By Chris Chittenden
Whenever an employee survey is done to ascertain how they feel about the organisation in which they work, communication is virtually always cited in the top five things done poorly. Why is this the case? After all, we would all like to think we communicate effectively with other people but if this were so, why is communication perennially seen in a bad light?
We would like to begin by posing the question "What is communication?". Many people see communication as simply passing information to others. If they know about it, then we have communicated with them. Although this is certainly one aspect of communicating with others, it is only a small part of a bigger picture.
Communication between human beings occurs through conversations whether they be face to face, over the telephone or in written form. The literal meaning of "converse" is "to turn together". In other words, our ancestors saw communicating with others not so much as passing information between themselves but rather in coordinating and relating with each other. This interpretation of conversations has been likened to a dance between two people, where they move together but differently.
The emphasis that each of these interpretations, passing information and coordinating and relating, places on how we communicate with others is markedly different and so are the ways employed to do so. If we see communication in terms of passing information to someone else, the focus is on the speaker and the act of taking a piece of information - the message - and passing it on. This interpretation leads to what Hugh McKay terms "the injection myth".
"The 'injection' myth treats messages rather like drugs which act on other people's minds. It assumes that messages have an inherent power (their 'meaning'). In order to be effective communicators - the theory goes - we first have to craft our message as carefully as we can, so as to maximise our 'impact' on the listener.
"Having created our message, we now choose a medium for injecting it into the mind of the other person. The medium we choose is the equivalent of a hypodermic syringe or even a gun: we load our message - like a drug or a bullet - into the medium and then inject it via the eye or the ear - or preferably both. At that point, we've done all we can. The drug entering the mind of the other person, will now do its magic work. It will cause that person to think what we want them to think, to feel what we want them to feel or, if it's a really powerful message, it might even get them to do what we want them to do." ... Hugh McKay - The Good Listener
Does this sound familiar? The basic assumption is that the person to whom we are speaking can only interpret our message in one way. The way we have spoken and intend it. The idea is that if people do not get our message the first time, we inject them again and so on. This way of communicating pays no attention to how the message might be received and so more often than not it does not get the desired result.
If we approach communicating from the basis of coordinating and relating with each other, we believe there is a completely different outcome. In order to communicate in these circumstances, we need to be aware of the other person and how they will receive our message. In other words, we need to converse with them from the perspective of their listening. How will they interpret what we say? This places a very different perspective on what we say and how we say it. We need to be aware of how our message will be received. Rather than the emphasis being on the speaker it now sits with the listener and how they interpret the message. This change in emphasis leads to very different requirements if we wish to communicate effectively.
We have a saying, "we say what we say and you listen to what you listen to." In other words, what you interpret me to have said may not be what I believe I have said. The key to this is lies in how we listen and that is the basis of our next article in this series.
© 1999 Chris Chittenden