Tuesday August 4, 2009

During my driving test as a teenager, I was so nervous that I relied on my (apparently faulty) memory to make my way through the required streets to complete the test. The problem with that was, I told myself a certain street was the dreaded one-way when in fact it was a two-way street. You guessed it, I turned into the first lane available, which unfortunately was the wrong side of the street. I was the first person my driving teacher ever had to turn the wrong way down a TWO-WAY street. The irony of that situation was, because no one had been dumb enough to do such a thing before, that mistake wasn’t on the automatic fail list and I just got a point against me.

But why did I do such an insanely crazy thing? The signs were there. The yellow line was there. The oncoming traffic was even there. But I was so caught up in being nervous about the test that I focused more on trying to remember the route than I paid attention to the world around me. The street department via the signs, and the other motorists were all trying to communicate with me but I wasn’t listening. 

Perhaps it’s because I work in the communications field, or perhaps it’s simply because I’m a woman, but I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately. More specifically, how communication has a way of getting screwed up.

I recently interviewed someone about using certain forms of communication in the business arena and he said something that really hit home for me when it comes to all forms of communication. The following portion of a quote is used with his permission for this personal blog:
“In communication, there’s the sender, the message, the channel, the receiver, and then you have the feedback,” he said.

The various pieces of communication are each equally vital for the efforts to be complete, meaningful and accurate. If even one part isn’t working right, then the rest isn’t as effective. His words were about a specific form of communication, but I think they can be applied elsewhere and it’s helped me develop this idea of proper communication.

Let’s take each component of the communication model:
If the sender is the wrong person to be conveying a message, then people probably aren’t going to listen because that person doesn’t have the perceived authority to be sharing the message. Authority doesn’t have to be permission or even mean a person of authority. It could simply mean the person doesn’t know what they are talking about or they are not someone from whom we want to hear a given message.

The message itself is a key area where miscommunication often happens. Improper or confusing wording or even just a harsh tone can lead to the actual point of a message not being properly received. I face this sometimes in my writing. I will use a phrase or something without thinking and that takes the attention away from my main point. Take, for example, a recent blog I wrote for Daily Jesus. I wrote something along the lines of “when God places us in times of trouble” or something to that effect. My point was that God’s hand is in our entire lives, not just the good times. The entire blog conveyed that meaning. But because I used that terminology, it caused at least one person to think I was saying God causes our problems. That upset them so much that they missed my overall point. I wasn’t trying to say that at all, it was just careless wording.

Anyone who has used a cell phone knows that the channel can easily cause problems in communication. Scratchy lines, dropped calls and background noise can make communication difficult. But there’s potential problems with any channel of communication. Take for example, email. Sometimes I find it better to email something that I want to think out and not get my tone or emotions immediately involved. That can be a good thing, but at times not so much. There are times when email conversations are misunderstood BECAUSE the tone of voice isn’t there. It seems prudent to choose a channel of communication that is appropriate for each given situation, and not to rely on the same channel over and over.

Something I had to learn over time is that the receiver themselves can be the problem to the communication. Whenever I’ve had a miscommunication with anyone, it’s been easy to look at myself to see where I could have communicated better or how I had managed to screw up what I was trying to say. While I think this can be a good exercise, I realize now that it has been a low self esteem that has allowed me to always assume that it’s me that is the problem. The truth of the matter is, sometimes people just don’t listen. They either aren’t paying full attention, or they have some preconceived notion about what you are saying or what they THINK you’re going to say and they make up their mind about your message sometimes before it even is finished being conveyed. There’s also the situation where people have a hang-up or some sort of pet issue that is forefront in their mind so they read something in your message that just isn’t there. Or the same hang-up causes them to miss the message’s point entirely. I’ve had to come to the realization that sometimes miscommunications are simply not my fault and while that may sound like a reassuring thing, to me it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating because I have no control over the person receiving the message. If I used the wrong channel or had a messed up message, then it’s something I can fix. But I can’t make someone listen or pay attention.

One might wonder how the feedback could screw up the communication. Well, it can. It seems like the fastest way is if there isn’t feedback. Or what if the feedback is so delayed that it prevents proper and complete communication to be achieved? Feedback comes in a variety of ways, from comments on a blog to another person’s reaction or body language.

As a newlywed, the idea of proper communication comes up a lot. My husband and I have worked on our communication since the beginning of our relationship, so we believe we started out our marriage at a better place than many newlyweds who assume they know each other pretty well. The irony is, I think that my husband and I actually miscommunicate more often the better we get to know each other in our new roles as husband and wife. It’s easy to assume we know how the person is feeling or what they are thinking, based on previous experiences with that person. There have been times when we didn’t communicate certain things because we thought it was understood or because we thought we were keeping the other person’s feelings in mind. As it turns out, each situation is different and just because one of us had a certain reaction to a previous, seemingly similar situation, doesn’t mean that the new elements of the new situation don’t create an entirely new reaction.

We’re learning to communicate on all things, not just the new things. It’s a time-consuming lesson, but a good one.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Great post!  You have the communcacation cycle down. One thing you picked-up on and I forgot to mention is often times, the channel will have to transmit through “noise” which are the distractions, pre-conceived notions, interruptions, detractors etc that you mentioned. It’s really amazing how important it is to understand communications as you communicate.

    Best regards, Michael twitter @clarknwark 

  2. @Clarknwark1 – Michael, thanks for commenting! Yes, people seem to think communication is easy but it’s really more complicated than it seems. Another thought I had that I didn’t know how to incorporate is the idea of communicating with people who don’t speak or don’t speak our language. For example, those who are profoundly mentally disabled. People often say they don’t communicate, but really, that just means they don’t communicate in a way most of us are used to understanding. 

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