“The problem with communication ... is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” - George Bernard Shaw
Why is it that poor communication seems to be at the root of so many issues? Why was one of the top skills sought by employers in 2015 “communication?” Why did over 97% of Fortune 500 executives surveyed by the Journal of Business Communication believe that communication played a key role in the advancement of their career? Why did a group of MBA graduates surveyed say that their ability to communicate effectively was the single most useful skill of their career? There is actually a simple answer to these questions… Communication is everyone’s human dilemma, but if properly mastered, it can be one of our leading strengths.
Imagine for a moment that everyone in the world could not communicate with another human being in any way, shape or form. How would we get anything done? If we could not speak to each other, send emails, talk on the phone, interpret body language, raise or lower our voice, we would be able to accomplish very little, if anything at all. Now if we all lived in the world of “The Matrix” movie communication would be simple, wouldn’t it? For any instructor to communicate information or a new skill they would simply plug a cord into your skull receptor and plug the other end into their skull receptor and BAM! … you’d have all the information, experience and skills downloaded into your brain in an instant! The exact same data could be downloaded from one brain into multiple brains without ever worrying about miscommunications occurring. What an efficient way to communicate! It is the one advantage computers may have over us… communicating without distorting the meaning of the message. Unfortunately, we can’t wire our heads together to transfer meaning… not yet. It is our human dilemma. Instead, for two people to transfer the meaning of something from one head to another, the meaning must be communicated.
Communication is vital to our progress, our success and our very existence. Because it plays such a vital role in our lives, it is important to understand the communication elements of “encoding” and “decoding” and how they can affect our understanding. For an explanation of this, let us take a trip through your brain.
Total communication can involve three elements usually referred to as Visual, Verbal and Vocal. In other words, people can receive communication through what they see (Visual), the words they hear (Verbal) and how the words are spoken (Vocal.) A great example of encoding messages with all three is face-to-face communications. An example of using only the Verbal and the Vocal would be a phone conversation. You can hear the words and the tone of voice used to deliver the message, but there is no visual. Utilizing only two of the three variables can make it more difficult to interpret the true meaning of the communication. A good example of Verbal only communication is the communicating we are doing right now… you are reading written words only. There is no visual diagram or tone of voice. Email is another example of Verbal only communication. When the other two variables (Visual and Vocal) of communication are not included, it can be much more difficult to interpret the message properly. This is the reason why emails will often times be misinterpreted as rude, sarcastic, or inconsiderate when that was not the original intent of the author.
It is important for a person initiating the communication to select the most appropriate mode of communication. If they want to communicate a topic that is purely factual, written communication may be fine. If the communication is going to involve emotions or if there is a chance of a misinterpretation, a face-to-face meeting might be more appropriate. Properly encoding the message is just the first half of the communication…
Once the sender has sent the message, the decoding must take place to turn the received transmission into actual “meaning.” Right now you are receiving a ticker-tape of words as you read these words and they enter your brain. As all these words come into your brain, the worker bees in your head collect all the data coming in and shout out, “What are we supposed to do with all this?” The logical part of the brain, always cool, calm, and collected, says, “Do what you guys always do… filter it and make meaning out of it! Then bring it back to me.” The worker bees dump all of the received data into a set of filters. These filters may be too numerous to count but some of the more common filters include your education, experiences, biases, assumptions, and distractions. Of course, the first filter that everything passes through is also the most important. That is your Attitude filter. If you are receiving communication from another person and your negative attitude is saying to the brain, “I don’t know why we gotta sit and listen to this rubbish. You and I both know we’ll never use any of this. I really got better things to do…” how much of the information do you think you will actually retain or properly interpret? I will not say you have to turn a negative attitude into a purely positive one to ever get anything done. But, I will say that a negative attitude will definitely taint the meaning of every piece of communication entering your head if you let it.
Assuming the data made it past the “Attitude guards” and was sent through the rest of the filters, eventually (nanoseconds later!) the worker bees in your brain will have a completed interpretation and meaning of the received communication. They will rush back to the logical part of the brain and hand it over saying, “We filtered the communication and here is what we came up with!” The logical part of the brain will take the meaning, look at it and usually do one of two things…
“Huh…so that’s what she means!”
“Hmmmmm… I’m not quite sure what she means by that!”
In the first interpretation, after you receive the meaning you may display your understanding to the sender visually by providing them with a “silent nod” head motion. This lets the other person know that you understand what they are saying and you want them to continue sending messages. If the resulting interpretation is the second scenario, this is when the receiver would raise their hand in a classroom setting or they would stop the speaker and ask a question to clarify the true meaning of the communication.
Too often people simplify communication as “one person is talking and the other person is listening.” As simple as it may sound, communication tends to be much more complex. Now with a greater appreciation for communication, we can all avoid hearing that little voice in our head make comments like, “Hmmmm I wonder what he meant by that?”
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