As a working definition we’ll consider that communication has been successful if there is shared understanding.
So what is the result of shared understanding? What are the implications of a lack of shared understanding? Let’s examine what happens when we communicate, where the problems lie, and what we can each do to improve our communication skills.
Examining the communication process is like putting your VCR on pause; you look at a frozen snapshot of a dynamic, unending process. You cannot not communicate unless you’re dead or unconscious; communication takes place – for bad or for good – when we’re trying and when we’re not.
The sender has something he wants to share. Unfortunately the sender’s information is in his mind. While much work has been done on trying to prove ESP, for most of us we’ve got to get the information we want to share out of our mind and into the other person’s mind.
The receiver is just that – the other person or persons that the sender is trying to communicate with. The receiver has the responsibility of hearing, listening, and providing feedback.
The message is not just some words. The message is a combination of thoughts, feelings, words, and meanings. Many communication problems stem from the idea that communication is simple.
Some ways of generating a signal
The signal is how we encode the message in our heads and broadcast it to the receiver. We’ll find that this includes more than the sounds of words; it can include feelings, attitudes, and our unique personality.
All communication is filtered through our personality, our background, our upbringing, our culture, and our current state of being. When you are tired or stressed or in circumstances that are unpleasant, communication becomes that much harder.
The degree to which someone understands what we are trying to communicate will depend on many factors. How much alike are we? Do we share any background experiences? Are our language skills, attitudes, and beliefs similar or dissimilar? What assumptions have we made about each other based on stereotypes? And anyone who says "I understand perfectly" is deceiving themselves.
Feedback in our model is the reactions of the receiver sent back to the sender. Each of us has experienced the feeling "they don’t have a clue about what I’m trying to say". How did we reach this conclusion? By interpreting the feedback the receiver is generating. This feedback can be verbal or nonverbal.
Communication blocked by noise
For our purposes noise is any part of the communication process that diminishes shared understanding. The sender can have poor communication skills. The receiver may be unable to receive the message for a variety of reasons.
Temperament and Communication
What is temperament?
Temperament can also be called personality type and incorporates self-image or self-esteem. Lets look first at our "natural" temperament or personality that we inherit along with our eye color and body type.
The four types
Why four? Why not 104? Over the centuries, through observation and study, it has been determined that each of us is a blend of four distinct personality types – and more specifically we are usually a blend of two of the four types.
For our purposes, we’ll use the ancient Greek nomenclature for temperament types – Choleric, Phlegmatic, Sanguine, and Melancholy. These are certainly only one way of discussing the four – other models use the names of animals, the acronym DiSC, and the most famous – the Meyers-Briggs naming system.
The choleric type is sometimes called the Driver. As regards communicating, the choleric gets straight to the point and is not much concerned with the feelings of others.
The sanguine temperament is an outgoing, warm, people person. They are talkers and are concerned with the feelings of others. The sanguine is loath to hurt others’ feelings and will avoid conflict at almost any price.
The melancholy is highly organized, detailed, and critical. They are introverted and often moody. They often feel they are "right" because they have taken the time to carefully analyze whatever subject they are talking about.
The phlegmatic is the quietest of the four types. While generally calm on the surface they are the most likely to be anxious internally when communicating.
Again I want to emphasize that no one is purely one temperament type. There are 16 combinations of personality traits. If you can adapt your natural style to be more like the other person’s style, you’ll find it easier to get their attention and, ultimately, share understanding with them.
Self concept and Communication
Self-concept or self image is that internal picture we hold of ourselves – it’s who WE think WE are. Each of us communicates out of our self-image. While affected by temperament, self-concept goes beyond our built in personality style.
How is our self-image developed?
Self-image develops as we develop. As we grow we each seek clues from around us that help us define who "we" are. Into our search comes "significant others". This group includes many people such as parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and, again, anyone that we receive input from concerning our image of ourselves. For good and for bad, we take in these other peoples’ opinions.
How does our self-image change?
The problem here is that other people express their opinion – and that’s all it is. How many people have been called "shy" for so long that they accept it as true? Our self-concept may contain information that is wrong and cause many communication problems. Self study and possibly professional counseling are means of rooting out self concept problems.
Communication takes place on many levels simultaneously. We often tend to think of only the words that are spoken but that part of the message may only account for 20% of communication. So what’s happening in the other 80%?
What is it?
Non-verbal communication is everything else BUT the words. It includes many components including vocal qualities such as tone of voice, as well as gestures, body language, accents and attitudes. Significant communication can take place without a word being spoken.
Where is it learned?
The key to understanding non-verbal communication is to study its’ roots. Babies in the crib cannot understand words but they quickly learn to respond to voices and facial expressions.
When were grown we continue to read?non-verbal communication at an unconscious level; not even aware that we are analyzing and critiquing the other person for their non-verbal message.
Why do we pay attention to it?
How we choose to dress, how we talk, where we live – all are examples of nonverbal communication.
We can’t help but automatically process non-verbal cues as we communicate. How many times have we "tuned someone out" because of some non-verbal behavior that affects us. It might be someone’s accent, their perceived level of education or learning, their vocal qualities or some other behavior – we always pay attention to it.
How can we use it more effectively?
By paying attention to how we speak, how we look, how our voices sound, we can improve our chances of attaining shared understanding.
At the same time, consciously paying attention to our reactions to other’s nonverbal messages will give us more information than we are getting by only attending to the words.
One of the biggest problems in communication relates to listening. How many people have gotten lost because of only half-listening to a set of directions?
Listening is NOT the same as hearing.
Listening and hearing are not exactly the same thing. While it is true that you must hear in order to listen, it isn’t always true that if you hear you ARE listening. Hearing is a function carried out by your brain wherein the sounds received by our ears are assigned meaning. But just because our brain understands the words doesn’t mean that our minds will understand what is received.
Problems related to listening Our brains are much faster than our mouths.
Part of the problem is that our minds are much faster than our mouths. We typically speak anywhere from 30 to 100 words per minute but our minds can process information much faster than that. So if the first few words do not "hook" our attention we will rapidly "drift" off to think of something else.
We lack interest or we prejudge what we are hearing.
This hearing/listening disparity not only results in a lack of interest but can also cause us to prejudge what we are hearing. If a person is uninteresting or dull or abrasive, these perceptions will cause us to judge the speaker and color what they are saying through our own attitudinal "filters".
We don’t seek or give feedback.
Remember that our model of communication is a cycle – an ongoing give and take of information being shared. If we purposefully or accidentally give no feedback, the sender will have no idea or a distorted idea of how they are communicating. Distorted feedback could include agreeing with the sender when we really have no clue of what they are trying to say.
How to improve your communication skills
So what are some specific behaviors that you can implement that will improve your communication quotient? Here are several.
Listen – don’t assume.
The key to to improved listening is using the "extra" time available in the hearing process. As you listen to someone, examine what they’re saying, question your understanding of what is being said, involve yourself in the conversation.
Improve your self-concept.
Since all communication is filtered through our self-image, it makes sense that the better that self-image is, the better our chance of sharing understanding. Improving self-concept involves challenging assumptions we have about ourselves.
Learn to decipher non-verbal communication.
Remember that non-verbal communication is processed by each of us almost unconsciously. By becoming consciously aware of another’s tone off voice, posture, gestures, and facial expressions, we will raise our level of understanding several notches.
Conclusion – the benefits of improved communication.
The ability to communicate effectively has implications for every part of life. Better communication can improve family relationships, enhance business relationships, and improve overall quality of life. Think again of how many disputes, arguments and disagreements were all rooted in poor communication?
Each of the areas above can be practiced and, with practice, communication can be improved in every situation.