15 May 2007

Communication 101

For communication to happen, you need a person who is a sender and one who is the receiver. Each of these people has their own filter or decoder ring through which they interpret and relate to the world.

The graphic shows the basic process. The sender has a message that he wishes to convey (e.g. "Blue"). He does his best job at expressing the message ("Purple"). The message travels through a channel or medium ("Burple") to the receiver, who translates the message ("Purple") and makes a conclusion about what the original message was ("Red"). Then in a well functioning communication system, the message is verified through feedback and the sender corrects discrepancy between the original message and what was received.

There is a lot of potential for error in this system.

Encoding errors include: lack of language skills, discrepancy between verbal and non-verbal messages, lack of clarity in the message, and wrong context.

Decoding errors include: lack of language skills, misreading non-verbal cues, and interpretation bias.

Errors that can be introduced by the channel include: transmission errors (e.g. cell phone static), incomplete message (e.g. only verbal, no visual cues), inappropriate medium for message (e.g. firing someone by email).

Finally, the feedback often does not happen at all. When it does, it too is a form of communication, so it has the same potential for error.

Nice Model, but what do we do about it?

First, realize that it takes two to tango. Avoid finding fault with others. Do not take miscommunication personally. Strive to put the communication at the proper level for the audience.

In any communication you are either the sender or the receiver. We can't control how the other person works, but we can do something about our own behaviors, and we can try to understand the receiver better.

We can always work on our encoding. Language skills, empathy, and consistency across communication channels are important parts of that. First, what you say needs to be grammatically correct. If a communication is not grammatically correct, there is a risk that nobody will understand it. This is a foundation skill, even for engineers. Second, empathy is important because it allows us to select the proper demeanor and level of communication. This is fundamentally knowing your audience. You speak differently to a 1st grader than a CEO, or a marketer and an engineer. Finally consistency across channels is important. If while announcing deaths of soldiers, you are smiling and joking, you send two very different messages.

When you are the decoder, language skills and empathy are important. Add to that the primary responsibility for providing feedback. Feedback takes several forms: it can be a direct verbatim repeating of the message, a paraphrased repeat of the message, simple affirmation that you heard what was said, or physical or verbal reactions to the message received.

The original sender must be prepared to receive the feedback with a spirit of understanding and non-judgment.

A Special Case
When the receiver of the message hears something completely different than what was intended it is normally not a problem. Just fix the communication and move on. Sometimes though the receiver hears a message that is very hurtful, even though that was not the intent. When this happens it is a big mistake to simply try to correct the message. It will likely be received as insensitive and defensive.

This has been a big issue in my life. The last thing I want to do is hurt the people closest to me. When I do, I just want to take it back and pretend it didn't happen. That doesn't work. The cat is out of the bag. So the following section describes a better approach.

If you think your message has been received in a hurtful way, the better approach is to first acknowledge the feeling, discuss it, try it on. Then once you are sure the receiver knows that you have heard and absorbed the feeling. Only then can you work the feedback loop.

So here's a silly example of how that looks:
Sender message = Blue
Sender communicates = Purple
Receiver hears = Purple
Receiver interprets = Red
Red hurts the receiver. So he says, "I can't believe you told me red. That is really mean."

Sender: No. I didn't say red, I said blue.
Why is this bad? Because the receiver in that moment is hurt. The above response would be taken as a defensive response, and in a sense denying that the feeling that the receiver had was a fact. I know that's not the intent, but...

The sender now needs to acknowledge the feeling. "Red must really hurt."

You are in essence dropping out of the main loop into a damage control subroutine. You cannot return to the main loop until the time is right.

Continue talking about the impact of Red on the receiver. Until both of you are at ease.
Then and only then can the sender go back into the feedback loop. "I know that Red really hurt, and it is a sensitivity for you. I apologize that my communication hurt you so much. May I clarify my message?"

As I say, this has been a weak part of me for a long time, but believe me it is the right thing to do. By showing concern for the receiver's feelings, and being willing to accept those feelings as facts, you dispel the idea that you are a heartless, defensive, SOB.

There are several places for error in any communication. Be careful at each step, but more importantly, always incorporate the feedback loop, regardless of whether you are the sender or the receiver. The Special Case is less common in business settings than in personal ones. But wherever it happens, you must be prepared to drop into damage control mode.

On to Active Listening and Feedback >>>>>

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