Fundamentals of Communication


Last weekend was a bank holiday in the UK and for once the weather was actually decent. So I decided to have a relaxing day in the park with a couple of books; one of them explaining how to do storytelling with data. On the very first page, it says “Nobody sets out to make a bad graph. But it happens. Again and again.”. It made me smile because I can only agree. Not just when it comes to graphs but in reality to anything. Graphs, marketing emails, meeting with your manager or a conversation with your dad. Just simply change ‘graph’ from the quote above with any of the examples it still applies.

People that know me well know that I am a nerd when it comes to communication. Not referring to spelling or where to set the comma. I am a nerd when it comes to the concept of communication. I see that communication is often off and I can’t help think ‘why’ and ‘how can it be improved’? The thing is communication is so easy, I open my mouth and talk or I can start typing out an email or text. I think you get the point. But because it’s so easy we never really think of the mechanics of communicating and in my experience, we make the assumption that ‘because I understand it, everybody else understands it too’. I’ve certainly made that mistake when it comes to dashboards or simple conversations with friends and family. I communicated from my own point of view.

The Mechanics

When I took my BA in communication I used to think ‘how can we have so many subjects when it’s all based on the same concept, the same model’? Now with my practical work experience, I get it. Anyway, let’s have a look at the model.

There are many different versions but the one above have the basics and then a little more. You have a sender that sends a message to a receiver using some channel to carry the message and finally, some feedback is given back to the sender. This whole process can be disturbed by any given noise. Okay, so what does all this mean? I (sender) want to let my sales manager (receiver) know the won opportunity deals for this quarter (message) in a dashboard (channel). My dashboard might contain 50 graphs along with one graph that is my won opportunity deals for this quarter, those 50 graphs could be noise in getting the intended message across.

And So What?

Understanding the mechanics of communication you also understand that not all of the components are set in stone and out of your control. Using the example from before the sender, receiver and message might be set, but is the channel and the noise? Maybe I could remove some of the graphs on the dashboard or maybe I take a snapshot of the specific opportunity chart and add it to chatter tagging the sales manager. My point is when we communicate and identify the different components as wells as how they fit together we tend to be more successful.

Changing Viewpoint

In the first section, I wrote ‘I communicated from my own point of view’. In my experience that is where I and most other people go wrong in terms of communication. Since communication is so easy we often make the assumption that other people will decode a message the same way we would or prefer the same channel as we do. The fact is that is rarely the case. We are all unique and our experiences make up how we decode messages and how we want to be communicated to. Have you ever wondered why one of your colleagues never reply to your emails but are quick on what’s app? We have our preferences for communication channels and if you really want something from your colleague then you better find out which one they prefer.

But Wait a Minute!

Just because your colleague prefers what’s app over email doesn’t mean you should go ahead and use what’s app for every single message. Some messages simply don’t work with a written channel. Some might carry a sensitive message that should be delivered in person, where the feedback to the message can be decoded effectively. Perhaps your colleague handled a project poorly and you want to tell them “you screwed up”. Maybe you colleague was already feeling bad about the situation and upon receiving a text message with “you screwed up” transfer their feelings into the message and think you are thoroughly angry. In a face to face situation, you have a better chance of picking up on those cues and make sure the message is conveyed as intended. And maybe you meant to say “you screwed up” with a smile, which isn’t being transferred in a text message either.

Things to Keep in Mind

As said before the mechanics of communication is simple but not easy to master. Even though I studied communication and even have a degree in it I fail over and over again. Every time I fail I try to break the communication apart and understand where did it go wrong so I can improve the next time. It takes time to get it right and maybe we never truly do, nevertheless, I have one thing I always try to keep in mind: who am I communicating with, who is the receiver? If I know that I can start to optimize the communication based on what I know of them; based on the message I can optimize the channel and how I structure the message to be perceived as intended. This is regardless of day to day communication, designing a dashboard for a group of users or sending an email to customers.

If you don’t know how your friend or colleague wants to be communicated with then pay attention to how they communicate. Chances are that they are communicating from their own viewpoint and they have not yet adapted to your preferred communication style.

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