What Do You Mean Communicate?

Several times a day I hear people talking about failure in communications. Whether it is between individuals in a private conversation or between a supervisor and an employee or in a work group, there seems to be ample examples of this communication failure. And yet communications is at the heart of everything we do in life. As a leader or parent or spouse or friend, we all depend on the ability to communicate with each other in order to live together. So why aren’t we doing it better?

We have definitely enhanced the human ability to share information. Technology continues to amaze me with what can be done in this arena. However, these improvements have not always enhanced our ability to communicate.

Perhaps I better explain what I mean by communicate so that I don’t violate my own premise. I’ll start by stating what I believe communication is not. It is not having information, and lots of it. It is not the written word or the spoken word. It is not sharing my perspective in isolation of others’ perspectives. While communication includes all of this, it is far more than any one of these aspects alone.

Communication involves my sharing a perspective and meaning that you receive and understand as I originally intended it. And, once I am satisfied that you have received and understood my perspective and meaning, I am now ready to receive your perspective and meaning in a manner that I understand it as you intended it. This may appear to be very simple at first glance. However, my experience is that achieving communication, that understanding as intended, is the most difficult aspect of being human.

Recently I was in a conversation with someone who said something like the following. “I don’t understand why they didn’t do what they were told. I have told them at least five times what was expected. Are they so dense that they don’t get it or do they just not care? I don’t know how much more communication I need to provide.”

During the conversation with this person I learned that the so called communication was all done by e-mail with no person to person interaction. Almost instantly I had significant insight as to why there was no communication in this interaction of e-mails. One person was sending information to another, assuming or expecting the other person to understand the information and, therefore, the meaning of the information. The person receiving the message completed the task based on his or her understanding of that message. However, when the person sending the message saw the outcome of the task, it in no way represented the message as intended. So the person sent another message with the same results. This went on three more times until the person sending the message just gave up and took care of the task.

Nowhere in this exchange of information or e-mails was there ever an opportunity or attempt to check for understanding until the task was completed. At no time in the exchange did the person receiving the message ever attempt to check if his or her understanding of the message was as it was intended. As a result, there was a failure in the communication.

My conversation with this individual reminded me of one of my favorite statement, of which I do not know the source. “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” I first ran across this statement early in my professional career as a counselor and trainer. It has always meant so much to me and sits on my desk today.

To really communicate requires hard work. It demands that we suspend our own agendas, become aware of our own filters, and know and recognize our own hot spots so that we can listen fully for the meaning that the other person intends. It requires us to check out our assumptions and inferences to see if we are correct or not. And it requires us to be clear and succinct when sending our own meaning.

It really is no surprise to me that we have so little communication, thus leading to difficulties and conflicts. I am more surprised when I experience real communication, the kind that says; you got it. You really understand me and now I want to understand you.

As you exchange information with others in the next few weeks, become keenly aware of your intent and how that intent is received or not. Become aware of the intent of others and work hard at achieving the message as it is intended. Then pay close attention to what happens when you are able to understand the intent of others and they maybe understand your intent.

Until next time, enjoy your communicating and not just sending information.