The Power of Good Communication


Aquarium-phone-booth-2

I have maintained for a long time that sometimes the biggest problem for organizations and individuals, the reason why they get in trouble or don't get the results they were hoping for, is poor communication. Which in turn means inability to get their messages across, and potentially make connections.

There is a misunderstanding about communication that needs clearing — it's not about merely creating messages and sending them out. If you look up the definition of communication in any dictionary, you will find a version of the following:

Two-way process of reaching mutual understanding, in which participants not only exchange (encode-decode) information but also create and share meaning.

Two-way process

It was not an invention of social media tools. They just provided more of the people who had been on the receiving end of messages with the ability to talk back publicly. In news media, for example, you had the letters to the editor, which went through a selection process and were published after a long wait. Inside organizations, you had employee suggestion boxes, and the awkward talking through management channels.

With more accounts being opened and staffed in social media, more organization representatives and individuals should experience talking with the people formerly known as the audience more regularly.

Mutual understanding

Reaching a mutual understanding takes some skill, starting with wanting to do it. For this one, I'd like to remind you of what Theodore Roosevelt said on leadership, because that's where the rubber meets the road on meaning.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

The ambition of every great communicator is reaching the moment when the connection is made between what is intended, and what is received.

Creating and sharing meaning

Exchanging information is fine, participating in the knowledge flow and having a voice, that's all good. It isn't until meaning is created and shared that communication goes from poor — should we say average? — to good.

You can see how communication is the biggest advantage — when it's executed properly, it allows for individuals and organizations to participate in the meaning-creation business. New media tools are offering this opportunity with increasing frequency.

Which is why it's puzzling how many organizations would approach it with a mass media mindset that demands follower and friend growth so messages could be spread; individuals also often approach it with a collection mindset, no matter where they sit on the Forrester Social Technographics ladder.

In a world where tools are increasingly taking attention away from where the real action is — people processing information, learning, and connecting — good communication is there to give people on both sides of the conversation a voice.

Simple, however, doesn't always mean easy to do.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for organizations in distinguishing between poor and good communication?

[image of The Aquarium, street art installation for the 2009 Lyon Light Festival, Lyon, France.]

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0 responses to “The Power of Good Communication”

  1. Hi Valeria,
    I like your thoughts here. I think the biggest obstacle to communication in organizations is probably two-fold.
    First, it’s a matter of understanding what communication is and what it can accomplish. Some people don’t have patience for dictionary definitions being included in presentations or blogs, but the way you did here is important. Most people don’t appreciate the inherent two-way quality to communication, and stopping a moment to appreciate that basic fact is important to understanding how to harness it.
    Second, I believe it’s a cultural matter for organizations. The fact is that management sets the tone for his/her organization – not always easy in a matrix environment, but it still holds true. I work on a team led by an exceptional leader, which I attribute in part to her communications skills. She believes that many workplace issues are a matter of communications and she encourages a process of conflict resolution that she calls “Air and Repair.” I’ve seen it work well multiple times because both parties usually uncover assumptions made that were based on a lack of communication. Once the parties recognize the root cause and see where things went awry, they have a shared vested interest in moving forward and not letting the communication lapse happen again. Of course, it relates to the “mutual understanding” part of what you laid out.
    I have a background in telecom and when I encounter someone that is difficult to communicate with, I say that “their transmitter is jamming their receiver.” Some people become like that because of the culture in which they spend much of their workday. My brother is a medical doctor and he refers to it as “doctor mode,” because in a clinical setting it’s the responsibility for the doctor to establish the diagnosis, dictate the treatment plan and then oversee its execution. The patient often can have no knowledge of medicine, and very few clinical settings allow the nurses or technicians to question the doctor. So that individual can get used to interacting on a one-way basis with others and be stuck in “doctor mode” outside the hospital.
    Thanks!
    JB

  2. Great post. I am not sure great “connection” needs to be two-way. I have connected with authors who have been rotting in a grave somewhere. Why? Because through their writing they connected with me. Great connection happens because you enter my story. I don’t necessarily need to have dialogue with you but don’t just transfer information. Build some value into my life. Through this post u did just that. Thx.

  3. I often wonder if the use of email is more of a barrier to good communication versus an enabler of it (especially in large organizations). Mutual understanding is sacrificed at the expense of email’s immediacy and convenience. I work in a large company on projects with multiple stakeholders, and there are times when I should have picked up the phone (remember that ancient communication tool) or forced team members to get on a conference call. Ensuring you capture the collective context of everyone’s viewpoints is what helps me come to a mutual understanding (and hopefully my colleagues as well). But you’re absolutely right that simple isn’t always easy to do. Time commitments, travel schedules, and other big company stuff force me to work very hard at my communications daily. And by my own admission, just because I work hard at it, doesn’t mean I always succeed.

