We talk a lot about the importance of communication. It has been core to our development as a species and our ability to work together to become greater than the sum of our parts. It is central to how we become who and what we are and our sense of belonging, even ‘an apparent answer to the painful division between self and other’ (JD Peters). Yet, despite so much depending on our ability to communicate, that use of ‘apparent’ is telling – too often communication fails.
At home and at work, we have all experienced getting communication wrong and struggling with others’ efforts to engage us. It jars when we are communicated to, at, over, through, even around. Instead of becoming an ‘answer’, poor communication just adds to our problems, breeding confusion, resentment and resistance. We could all benefit from doing it better.
Whether we are trying to inform, engage, influence or see others’ points of view, communication is at heart about building a shared understanding that enables us to work/act together effectively. That means doing more than just transmitting the message. Depending on your view, there are 10-12 factors affecting communication quality and effectiveness – and only one of them is about what you actually want to say. To make a positive connection, we need to think about our perspective, but also our audience’s perspective, the context our message will land in and how we check we and our audience have arrived at the same point of view.
Taking a fuller perspective on communication matters because more and more of our communication is remote. Organisations are much more likely now to have a leader’s blog, the team’s homepage, to manage policy and procedure on the company intranet. It’s easy to see why: it feels convenient, is cheap upfront and appears to be effective. COVID-19 has only served to accelerate our looking to operate at a distance, adding ‘safety’ to the list of apparent benefits. But the trade off for going remote is that you lose information about your particular audience at any given time, their interpretation of what is written and how they intend to respond. As a strategy, ‘post it and they will come’ gives leaders and managers little information about the impact they are really having on their colleagues. So are they really communicating? Looking at what steps leaders and managers take to confirm understanding and response may not be a bad way of gauging how committed they are to engaging their teams: are we working with transmitters or communicators?
If we want to improve our communication, how do we better connect with our audience?
- Basic connection begins with using language that our audience will understand. This of course takes on an interesting dimension when we are communicating across cultures.
- Better still, we can address the needs of some to see the headline, others to see the argument laid out. We can address the needs of some to grasp the facts and others to connect with the people aspects of our message. That is, we can structure what we say to connect with more of our audience.
- Some communication has to be directive. But more often than we assume, we can take our communication a step further: we can treat it as an opportunity to learn from others.
This kind of thinking maybe means pausing before we act. That may feel difficult when speed has become a thing to be prized in itself. But then, if we are moving so fast that we miss the turning – or worse, the warning signs – was all that rush to action really worth it?
Checking with our audience will certainly take effort. If we think about the effect we want to have, we may better work out what behaviours will show whether the message is getting across or not. That could give a simple, efficient measure of understanding without lots of intervention. While there is no escaping the fact that work is required, look to the potential return on that investment:
- Spotting a misunderstanding early could save significant losses further down the line.
- Being more open to communicating rather than transmitting can generate new and profitable ideas.
- Colleagues who feel engaged, trusted and valued tend to perform better and stay longer.
Whether in the business or the social context, when we communicate well, we build collaboration, morale and performance – ultimately, we build community. And any community is stronger, more resilient, more successful than one of us standing alone.
#communication #leadership #coaching