All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Thus begins Leo Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina. What he meant, perhaps, is that communication is complete when the mind is happy and uninhibited, and distortion creeps in when the mood is sullen and sad. Most problems in an organization, family or group are the result of people failing to communicate. Haven’t you often said “You don’t understand what I say” or words to that effect? Communication is the exchange or flow of information and ideas between one person and another. Technically, it involves a sender passing on an idea to a receiver. Effective communication occurs when the receiver comprehends the information or idea that the sender intends to convey.
What does a communication process involve? You have an idea that you need to communicate, and a message is sent to the receiver, either verbally or non-verbally. The receiver then translates the words or nonverbal gestures into a concept or information. Let’s take, for example, this message: “You are very intelligent.” Would this message carry the same meaning to the receiver every time you voice these words?
The success of the transmission depends on two factors—content and context. Content is the actual words or symbols that constitutes a part of the message, known as language. It could be either spoken or written. We all interpret words in our own ways, so much so that even simple messages could be understood differently.
Context is the way the message is delivered-the tone, expression in the sender’s eyes, body language, hand gestures, and state of emotion (anger, fear, uncertainty, confidence and so on). As we believe what we see more than what we hear, we trust the accuracy of nonverbal behavior more than verbal behavior. So when we communicate, the other person notices two things: What we say and how we say it.
Normally we think communication is complete once we have conveyed the message: “I don’t know why it was not done. I had asked him to do it.” Chances are that the message was not perceived properly. A message hasn’t been communicated successfully unless the receiver understands it completely. How do you know it has been properly received? By two-way communication or feedback.
Ourselves: Focusing on ourselves, rather than the other person can lead to confusion and conflict. Often, we are thinking about our response, rather than focusing on what the other person is saying. Some other factors that cause this are defensiveness (we feel someone is attacking us), superiority (we feel we know more than the other), and ego (we feel we are the center of the activity).
Perception: If we feel the person is talking too fast, not fluently or does not articulate clearly, we may dismiss the person. Our preconceived attitudes affect our ability to listen. We listen uncritically to persons of high status and dismiss those of low status.
Mental state: People don’t see things the same way when under stress. What we see and believe at a given moment is influenced by our psychological frames of references-beliefs, values, knowledge, experiences and goals.
These barriers are filters that we use to decide what is useful for us. No one can completely avoid these filters. If you start taking every information and message you get seriously, you would be overloaded with information. But if you are not consciously aware of this filtering process, you may lose a lot of valuable information. A way to overcome these filters when you want is through active listening and feedback.
All of us can hear, but all of us cannot listen. Hearing and listening are not the same thing. Hearing is involuntary and listening involves the reception and interpretation of what is heard. It decodes the sound heard into meaning. Does a knock on the door sound the same all the time? What if you are alone and you hear a knock at late night? What happens when you hear a knock while you are expecting someone whom you like?
People generally speak at 100 to 175 words per minute but we can listen intelligently at 600 to 800 words per minute. This means most of the time only a part of our mind is paying attention, it is easy for the attention to drift. This happens to all of us. The cure: active listening. This involves listening with a purpose. It may be to gain information, obtain directions, understand others, solve problems, share interests, see how the other person feels, even show support. This type of listening takes the same amount of or more energy than speaking. This requires the listener to hear various messages, understand the meaning and then verify the meaning by offering feedback. Here are some of the traits of an active listener:
• Does not finish the sentence of others.
• Does not answer questions with questions.
• Is aware of biases. We all have them… we need to control them.
• Never daydreams or becomes preoccupied with one’s own thoughts when others talk.
• Lets others talk.
• Does not dominate the conversation.
• Plans responses after the other persons have finished speaking, not while they are speaking.
• Provides feedback, but does not interrupt incessantly.
• Analyses by looking at all the relevant factors and asking open-ended questions.
• Keeps the conversation on what the speaker says…not on what interests them.
• Takes brief notes. This forces one to concentrate on what is being said.