Effective communication is not an end in itself, but rather tools for achieving the communicating partners’ goal.
The goal of communication is to exchange information and ideas so that the communicating partners reach a mutual understanding regarding the topic at hand. Through mutual understanding they can find a solution or take action that satisfies both partners’ needs.
Imagine a patient seeking treatment from her doctor, for example. The only chance at a positive outcome is when the doctor understands the patient’s meaning, and the patient understands the doctor.
Ensuring mutual understanding is the most important part of the communication process. It’s also the part accomplished least often. There’s a big difference between hearing what the communication partner is saying and understanding it—assigning a common meaning to it.
Without mutual understanding, the communication partners become frustrated with each other and communication breaks down further. Neither partner to the communication can achieve what they want unless both parties understand what is being communicated.
“The great enemy of communication… is the illusion of it.”1
All communication contains the potential for confusion and misunderstanding. So what gets in the way?
- The way a message—information and ideas—is encoded. This includes assumptions applied, the words used and any non-verbal cues included with those words.
- The medium over which the message is delivered. There are many possible sensory, emotional and environmental influences that can alter the message during delivery.
- The way the message is decoded by the receiver. Influences include perceptions, biases, cultural aspects, and many others.
- Whether the message is asynchronous—one-way—such as text messages, email, or letters—that does not allow for any direct feedback. Or the message is synchronous—during which the receiver can provide direct and immediate feedback to the sender, who can then modify and redeliver the message in a way that is better understood.
Developing your effective communications skills is important. But recognize the elements of effective communications for the tools they are. Use the tools to keep your communications progressing towards your goal of mutual understanding.
1From the article, Is Anybody Listening? by William H. Whyte, Fortune magazine September, 1950, page 174.
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