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Communication is harder than you think

March 31, 2009

TelegraphCommunication, what does that really mean?  Conveying ideas, opinions, directions to another person.  That sounds like a good starting point to me.  Two people talking to each other, or is it?  Communication has been possible in many forms throughout history.  Cavemen writing on cave walls, lighting fires on watch towers to send a danger signal faster than any enemy could travel, music, and finally the written word.  All of these serve a single purpose, to transfer a message to another person.  Other differences can be identified between transfers that occur on a one to one format, and others that occur in a one to many format.

New forms of communication spring up every day, but none of them serve any kind of new purpose.  They all fulfill the same function, just in a new way.  Blogs are a one to many form of communication, just like newspapers or the pictures on a cave wall.  They intend to take the thoughts of one person and make them available for others.  New technology simply broadens the audience and shortens the delivery time.  Email is a letter that you can send without the latency of the post office, and with the added ability of being able to send to multiple recipients.

So with all these advances in technology giving us newer and newer forms of communication, why is it still so hard?  Why do people still so often misunderstand what we are trying to say?  It would seem that as communication gets easier, understanding what is meant gets harder.  Why is that?

Perhaps as the cost of communication approaches zero, so does our respect for it.  For example sending a telegraph in the early 1900’s was not easy and probably not cheap.  When somebody wanted to send one, I would presume they would put quite a lot of thought in to the words they used because they were doing something important.  Specifically, they would not be taking what they were doing for granted.

Today, it’s quite easy to take communication for granted.  If I want to send an email to another person, I don’t think twice about it.  I just quickly type out what I want to say and fire it off at little or no cost to me personally.  This blog post itself is being made at little cost to myself, although with more thought being put in than the average email would receive.

So why do we take easy forms of communication for granted?  It could simply be a matter of quantity over quality.  With the amount of communication we have to deal with every day, we simply don’t have time to give each individual communication event during our day as much attention as we’d like to.  Imagine how much time it would take if you put enough thought in to each communication you had every day to carefully pick your words and do everything you could to ensure your message was transmitted clearly.  My guess is you wouldn’t have time for anything else.

What can you do to help mitigate these issues?  The first thing you need to realize is that “perception is reality”.  It doesn’t matter what message you intend to convey, the only thing that matters is what message is received.  If you realize that, you are well on your way to improving your communication skills.  It is important to think about how others are going to interpret what you are saying.  There are a few things you can do that aren’t very hard.  Firstly try to focus on quality instead of quantity.  Pick the most important communications to participate in and make sure you take the time to think about what you are saying with special attention paid to what the receiving parties will be likely to interpret it as.  Second, prefer methods of expression that include multiple simultaneous messages.  When you send an email, you are sending only a single message, the message contained in the words.  When you talk to a person face to face, you are sending the message in the words as well as the message included in your tone, body language, volume, etc.  The more streams you can send your message in, the less likely the message will be interpreted incorrectly.

The next time you are communicating with somebody, think about the message you’re sending, and do what you can to make sure it is received as you intended it.  You might be surprised how big of a difference it will make.

I welcome any discussion on this topic as it’s of great interest to me, and one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

By: Chris Dagenais

  1. Brett McClelland
    April 1, 2009 at 9:49 AM

    Excellent post. I agree entirely that communication is largely taken for granted in this day and age. People talk about how easy, fast and convenient things like text messaging are, but if I were to actually tally up the time I’ve spent clearing up miscommunications and misunderstandings caused because of communicating solely via text (email, text messaging, MSN, etc.), the resulting figures would be staggering.

  2. jtownley
    April 1, 2009 at 11:08 AM

    As a business analyst I consider it my job to be focused on communication. But even using communication skills regularly it is still easy to have miscommunications.
    For me, I try to use a few tricks to help me communicate more effectively. For example, I use the whiteboard as people are talking to summarize their points or draw a picture of their idea. I repeat their ideas back in my own words to ensure my understanding. But these are face to face activities when we hit email and MSN everything changes and communication gets much more difficult (so much for technology).

  3. mdchris
    April 1, 2009 at 1:06 PM

    I think a lot of the issue is choosing a communication medium that is convenient instead of one that is appropriate. For discussions where the level of clarity and shared understanding is quite high, a medium such as email or instant messaging is likely not appropriate, where as coordinating what time to meet for lunch, or sending a project status update may be appropriate for those mediums.

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