Five Principles of Effective Communication

The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred. George Bernard Shaw

I’m sure this has happened to you: a colleague has just done the exact opposite of what you wanted him to do. How can that be, you ask yourself. I told him exactly what I wanted. Yes, maybe you told him but did you check that he was listening, that he understood, that he agreed and that he would carry out the required action? Obviously not. The first principle of effective communication is to get appropriate feedback.

The second principle of effective communications is to really connect with your audience. It is a fallacy that the mere sending out of information is a communicative act. It isn’t, especially in the current climate where everybody is drowning in information that overwhelms on us all fronts. To connect with your audience you need to address their different needs as partners because communication is a two-way process. You have to decide what you want the outcome of your communication to be: are you trying to inform, persuade, shock, praise, criticize, shame, please, inspire? Whatever your aim you need to plan your message, and the medium for the message, to trigger the emotional and cognitive responses that will ensure you engage your audience. And how do you know you’ve done that? By getting the appropriate feedback of course.

I learnt this the hard way. As part of the induction for new staff, I used to produce a manual containing all the operational information they needed. As time was always short, I would go through the headings with them and tell them to study it at their leisure. But nobody ever did. I was constantly bombarded with simple questions that were addressed in the manual. But it was my own fault. I should have set up a properly interactive session and followed that up with subsequent opportunities to study and discuss the information.

The third principle of effective communications is to listen and understand first. Don’t send out a message until you know what your audience needs. If you are concerned about the quality of somebody’s work, for example, don’t jump in and issue an official warning. First find out what the employee’s perception is. Use active listening skills to really probe the situation. Reformulate the employee’s words, for example, echo the last words of their sentences, invite them to say a little more if they are hesitant. That way, if you discover the family has a seriously sick child or a big financial problem, you will start to understand what is behind the poor performance. You can then decide on the appropriate action.

The fourth principle is to understand that communication is more than the surface meaning of words. You need to be able to interpret other people’s messages. This is just another form of feedback. Let’s say you make an announcement and your group is discussing the information with you. They may feel inhibited about disagreeing openly, but read the signs because you don’t have to be openly aggressive to show disagreement: note the body language, the kinds of words they use, the tone of voice. Somebody who is receptive will give you eye contact, will lean forward and will participate by asking questions, or offering to assist in some way. Those who are not in favour will look elsewhere, maybe fold their arms, use vague language instead of precise terms.

The fifth principle is respect. I don’t want to go over the top here because you may well ask who is she to question the behaviour of the world’s leaders? But it seems to me that many of the international political problems we experience are the result of lack of respect for the other party. Sure, it would be great if other nations didn’t want to develop nuclear weapons, if they had democratic governments, if they weren’t religious fanatics. But we don’t produce good outcomes by taking the view that western leaders know best. To communicate with those we want to persuade, we need to respect them. Just because they don’t agree with us, doesn’t make them inferior or wrong. They have cultural backgrounds and histories that have led them to a particular course of action. Only by respecting that hinterland can we expect to make progress towards cooperation. To translate that to the workplace, you will only gain the cooperation of employees if they know you respect them. If you base your communications on lies, if you try to mislead people, if you ignore their needs and rights, they will see that you don’t respect them and they will lose respect for you.

So where does all this lead us? Simply to the point that if you are having communications problems, you can now start analyzing where you are going wrong. What sort of feedback do you allow for? Do you understand how to appeal to people’s emotions, their reasoning powers? Do you understand what makes your audience tick? Have you tried to find out about their real lives and what is important to them? And are you showing lack of respect by trying to hoodwink them? By addressing these questions as fully as possible you will go a long way towards improving the outcomes of your communications.