Why is communication so hard?
— September 23rd, 2020
Why is it that, what we mean to communicate, sometimes misses the mark? The message is not believed, not understood, and maybe dismissed altogether? Even worse, what if your message causes someone harm, distress, or offense?
When people are bombarded with so much information, it essential we make sure that our communication gets the impact we intended. But that is hard. Why?
Well to answer this we need to go back to the core of what communication is all about in the first place.
With any communication, there is a difference between intentions and impact.
- The sender of the message has an intention
- This is sent through a message
- The message is received and has an impact
Simple right? If only it was that easy.
Context is everything, context decides meaning
For the sender, the intention is clear. These often come from an understanding of things that are ‘obvious’ to us, completely clear and logical.
“Obviously, we won’t be able to compete in the market if costs keep rising, so we will need to make cuts somewhere”. Or “Clearly, the old process is holding us back, we need to be more agile and change to a more customer-focused process.” Or “Of course, we hire and promote people from all backgrounds.”
How to communicate change during difficult times
Any of these messages could be sent and received into a context where they do not carry the same ‘obvious’ understandings that exist for the sender. The message will have a completely different meaning in a different context.
The supplier who already put her price down for you twice, the seasoned engineer who trained the team on how to use the software he wrote, and the best leader on your team who is more introverted than the rest of the management team, doesn’t always come to the work party, and was passed by again for that promotion.
My intentions are about me, the meaning I place on my communication, and the way I choose to express that meaning. Because intentions are so subjective, they can be misunderstood if they are not made clear.
Even the best of intentions can have disastrous effects. I shared in a blog about the impact of an unintended micro-aggression I had at school… read it here.
This story relates to a racial micro-aggression, but you can think about intent and impact in terms of any communication.
To be effective in your communication, it is vital that we have a rich understanding of the receiver’s perspective; your audience. Switch from thinking about your own intentions to creating a shared understanding.
The impact of our communication is judged by how that message is received on the other end; “Do people know, feel and do; what you wanted them to know, feel and do?” Do they share the understanding you have?
This makes me think of the 1986 movie ‘The fly’. An eccentric scientist builds a teleportation machine and attempts to send himself through the transmission booth to the other side of the lab to another booth. Without him knowing a fly sneaks in and he is teleported as part man, part fly. Obviously not his intention!
It is not your job as the sender of the message to justify your intention.
“But I didn’t mean it like that” or “You are taking this the wrong way”.
If you caused unintended harm, justifying, and defending your intentions can make it worse. It takes focus away from the harm done by the message.
If a waiter is handing out menus and reaches over the table but knocks a glass of red wine into a customer’s lap – it is not important for him to explain, that he could not reach and didn’t see the glass. It is important to acknowledge the damage done, apologize, and seek to make the customer feel better.
A keen focus on your audience’s perspective is the key to communicating well. Early in my training to write good content, I learned that the first thing you write is ‘TOM’ on the top of your page.
- Target Audience – What do you know about the audience? Who are they and what is the context for them?
- Objective – What is your intention and need to communicate?
- Message – What are the key messages you need to the audience to receive?
You communicating all the time
Senior leaders and communication professionals are communicating in a steady stream to their organizations and teams. Along with the content of the messages, the words, sounds, and pictures we are also sharing clues to our own context, our view of the world.
Sentiments, assumptions, judgments are all leaking out even if you don’t spell them out. ‘Deadline urgency’, ‘fitting in with corporate strategy and vision’ ‘fear of failure’ ‘fear of disagreeing’.
These are ‘flies’ in your teleportation booth.
‘I am not here to be right. I am here to get it right’ – Dr Brene Brown
This quote from Brene resonates with me because it reminds me that we can get caught up in our own world.
Sometimes we are so busy trying to be right, moral, and good, because we have learned through experience that we will be successful if we are right.
We get gold stars on our sweaters to take home and show our parents, we get the get high grades and the promotions.
But we will need the same passion to get it right. If we do the right thing by the people we communicate with we can have more meaningful relationships and better human connection because our communication actually gets the right impact, the impact we intended.
Here are three tips to help you to get the impact you intended:
Get to know your audience with genuine curiosity
Get to know about the context for the receiver of your communication before you send anything. Acknowledge the experiences and viewpoints of your audience. What experiences do they have, what are the sentiments, assumptions, and judgments that they have? You may have a different understanding, but you still acknowledge a different experience. Remain curious.
Make your intentions and objectives noticeably clear. Make time to think about the impact and outcome you are looking for: What is the meaning we want the receiver to experience? How do you want them to feel? What do they need to do? How is that different to what they feel now, and what they do now?
And then check, how was the message was received. How do you know the impact of your communication? Well, check, ask, and find out.
Listen – Reflect – Respond
Start with an open-ended question and then listen. Notice and stay open to hearing how they received and perceived your communication. The reason for you to listen is simply to better understand. Listen to learn which messages resonate, and which don’t. Make sure listening opportunities are safe; small, informal, humble, and maybe even anonymous.
Reflect with empathy – let it sink in and respond appropriately, apologize when needed, and make changes. Learn for the next communication.
When we communicate, we may not see what others see, but we can have more conversations to learn more.
If we all had the same experiences, we still would not have the same values, beliefs, and attributes. But when you appreciate the uniqueness of every human's view of the world, you can see why good intentions are not enough.
The more you listen, the better you can understand and avoid the gap between intent and impact.