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Congruent Communication

“The single biggest problem with communication ... is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” - George Bernard Shaw

Many years ago I played for a coach who used a technique to motivate players through fear.  He would produce this fear by using verbal, visual and vocal communication. His face strained, his face flushed, eyes narrowed, voice loud to the point of being obnoxious, shouting expletives at us as we watched saliva fly from his lips. On occasion, he would throw things for emphasis, like chairs or buckets of ice.  None of us liked this behavior, nor did it  motivate us to play better, as we seldom did after such displays.

Later in my  business career, I had the opportunity to work for a very passionate leader. My first quarterly review with this person, along with the team I was serving with, I saw another example of my old coach. All was in place except the throwing of chairs or buckets of ice.  My first thought after such a display was “What just happened? They don’t pay me enough to go through that!”  Later we would all jokingly talk of putting on our asbestos suits before our next quarterly review.

What happened, for me at least, is the messenger became more important than the message, and the messenger was quickly proving to be the court jester.  No one listens to the court jester. They are the fool.

Ralph Waldo Emerson stated: “What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say.”

In a study  at UCLA in 1967, Dr. Mehrabian’s research found that when there are conflicts  of trust and believability between what is said, how the voice says it, and what is seen of the speaker, the visual (what is seen) is overwhelmingly dominate. In the case of my college coach, what he said may have had merit.  Certainly he wished us to play better and the desire to win is unquestionable.  But the antics of the visual became so loud and unbelievable, childish in the sense of a tantrum, that we became enthralled in the show and heard not a word of direction. At times we were more concerned about getting hit with a flying object. The same came true for my passionate boss, whose passion came out as anger. The tragedy was we saw him as someone not to believe. He over reacted in our minds, and thus trust was lost in what he had to communicate to us. We laughed when we should have heard. I had the opportunity to share with him how we felt about the reviews he gave. He actually thought he was communicating with us, and had no idea that he was perceived this way.

These are extreme examples but real none the less. Still each of us will fall into these traps and send a message that is not what we wish to send. Have you been talking to someone and while you were speaking they answered their cell phone?  Or checked an email that just popped up? Or even grabbed the attention of someone else who just walked by? Were they really listening and do they really care about what you have to say? Their visual actions say 'no they do not.'  What we are looking for is Congruent Communication. This is where all the venues of communication, the visual, verbal, vocal all match the message given. This is why when my wife speaks to me, I put down what I am doing, and let her know with my body language that I am listening. This is why I must let other emotions and stresses of the day not interfere with what I am speaking about at the moment, especially with my own team and certainly with my own children. Too often they have asked why I am so upset, when I was not upset with them or about the topic. Before you speak, think about what you will say (verbal), how you will say it (vocal), and what they will see from you while you say it (visual). When congruent, they have a much better chance of getting the right message.



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  • frank

    Posted on 01.19.2012


    Very interesting message and spot on in the lesson to be learned.

    But what about when most of the “speaking” is all done remotely as opposed to f2f?

  • Bill Kreiger

    Posted on 01.30.2012


    From the UCLA study in 1967, we learn that communication has three parts, verbal, vocal, visual. Here is the greatest disadvantage of using email to communicate, it only uses one of the three, verbal. verbal has reference to the words we would speak or in this case write. Email thus lacks the benefit of your tone, pitch, and inflection along with other non-verbal cues. As a result, misinterpretation of the senders message can result. Even little smiley faces can be misunderstood. Here are some ideas:
    1) Never write in anger and don’t send it if you do no matter how brilliant it may sound to you.
    2) Keep email ‘matter-of-fact’ as possible, make a phone call at minimum if more clarity is needed.
    3) Watch your tone. Sarcasm can easily be misunderstood and the next thing you get is an email war.
    4) Never criticize in email. you certainly can praise, but if you criticize they will more than likely miss the point and be offended.
    For the best possible communication, where what you mean is what they get, congruent communication is a must. The technology is understanding this, thus we have mediums now that use visual even for long distance communication. These forms are improving each year.

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