How to Be a Better Communicator
At the outset, we must recognize that
communication is a complicated two-way process. It takes place when one individual
transmits ideas (or feelings) to another individual - or group of individuals.
The effectiveness with which this process is carried out can be measured by analyzing the similarity between the message when it was initiated and when it was received.
Communication is the tool management uses to get things done. Without it, a manager is as ineffectual as a carpenter without his kit of tools. While it is a management skill, communication is also an essential part of all other management skills. After a manager has established organizational goals, developed reasonable forecasts, made plans, established the organizational structure, and acquired personnel needed, nothing happens if he is unable to communicate effectively with his people. The degree of success in accomplishing missions of the organization depends upon the clarity of his statement of the roles and missions - upon his skill in transferring the concept to others in the organization. The manager must communicate the content of his message, and convey a positive attitude to those who receive it.
Communication has been described by some as an atmosphere. If the atmosphere is not favorable, misunderstandings occur and inefficiency or even failure results. The best advice one can give to a manager, who wishes to create a receptive atmosphere, is to suggest that he speak or write as he would like to be spoken or written to.
In our daily lives, we play the roles of transmitter (source of the message) and receiver over and over. We are judged by the way we transmit - by speaking or writing - the message and by the way we listen to it or assimilate what we read. The effective manager, through skill in communications, can lead the members of his organization to play their necessary roles.
This chapter, devoted to communicating effectively, will cover oral (listening) and written (reading) input, as well as oral (speaking) and written (writing) output. Of course, there are also hybrid inputs and outputs that should be recognized. A written input is received aurally when someone reads aloud to us. The converse of this is when we receive the oral output of written material, such as when a speaker "reads" his paper.
One of the most useful hybrids is the oral production of written material, commonly referred to as "dictation."
The Transmitter and the Message
The transmitter of the message starts the communication process by deciding what information to communicate to others. It is his responsibility to ensure that the information to be transmitted is correct and objective. First, he composes the message in his mind, based on past experience. Next, he organizes it in a logical sequence so the receiver will understand it easily and not get a distorted message. Before proceeding, however, he makes an estimate of the knowledge the receiver has of the subject so that he can convey it in terms most understandable to the receiver. Finally, he selects the best method for transmitting the message.
Transmittal of the Message
The message can be transmitted orally; in writing; by "body language," as with gestures or expressions; or by a combination of spoken words and bodily actions.
The best means to transmit the message usually depends upon the situation at any given time. For example, a manager with a widely dispersed organization would probably communicate in writing, whereas the manager of a small office might communicate orally with his staff.
The message, its composition, and the means of transmittal are critical to success in the communication process. The receiver of the message must be able to understand and "decode it." If the receiver does not pay proper attention to the message, the information can become distorted. The receiver can guard against such distortion by being objective in his interpretation of what he receives.
The problems of transmitting a message from manager to subordinates, and of their forwarding it to others without distortion, is clearly illustrated in this story that made the rounds several years ago. The author and title are unknown, but for illustrative purposes it can be identified as "Operation Halley's Comet."
A colonel issues the following directive to his executive officer: Tomorrow evening, approximately 2000 hours Halleys Comet will be visible in this area, an event that occurs only once every 75 years. Have the men fall out in the battalion area in fatigues, and I will explain this rare phenomenon to them. If it rains, we will not be able to see it. In that case, assemble the men in the theater and I will show them films of it.
Executive officer to company commander: By order of the colonel tomorrow at 2000 hours, Halley's Comet will appear above the battalion area. If it rains, have the men fall out in fatigues and march to the theater where this rare phenomenon will take place, something that occurs only once every 75 years.
Company commander to lieutenant: By order of the colonel in fatigues, at 2000 hours tomorrow evening the phenomenal Halley's Comet will appear in the theater. If it rains in the battalion area, the colonel will give another order, something that occurs only once every 75 years.
Lieutenant to sergeant: Tomorrow at 2000 hours, the colonel will appear in fatigues in the theater with Halley's Comet, something that occurs every 75 years. If it rains, the colonel will order the comet into the battalion area.
Sergeant to squad: When it rains tomorrow at 2000 hours, the phenomenal 75-year-old General Halley, accompanied by the colonel, will drive his Comet through the battalion area theater in fatigues.
This illustrates the distortion that can occur if a message is passed along verbally through many people. In this situation, the orders would have been clearer to those under the colonel's command if he had published the orders. They could then have been read directly - and without interpretation - by all who had a need to know.
Feedback is a very important part of the communication process. It becomes the transmitter's knowledge of the results or effect of his message on the receiver. In short, feedback is reaction. For example, when a manager tells a subordinate about a recent briefing at higher headquarters, he expects to see some kind of reaction to what he's saying. In the foregoing story, the colonel directed that something be done. He expected to see his order carried out.
Feedback is usually achieved in two-way communications; however, it can be blocked by absence of direct face-to-face communication with the ultimate receiver of the message - as in the story - or by distance, when a written or recorded message must be sent. Communications are improved when the originator of the message receives immediate feedback.
