Focus on communication
Communication is such a central part of our lives that we tend to take it for granted, it fades into the background, like the wallpaper. That is perfectly normal, but it can also be problematic. Consider language, for example.
We largely live our lives through language. Much of our work is through language; we form relationships through language; we fall out through language. Much of our leisure time is enjoyed through language. Imagine, for example, trying to go for, say, a week without using language. We wouldn’t get very far would we? (not least because we tend to think through the medium of language).
But the way we use language can be problematic. Misunderstandings are very common, sometimes with minor consequences, sometimes with major harm as a result. This especially applies to written language. This is because when we speak, we use a very complex and sophisticated system of intonation – that is, we can generally understand what people mean from not just what they say, but the way they say it (the tone and pitch, for example). In writing, though, the nearest we have to this sophisticated system is punctuation and that is a poor substitute, even when people use it properly (and, of course, many people don’t). Consequently, the scope for misunderstanding and ill-feeling is much greater when we communicate in writing.
Email is a particularly significant form of communication in this regard. This is because it is a bit of a hybrid between spoken and written language. People getting themselves into a tangle through email is sadly a very common occurrence. LinkedIn and Facebook messages can function in much the same way.
But, communication is much more than language. While language is certainly a primary form of communication, it would be unwise to think of it as the only form of language. Indeed, nonverbal communication can be much more powerful. For example, where there is a mismatch between what we say and what our body language says, it tends to be the latter that is paid attention.
We learn the basic of nonverbal communication as we grow up, but most people seem to stick with the basics, while others take the opportunity to take their nonverbal communication skills to a much more advanced level, in terms of both being able to pick up the subtle signals from other people’s body language and being able to use their own body language in highly effective ways. So, are you in the former group or the latter? Are you happy to stick with the basics you learned as a child or are you able to take your skills to a more advanced (and therefore more effective) level?
But, let’s be clear that nonverbal communication is not just about body language. There is also our behaviour to consider. One of the principles of communication theory is that you cannot not communicate. That is, whether you are trying to communicate or not, people will interpret not only your body language, but also your behaviour – it will give them ‘messages’, which is, after all, what communication is all about. For example, if you tell someone you will arrive at 2pm, but you don’t get there until 2.35, didn’t ring ahead to let them know you were going to be late or apologise for being late when you do get there, it is likely to be interpreted that you believe your time is more important than theirs. It implies that you feel you have the right to inconvenience them if you wish. Now that may well not be what you intended to communicate, but that is not the point. It is the message that is received that counts, not the one you did or did not intend to convey.
All in all, then, there is a great deal to be gained from being more ‘communication aware’ than is normally the case.
NB The brand new third edition of Neil’s book, Effective Communication, is due to be published in April 2018.