Effective communication: Topic and comment

Communication goes awry quite regularly, which is not surprising when you think about how much of it we do in any given day. One common way in which communication breaks down is when what is said (or written) does not cover both topic and comment. The topic is what we are talking about and the comment is what we are saying about it.

They can be articulated separately (‘You know that book on stress I lent you? [topic] I will need it back soon if that’s OK [comment]’) or together (‘Can you please let me have that book on stress I lent you back soon?’). Either is fine when both are covered, but often, there is a topic identified, but it is not clear what the comment is (‘You’ve got my book on stress, haven’t you?’). Is this simply a comment to check that the book is still in their possession or is it an indirect request for it to be returned? It is not clear.

Similarly, effective communication can be undermined by making a comment without specifying the topic – something that commonly evokes a response along the lines of: ‘Sorry, I’m not clear what you’re referring to?’. What can be much worse, though, is when the topic is not specified and the person listening makes a false assumption about what the topic is – and then we have a recipe for major misunderstanding and miscommunication. So, it pays to make sure that we are always clear in communicating both topic and comment.