there implicit things or assumptions made that the audience should be aware of in order to understand your message?
  • Language and words: Does your audience understand the language you are using to communicate? Did you choose the right words to communicate your perspective: e.g. did you actually mean problem or challenge? Crisis or opportunity?

Style of communication:

  • Type of communication: Are you communicating on an individual basis or faced to a large audience? Are you using a direct style of communication or are you expecting the audience to work through the hidden implications to unveil the true meaning of your message?
  • Order of communication and structure: Did you give your audience the relevant context for your message? Did you prepare the audience or did you give out an essential message impetuously?

Context of communication

  • Time and length of communication: Did you communicate with your audience in the morning or at night? Was the presentation too long and prone to boredom?
  • Place of communication: Where did you communicate? In a bar, in the office or at home?

Non-verbal language

  • Body language: What was your body language? Were your eyes penetrating the other one’s or were you evasive? Where were your hands and what were you doing with them?
  • Tone and speed: What tonality and speed did you use? Were you too quick? Did it shout or make a point on a very high vocal pitch level?

External factors

  • Interference: Was some other message interfering your message? Did somebody else say something that opposes your message and renders it little credible?
  • Confrontation: Does reality fit with your message? Are your actions consistent with your message or is there any kind of contradiction/confrontation?

The combination of these factors bring our communication to life. Through it, we can also recognise one’s personality and even life details, such as the type of job a speaker has. Recently at a speech contest, I heard diverse participants giving a short discourse on social movements. Without knowing anything from the contestants, a friend and I could feel the type of personality behind each one of them. One spoke like a rapper, another one like a politician and yet another one like a social worker. Trained actors can of course deceive us into some illusory reality, but otherwise we get to know quite a bit about others through the way they communicate.

You can often differentiate between hypocrite words and those messages that truly speak to your heart. While people process and treat information differently, I believe we all become enrapt by words that can touch our hearts.

Communicating different types of information

As a former consultant, I recur to a 2×2 table to classify the types of information. These can be positive or negative and important or unimportant. In the boxes formed by the intersections are the suggestions for how we should communicate when using a rather straightforward type of communication (which is the most common type of communication in the western world).

Category 1: Positive & Important

Examples of this type of information include:

  • Vision, mission, values of a company
  • Vision, mission, values of your own life
  • Big achievements
Category 2: Positive & Not important

Examples of this type of information include:

  • Good weather
  • Good food
  • Nice outfit
Category 3: Negative & Important

Examples of this type of information include:

  • Big problems affecting a company or country
  • Mistakes one is committing
  • Sad news, e.g. someone passing away
Category 4: Negative & Not important

Examples of this type of information include:

  • Long waiting lines
  • Bad weather
  • Traffic light turns red when you arrive at a cross

When you have information that fall into categories 1 and 2, you can communicate them quite easily and say the things straightforward without further consideration. As human beings we like to know positive things, especially when the news we read often seems to be filled by negative events. We should hope to fill our communication with more of positive and important things.

Information belonging to the categories 3 and 4 demand a bit more of creativity, in particular because the energy is negative and as a virus can spread quickly to generate bad mood in large groups of people.

Category 3 cannot be neglected because issues therein are important. As a result, communication should be performed masterfully in order to avoid evoking negative feelings on the other side. For example, bad news should not be communicated in an e-mail which could cause anxiety and cause misunderstanding; instead it should be communicated face-to-face. The structure of the message can also be slightly modified, for example instead of only stating a problem, we could complement it with an analytical analysis and whenever possible offer viable solutions. Instead of criticising come work, give some motivation for improvement or propose suggestions. 

Another method would be to direct the “energy” towards a different direction. Tai Chi pushing hands tells us that the tiniest force can redirect a powerful force in another direction.

Pushing hands works to undo a person’s natural instinct to resist force with force, teaching the body to yield to force and redirect it.”

For example, if you have to express sadness, instead of complaining and bothering other people constantly, could you express your feeling in a picture or through a song? Or when you are angry, can you express anger through silence or a disarming laugh? A laugh might distract your counterpart and leave him/her wondering the reason of your sudden reaction.

When communicating information from this third category, one should also pay attention to the culture (from the country or company). For instance, in certain asian companies it is rather common to communicate such news on a Friday afternoon.

Finally, information from category 4 is most likely superfluous. Swear words belong to this category as well. This kind of message might propagate anger, frustration and even hate. For a better world, this category should be minimised.

Communication is an art and it is up to the artist to decide what form it will take. It is in your hands to decide which type of communication you want to welcome in your life.

You might also like my first post on communication: The communication we all need.