  4. As someone who works in the world of content strategy and content creation, I’ll toss in these common barriers to good communication:
    What a company wants to communicate and what the audience/customer wants to hear are not always one and the same. A mission statement may mean a lot to an organization – or at least to the bigwigs who like to fly it like a flag – but to the customer, maybe not so much. The customer wants to know what the company can do for them. It’s the ol’ “What’s in it for me?” Plain and simple.
    Which brings up another barrier. Corporate communication is often too in love with meaningless phrases and lofty words. Years ago I worked at a company that prided itself in being “a leading internet solutions provider.” This was a common phrase at the time, and then as now, it’s so non-specific as to be meaningless. Along these same lines business communications often use impressive sounding and/or multi-syllable words that only make sense to a small number of technical individuals or industry insiders. The company may think this type of communication is an indicator of expertise, but really, it just shuts out a big portion of the potential audience. Rather than sparking two-way communication, they’re just talking amongst themselves.
    Meanwhile, bravo to Jack’s point about email and how it can hinder collective context when working on a team project. Real conversation can often clear away the clutter, and potential misunderstanding, in a most expedient way.

  5. First of all, I love the Teddy Roosevelt quote; it has always been a favorite.
    I think I would add something, not to keep dogging on corporations, but a challenge I have noticed is closure. I have experienced customer service via twitter and email and on a number of occasions, the corporation, did not close the conversation and left me hanging. I have seen this in other’s online communications- not completing a threaded conversation on twitter, or not responding on a forum such as Get Satisfaction. Shared meaning probably could be broken down into several parts with closure being the last part 😉
    Thanks for another thought provoking post Valeria!

  6. @John – we are in a service and experience economy. Communication skills should be dial tone, required, just like reading skills. We should have no patience with people who don’t understand and work to bridge that gap. We should not include definitions in PowerPoint decks, we should *live* those principles in the way we interact and work. It’s 2010 for crying out loud. We sent people to the moon. We can do this. Perhaps the “doctor mode” is a symptom for what is expected: everyone behaves that way because it doesn’t occur to people that they can and need to take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for evolving with what situations require. Indeed, listening is a big part of the communication exchange.
    @Jack – connection can be a domino effect to form a chain for shared meaning to be part of the equation. You read an author who inspires you, do something differently because of that, and someone else benefits from it. This is shared meaning, even if distributed. The two-way part in communication is you reading, the author sharing, someone else listening to you.
    @Tony – people think they are having a conversation by email when often they are using it to lop something over the wall, or as CYA tool. As you pointed out, immediate satisfies a short term, unilateral, criterion. “And by my own admission, just because I work hard at it, doesn’t mean I always succeed.” bravo!
    @Deni – corporate communication is often too in love with itself to want to notice it’s talking all over itself. Mission and vision statements mean nothing if they are not lived through each action. Same with branding. So yes, there is often a disconnect.
    @Deb – excellent point. Your customers do not see you nodding your head inside an office building. Tell them what you just did, or what you are going to do, then confirm you have done that. It’s like the *photo opp*, when people want to show off to the boss that they’ve done something, just more public 😉

  7. There is a third aspect to communciation that has nothing to do with information or meaning but with feeling.
    I believe we always communicate our virtue (whether we are aware or not and whether the other notices or not).
    My tip is that very little (if anything) of what you say is remembered within an hour. But how you made them feel (our virtue) is held as a body memory for a long time. What’s more you’ll know from their face how you made them feel the next time you meet (if they haven’t avoided you). A warm smile and you can talk, a big hug and you discuss just about anything.
    Peter

  8. You are correct. Simple is not always easy. It takes two to communicate: a Sender who is aware of who they are communicating with and how to communicate best with the Receiver and in turn the Receiver who is open to that communication and is aware of whom they are sending and receiving communications with. It’s work but if you get it right and spend time understanding the process, the rest will come much easier.

  9. @Peter – I think of feeling as the subtext. One thing I didn’t cover in the post is that for the message to be carried across, event in the presence of good subtext, there needs to be repetition. Because all the while, communicators are contending with the voices in the heads of the people they are speaking with. You get a hug from me.
    @Brenna – when I studied neurological development, I learned that conversation can and does alter the brain. It would be nice if it could also help change our mind, even just a little.

  10. The real challenge can be in people not wanting to “communicate” properly in first place. Sometimes it’s the employees who are happy the way it is, taking work as a chore (and I’ve seen so many situations of this kind) and not encouraging the sharing of ideas at all.
    And sometimes the problem lays in the management, not enabling people to communicate at their best, not just ’cause of a lack of tools, but mainly ’cause of a lack of positive mindset.

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