“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

If you are working with other people (and who is not?) one of the most important skill to master is definitely communication. Even if you are working on your own, being able to communicate clearly with friends and family is very helpful.

In my personal journey I learned that there are a lot of skills that are important to succeed: focus, imagination, strategic-planning, result-orientation. However, the one single skill that has the most leverage with people is the art of communication.

And communication is not only to make your point clear. Often communication between two people consists of two human beings trying to tell each other their version of the story. Or as Jeff Daly puts it: “Two monologues do not make a dialogue.”

To understand true communication and then to improve yourself there is one of the best things you can do in personal development. In this article I want to see what good communication is and what the factors that need to be understood and practiced are …

The goal of communication

Let’s look what Wikipedia can tell us:

“Communication is the process of conveying information from a sender to a receiver with the use of a medium in which the communicated information is understood the same way by both sender and receiver.”

Pretty cool definition and especially the last part is not trivial. We could say that the goal of good communication is mutual understanding.

Now, obviously communication is the exchange of information. We are talking about direct communication here, face to face. Communicating over phone or on the internet is similar but nevertheless a different story.

There are two parties involved when we communicate: the sender and the receiver. The whole thing goes as follows:

1. Codifying

As the sender we are packing what we want to express into words (and other things see below).

2. Sending the message

The actual process of communicating is happening. Here can be any kind of noise that can disturb the message.

3. Decodifying

The receiver gets the message – and decodes it to understand it. Then he actually understands his representation of the message.

So if we repeat it: the goal of communication is mutual understanding of the same thing. This means, that encoding and decoding produce the same results in our heads. I think we all have experienced that this is not as easy as it sounds. How often have you said something to another person who understood a completely different message from what you said? How can that be?

… not just speaking words

If we can answer this question we surely become able to be a better communicator. The first important thing to understand is that communication with another person is not just speaking out your thoughts and expecting the other person to reproduce them in the head. Along with the verbal comes the so-called non-verbal communication .

Surprisingly only 7% of the received message is determined by the spoken words. Now this should ring a bell! 38% is the tone of your voice and 55% of the received message is determined by body-language (body-postures, gestures, eye contact and general outlook). This is measured by Mehrabian and Ferris in “Inference of Attitude from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels” published in The Journal of Counselling Psychology Vol.31, 1967,pp.248-52. Surely this may vary from person to person, but those are average numbers so we can assume that they work in reality.

Just think for yourself a minute, how you receive a message from someone talking to you and what influences the overall representation you make for yourself. This means that from the senders viewpoint good communication is definitely only a little bit of what you are saying. In general, how you say it is much more important:

  • Good and natural posture
  • A fitting tone of voice
  • Where are your eyes? Where is your head? Are you looking to the person you are speaking?
  • Your whole self-presentation, including clothes and general outlook

The 4 parts of the message

To get even deeper into the communication process it is also very helpful to know what we are sending, if we are communicating.

Let’s take the simple message of “The lights are green” said by the boyfriend “John” to the driving girlfriend “Mary”.

The german professor of psychology Schulz von Thun developed this model:

Basically there are four different parts of a message:

1. The factual information

This is the basic fact of what you are saying. In the example: “The lights are green.” (not red anymore)

2. The self revelation

This is what a messages includes regarding yourself as the sender. Of course this is heavily dependent on the intent of the sender “John” as well as the representation of the receiver “Mary”. In the example this could be on both sides: “I (John) am in a hurry.”

3. The relationship information

This reveals infos on the relationship John and Mary are having: Maybe: “I (John) know better.”

4. The appeal to the receiver

What is the intent of the message? What does the sender want from the receiver? Maybe: “Please start driving!”

It is fascinating to think about the dialogues we have and then look at the different parts of the message and how we interpreted them. Obviously both, the sender and the receiver can go wrong in over-emphasizing any of the four parts. We could say let’s focus on the facts here! I am bound to the truth and I just communicate the facts and I want to be understood like it. Hm… will this work? For instance if a persoanjust tells a fact the other might reinterpret that message on the relationship or appeal level. It could also work the other way around, you are saying something to make an appeal but the other side is just receiving the fact and is wondering about why you are talking about such irrelevant stuff.

To make this model a little bit simpler we could say that there is the logical side and the emotional side in communication. If you are having trouble understanding another, it may be that this person hears especially on the other part of the message. One interesting tool here is just to ask the receiver gently what she/he has understood.

Becoming good at communication

Here we come to good communication: Good communication is clear , meaning it makes it less possible to be misunderstood on any level. It is congruent in his message regarding the 4 parts. But it is also flexible. If you want to become a good communicator you must be able to adapt your communication to the receiver. If you see that your approach is not working you must be so flexible that you can change from very factual and logical to a more emotional or social communication and vice versa.

It is important to understand the receiver and adapt. This can include understanding the motivations and situations or even history of the receiver. Good sales people or diplomats try to “read” their partner to be more effective. This is not manipulative, it is trying to communicate in a way that the receiver can relate to you. It is about being an effective and good communicator.

A matter of perspective

Another extremely important thing in communication is to understand that everybody speaks (and can only really do so) from her/his perspective. What is that? This is the personal view one has of the world, or the view one has on this particular topic on which the communication is about. Very often it is only possible to reach mutual understanding if you are able to see the perspective of the other. (see also the review of the 7 habits of Stephen Covey ). If you are looking on something from the same perspective (the same circumstances) the other person has, maybe you can see it the same way as she/he does.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood

In many conversations there is no real communication. There is one party speaking while the other party is preparing its response. The result of such a communication is often just an argument. This comes full circle with the intro quote of this post. But the goal of communication is mutual understanding in order to get an empowering result for both. So the one critical thing one has to do to really communicate is to learn to listen again. Not only to listen but to listen emphatically which means, that you understand the perspective, that you see the world with the eyes of the other person.

If you want to become a good communicator then you have to become a good listener. Now think about it for a minute. Why are you speaking? To be understood. What does the other person want? Ahhh.. to be understood as well. If both feel understood in the first place, then real communication can arise out of trust. If you really feel that the other person understands you, you open up and mutual understanding becomes possible.

That is why it is so helpful to seek first to understand. The other person opens up then and feels relieved. Now it is also important that you can feel understood. That is clear, this has to follow. But out of the understanding you can communicate much more effective and towards something both can happily live with :)

Clarity

To become clear in your communication is the final improvement if you are aware of the above points. Clarity is reached by clear thoughts and by congruent communication in its four parts of the message. For instance you won’t be convincing if you say “Yes, I will do this now!” if your voice is low and silent without energy and you are looking down. Energetic and positive communication is what we are aiming for in the end (if it’s appropriate). So this is practice of communication, flexibility and also clarity by training the mind. And please remember: what you put in you will get back out.

I want to finish this post with a quote from Edwin H. Friedman who said:

“The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choices words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”