The ability to communicate effectively is one of the most essential skills in business, and in life in general. Although communication methods have evolved and we have all sorts of technical tools to help us, there are still times when communication gaps occur. Even with email, voice mail, texting, and video chat, our messages don’t always get across as intended. Why is that? It’s often because a key element in the transfer of information is missing. That gap might be the result of a misperception, an incorrect assumption, or something in the transfer that got “lost in translation.”
I like to use the analogy of communication between two people as a rope, as described by the author Allison Hoover Bartlett in the following quote:
I began to see language less as a bridge between people than as a threadbare rope tossed from one edge of a precipice to open hands at another.
This concept describes how precarious the communication process can be. The threadbare rope represents how fragile it can be, and the distance between the precipices represents the gap or potential for misunderstanding. To strengthen the rope and bridge that gap, there are some basic elements, or steps, that can be taken. We often employ these steps instinctively without even thinking. In fact, we’re frequently successful in getting our message across precisely because we use them, even if unconsciously.
There are times when line of communication is fragile (“threadbare”) and steps are missed. It’s at those times that a gap in communication most frequently occurs. If you’ve ever been involved in a communication situation where things went poorly, it may have been because of a threadbare rope. Here are seven steps that can help strengthen the transfer of information and prevent communication gaps.
When we communicate with others, we bear much of the responsibility for whether or not the message actually gets there as intended. Focusing on the audience before sending a message makes us consider the receptivity of the audience ahead of construction and transmission. In a face-to-face conversation, this might only take a few seconds of thought. In an email communication, it could mean being very clear on what we need to convey to the reader and considering how they’re likely to interpret it before we ever start typing. This sounds like common sense, but when people are pressed for time, they run the risk of pushing a message out while it’s still being formulated. If you’ve ever blasted an email out to someone and then had regrets, you probably realized that you weren’t as focused as you could have been when you hit send.
Frame the Message
This is extremely important, though it’s not performed as often as you might expect. Framing the message consists of simply stating upfront what you want to talk about and why. In an email message, it could be a clear subject line. In a face-to-face conversation, it could be telling the other person what the topic is and why you want to discuss it. Framing can crystallize the topic and set the table for the discussion. I once had someone rush into my office, informing me that the hardware problem from the previous night had been resolved. I knew we had a failing component in our server environment, so I was happy to get the update. In reality, they were referring to an entirely different problem, one I had yet to hear about. Because they didn’t frame their message properly, specifying the component, I completely misinterpreted the topic and made an incorrect assumption. This resulted in confusion and miscommunication that was later cleared up, but it caused inefficiency and a bit of embarrassment.
"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place." — George Bernard Shaw
These types of misunderstandings are frequently used in sitcoms, where confusion creates calamity. It might be funny in a sitcom, but it’s generally best to avoid calamity in real life. In our busy roles, we are typically juggling many issues and projects simultaneously, so it helps to get the topic straight at the outset.
Use Appropriate Volume
The number, or volume, of words used to deliver a message can have a big impact on how well it’s received. If you’ve ever attempted a conversation with a teenager who was reluctant to talk, you likely received too few words and very little information. Conversely, you can probably recall a situation where someone used so many words to express themselves that you had difficulty sifting through them to understand the point they were making. In that case, you may have tuned out at a certain point or became overwhelmed and missed the point of their message. Balancing the volume of information you send—providing just enough information while not being verbose—takes skill, but it can go a long way toward preventing gaps.
The Cuban proverb, “Every head is a world,” speaks to the fact that we all have different sets of information and understanding because we all have varied experiences and knowledge. When explaining something to another person, you can’t assume they know everything you know. This is especially important when the people involved have dissimilar levels of technical experience or aren’t working in the same field. If you’ve ever tried to teach a nontechnical person how to use a laptop or a smartphone, you know that you can’t assume they’ll understand your instructions without extra help. To avoid these gaps, you need to drop down to “meet them where they are,” rather than assuming they have a significant base of knowledge. In fact, you may need to establish what their knowledge is on the subject or concept before diving into any of the details.
Check for Comprehension
Even when you think you’ve communicated brilliantly, it’s possible your recipient got lost some where along the way. The fact is, some people don’t want to look dumb or ignorant, so they may pretend they understand when they’re actually completely lost. You may have used a term, acronym, or concept with which they were unfamiliar. If they’re pretending to follow you, they might need to be prompted to acknowledge a gap. In a verbal conversation, you can often read their body language to sense a change in their receptivity. The easiest approach is to stop at certain intervals in the conversation and simply ask if they understand. In an email exchange, you can check for comprehension by stating, “If you have any questions, please let me know.” This opens the door for them to let you know if any gap exists, and it tells them that it’s okay to seek clarification. It also lets them know that you care that they got the message.
Use the Right Medium
There are so many ways we can communicate with each other, and many of them work well when applied appropriately. However, using the wrong medium in a given situation can lead to miscommunication, confusion, or even damaged relationships. For example, email is a fine choice for an asynchronous message that is easy to understand, but if you’ve ever used sarcasm or dry humor in an email message, you probably know how easily it can be misconstrued. Electronic messages, like email or instant messaging, lack the tone and inflection of the human voice, so sarcasm and humor often don’t translate well. There are times when a long email can seem like a good idea, but with no feedback mechanism during delivery, it’s hard to even know if the person will read the whole thing.
If your day is fast-paced and pressure-filled, you know the importance of clear and timely communication.
Some messages, especially those requiring immediate feedback, are best delivered face to face. Sometimes, even a phone conversation can fall short, without the ability to see body language or facial expressions. The medium you choose will depend on how well you know the person, the urgency of the message, or the sensitivity of the subject matter. Before you act, consider your audience, the topic, the timing, and the dynamics involved so you can select the best medium for that particular situation.
Wrap It Up
George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.” There are times when you’ll have done everything in your power to get your message across clearly and a gap will still exists, even if you don’t realize it. This can be especially troubling. One way to avoid the illusion of communication is to end with a short summary. Repeating the main points, clarifying next steps, or reiterating any agreements made or implied is always a good idea. Following an email exchange, a brief statement that wraps everything up can be really helpful. Providing a simple summary takes little time, but it goes a long way toward making sure there is common understanding.
If your day is fast-paced and pressure-filled, you know the importance of clear and timely communication. By recognizing that the communication process can be fragile, we can choose to approach it proactively. Using the steps outlined in this article, or a subset of them, can prevent the faulty assumptions and misperceptions that often result in communications gaps. Avoiding information potholes by strengthening the rope ensures that our communication is transferred and interpreted as it was intended, and everybody wins when that happens.
George D’Iorio has held leadership positions in the IT industry for more than twenty-five years. He has extensive experience in systems engineering, software development, and service management, and he is considered to be an expert on professional development topics. George is a long-time member of the National Speaker’s Association, and he will be speaking on the power of positive influence at the HDI 2015 Conference & Expo in Las Vegas. He is currently the director of IT infrastructure at Martin’s Point Health Care in Portland, ME.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2015 must-read issue of SupportWorld.