One of our traditional movies to watch around this time of year is the revered "White Christmas" starring Bing Crosby and friends. For those unfamiliar with the story, things begin to go wrong when the nosy housekeeper eavesdrops on a conversation but only hears 1 side of the message. She draws her own conclusions and sets off a string of events which produces the main tension in the storyline. Since it's a movie, it all ends well and they live happily ever after. But the movie has supremely good examples of all kinds of problematic communication:
- misunderstanding what the other person said
- misunderstanding what the other person didn't say
- beating around the bush
- talking about two different things and missing one another
- bad assumptions
- and the list goes on
What is it about good communication that is so elusive?
My wife and I have been married for nearly 32 years. The assumption might be that we know each other well enough to not have too many misunderstandings. But that assumption would likely only be made by people who have not been married for 32 years. Misunderstanding finds creative ways of surviving even with the most well-intentioned communicators. Let's look at some of the barriers to smooth, clear communication and then see what we can do to knock them down. I'm going to focus on business communication, since this is a business blog, but I think much of this carries into personal communication with our families, friends, and other non-business relationships.
- Lack of responsiveness. Have you ever sent an email to a colleague asking them to do something and they never responded but went ahead and did the thing you asked to be done without telling you? No? Me neither. Actually, this happens a bit too frequently. I think it's actually more of a problem now in the digital age of electronic, written communication. When the telephone was the main way of communicating, the problems were different - unreturned calls, busy signals, no answers. But when you did have the conversation you knew the other person was on the phone and they gave you feedback - "Yep, got it, Charlie. I'll go change the temperature on that molding machine right away."
- Language. My wife and I are an international, bilingual couple. What I say can be misunderstood, and vice versa, simply because of a lack of fluency in the other's language. We have countless examples of this, and, fortunately, most of them are humorous rather than problematic. We have learned to ask politely what the other means when we are at all unclear. We've learned not to be put off by the other asking for clarity.
- Culture and usage. When we lived in the UK some years ago, I remember tasting something someone cooked and saying, "Mmm - this is quite good!" In my culture, this means that the food is very good. In the opinion of one of the persons in the room in the UK, however, it meant that the food was "almost" good. Not quite a compliment to the chef I'd intended! My wife laughs at some of the misunderstandings she's witnessed between people from varying Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. One great story was a gentleman from Mexico saying to some young ladies from Nicaragua what he intended to mean "we should go on the bus all together" and they heard "we should go on the bus naked!" Fortunately, one of the young ladies was wise enough to politely ask the gentleman, "what does the word <the word he used> mean in your country? He caught on immediately and apologized profusely.
- Laziness. We Americans are guilty of this. We use as few words as possible. Got it? Cool? Yep, got it. I have a son who regularly responds to my requests via text with a single letter: k. But he doesn't bother with the period afterwards. Now, texting is supposed to be as short as possible. I get that. But we do it in person as well. Especially when we're busy or distracted. Good communication is made with complete attention to the one communicating. I realized the importance of this the other day when I had an electrician in the house installing a light fixture. I neglected to tell him how I wanted it to face, so he did it the way he thought best, which wasn't the way we'd intended it. I was too lazy to go into detail with him and make sure he understood exactly what I was expecting.
- Distractions. I'm not sure I need to say much more here. Our mobile devices have become extremely adept at distracting us. (Notice how I'm subtly blaming the mobile devices?) A distracted person is not going to listen well. They might hear, but they won't fully listen. Ask your child or grandchild playing a video game to repeat what you just said and they normally won't be able to precisely. Unless they are really good at it. I still remember trying to get my father's attention when he was reading the newspaper. I was always amazed that he would ignore me and then 5 minutes later, when he was done reading the article, he'd move the paper just enough to see me and ask, "what was that you said?"
- Form. Sometimes we text when we should email. Sometimes we email when we should call. Sometimes we call when we should communicate in person. We probably tend to the most convenient form at any given time. But there are times when we should abandon convenience and communicate on a high level to be sure we're really understanding one another. I sell software and can communicate somethings over the telephone or in a Webex demo, but many things need to be communicated in person. That way you can see the body language, look the other person in the eye and read how your message is being received. You have the opportunity to remove obstacles immediately.
I know I could go on. There are many barriers to good, clear communication. Another one is loss of hearing. Many of my friends and colleagues suffer from this and it can have a profound effect on smooth communication.
So here are tips to ensuring smooth, clear communication.
- Respond to emails quickly to let the sender know you've seen the message. If you aren't ready to provide a formal response, let the sender know that. "Hi Jerry, Thanks for the email. I will get back to you in a day or so."
- Always repeat back what you've heard if it's an important exchange, such as a boss requesting something from a subordinate.
- Stay away from slang when you're communicating with someone who doesn't share the same mother tongue as you.
- Be intentional in your communication. It is worth the extra time to re-read an email before you send it. A good email can move the reader to action or close a sale! And don't forget that every email needs to be able to be forwarded, and will have a very long shelf-life.
- When someone is speaking, be an active listener, not passive. Ask questions. Turn your mobile phone over so you don't see the screen. Look away from your laptop or tablet. Give them your full, undivided attention. It will show the speaker that you respect them.
- Move up a level in the form of your communication. Don't just text - send a longer, clearer email. Don't just send an email - call the person. Don't just call - do a video call (Skype, etc.) Don't just do a video call - go see in person. Don't just go see in person - go share a meal or drink!
Give these a try and I think you'll see immediate improvement in your communications.