Where Does One Start?
Where does the manager start the process of improving his communicating skills? The answer should be based upon an evaluation of his present abilities and current needs. By what method does he communicate most often? Is it by speaking, writing, reading, or listening? Students of the art of communication say that most of us want to learn to write better and we fail to realize how poorly we listen. Toastmaster clubs are popular with those who wish to improve their speaking abilities, and speed-reading courses have received much attention in the past few years.
Let's consider briefly the various forms of communication:
Speaking is a natural communication skill; however, public speaking is not. We can improve our public speaking ability by studying the techniques of successful speakers and by experience. Unfortunately for most of us, there are fewer opportunities to speak publicly than to write. If we are really serious about improving our abilities as speakers, we must earnestly seek opportunities to speak. Speaking before small groups provides us with a fine opportunity to practice basic techniques.
Writing tends to be an artificial communication skill. It requires more human effort than speaking. As with public speaking we can improve this skill by practice. We don't learn to write better by reading about how to do it, but improve our writing ability almost every time we prepare a document, and improve quickly if we make a conscious effort to do so.
Reading is also a communications skill that can be improved by practice. Few of us read as rapidly as we are potentially capable of doing. There are many opportunities every day to develop this communication skill. Tried and tested speed-reading courses are available in most areas of the country for those who wish to learn this technique.
Listening is probably the most important aspect of the communication process; however, it is usually our most neglected communication skill. This skill consists of a complex interrelation of hearing, analysis, understanding, and retention.
Although it may be true that effective listening is difficult to learn, we all have plenty of opportunities to do so!
Kinds of Information People Need
To function effectively on the job, we generally need four kinds of information:
How well this information is communicated to and between employees in an organization, as well as to and from sources outside the organization, becomes one of the measures of successful operation of that organization.
There are three barriers to conveying information effectively to people who need it: lack of a common core of experience between the transmitter and receiver of the message, failure of the transmitter to clearly distinguish between symbols and the things they symbolize, and the overuse of abstractions in the message by the transmitter.
Communication is most effective when the experiences of the originator of the message and the one to whom it is directed are similar. Words do not transport meanings from speaker to listener-or from writer to reader - in the same way that a truckload of cattle is transported from the range to the stockyards. In fact, words never carry precisely the same meaning from the mind of the transmitter of the message to the mind of the receiver. The words used in a communication- spoken or written - simply serve as stimuli to generate a response from the recipient. The nature of that response is conditioned by the past experience of the one receiving the stimuli. When the receiver's experience is similar to that of the initiator of the communication, the words will probably convey the message intended to the listener or reader.
Words represent, or correspond to, something that exists - or that is experienced - or that people talk about. There is nothing in our language that prevents words from being used in any way intended by the speaker or writer. Actually, words and reality may be quite different, but we often fail to make the necessary distinction between the two. We must realize that if we are to communicate effectively, we must make a concerted effort in our communications not to confuse symbols with the things they symbolize; i.e., we must ensure that the two are kept in their true perspectives.
Abstract words are necessary and useful in the communication process. They serve well as shorthand expressions for summing up vast areas of experience. However, abstract words never convey specific ideas or thoughts to the receiver of the message. On the other hand, concrete words refer to objects or things the receiver can experience directly. When concrete words are used, the transmitter has better control of the image produced in the mind of the recipient of the message.
In his role as leader and transmitter of messages, it is the duty of the manager to be aware of the cardinal elements of the communication process, the relationships between them, and the inherent barriers to effective transmittal of ideas and - feelings. In essence, the effectiveness of the communication process rests in a large measure - with the participant's basic understanding of it.
We have seen that the communications process is composed of three parts: (1) the transmitter (source) of the information, (2) the receiver of the information, and (3) the receiver's understanding of the information received. Information is transmitted from the source to the receiver, who interprets what he has heard or read. The better the process of transmission, the better the chances are that the message will be interpreted as the originator intended.
The ability of a manager to communicate up and down the line (vertically) as well as across organizational lines (horizontally) is an important element of his success. Keith Davis has said that "the only way that management can be achieved in an organization is through the process of communication."
Unfortunately, too often the message actually communicated, and the effect it has, is not what the sender intended. Also, information, when transmitted through one or more persons or organizations before reaching the ultimate receiver, will probably be altered - not intentionally in most cases - by those in the receiving (transmittal) line. In the final analysis, what the ultimate receiver understands to be his basis for action becomes the real measure of management's success in transmitting the message.
In summary, communication within any organization is a complex process. Good managers soon discover it is only partly manageable. Furthermore, no manager can control the source of every communication or distortions in the messages conveyed through his organization. However, every manager has a personal obligation, and must encourage his subordinates, to give thoughtful consideration to the messages generated within or passing through the organization.
An old German proverb states, "A man is seldom better than his conversation." It might be rephrased to say, "A man is seldom better than his prowess in communication." Do you get the message?