Good communication is much harder than we often think it is. Because our days are filled with dialog (meetings, email, phone, texts, social media, etc.) we sometimes mistake the quantity of our communication with the quality of our communication. Within the constraints of time, it would probably be harder to communicate more than we do, but it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to communicate more effectively than we do. We also confuse one-way dissemination of information with communication, which is why it is so common for people in organizations to complain that they have no voice, even though they are being inundated with information. And, as this relates to leadership in organizations, recent research by Gallup found that only 13% of employees believe that management communicates effectively across their organization!
Where do we start? Not surprisingly the most likely cause of poor communication is a failure to listen. We are often motivated to “get our message out,” so we carefully craft an email or call a meeting and hit people with the message, but we don’t dedicate an equal amount of time and effort to evaluate to how the message is received, understood, etc. and to then listen to what people think about it. A similar thing happens when we are talking to someone in real time. Stephen Covey famously noted in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People that most of us don’t listen with the intent to learn. We listen with the intent to respond. When that is the case, the quality of our communication is deeply compromised to begin with.
I’m also convinced that another cause of ineffective communication is the failure to use the correct medium for the message. We have so many ways to communicate today: email, webinars, phones, texting, instant messaging apps, and face-to-face opportunities. Each of these methods is a very different medium with their own pros and cons in a given situation. The fact is, for a variety of reasons, we often simply choose the wrong medium for the situation. The most common mistake is usually based on either a desire to save time or, ironically, to avoid actually communicating with someone else. Writing a quick email, or worse, sending an instant message of some kind about a subject that is complex or controversial is asking for trouble, yet it happens regularly. And worse, sometimes people use email, not to actually communicate, but to document that a message was sent. There are times when that may be necessary, but if one avoids a difficult face to face conversation or phone call which is more likely to result in actual communication, and instead, sends an email as a “CYA” action, the person is not only contributing to a communication problem, but is also often acting in an unprofessional manner. One of the markers of leadership is doing things that are right or effective even when they are hard and that certainly applies to communication.
In short, if we listen more than we talk and choose the right medium for the message, we’ll communicate better without having to communicate more!