Sunday, 25 May 2014

Communication: always doing it but can we improve it?

We all communicate, even when we deliberately disconnect from communicating we are sending out a message!
You would think if it is something we do all the time we would get really good at it and eliminate problems that occur through poor communication practices. However, it just doesn't seem that easy.
We communicate in many different ways: 
  • what we say- the words 
  • how we say it- our tone, our body language 
  • our attitude and behaviour 
  • how we portray ourselves 
And it is suggested that the what we say may have less impact than other communication channels, how crazy is that?!
There is a widely debated statistic that is shared stating that the words that we use carries 7% of the meaning of the message whilst the other 93% comes through tone and body language. Whilst I don't necessarily agree with the statistics (apparently Albert Mehrabian, the researcher, wasn't happy with how his research was reported or used either) it makes sense that communication is more than just the words we say.

Good communication for me centres on being clear about who you are talking to and knowing what you are wanting to achieve from having the communication.
Some questions you might want to consider asking yourself if you are communicating directly with a particular audience is:
  • What's your message?
  • What do you want to achieve from passing on this message?
  • Are you informing, convincing, reprimanding, clarifying, trying to meet consensus or seeking help/support? 
  • What is your relationship with the person/people?   
  • Is your audience likely to be receptive?
The words we use: 
Despite what I will come back to shortly I do believe the words we use still communicates a huge amount. We need to think about what will make sense to the people we are speaking to and the purpose behind this communication when choosing our words.
The use of technical terms or jargon can be a real turn off. It can isolate people- the last thing you want to do is make people feel stupid. However sometimes it can bring people together, if it is a shared language. For example, have you ever been in a conversation where a group of teachers get together and start talking school stuff... some of it is unintelligible for non-teachers and if nothing else it can get a little boring but the teachers get it and it is hugely meaningful for them.

Tone: 
How we say what we say is hugely important too. Think about this question: Have you done your homework yet? Now the tone you use can be the start of a fight or a prompt to action or bring on a neutral response.
Where you put your emphasis makes a difference, have a go at saying the following emphasising the word in bold and ask if that impacts on the message that might be received:
  • Have you done your homework yet?
  • Have you done your homework yet?
  • Have you done your homework yet?
  • Have you done your homework yet?
Now think about the emotive tone. Try saying "Have you done your homework yet?" with the following emotive tones and again see if it impacts on how the message might be received:
  • happy 
  • angry 
  • relaxed 
  • frightened 
  • frustrated 
  • distracted
This links through to our attitude. If our mind is on something else when we walk into a meeting, perhaps we have a sick child at home and we are worried, or we have had an argument with a loved one at home, this may impact on our delivery. We may appear tense before we even say a word and when we do speak we may have that same tension in our voice despite how we want to come across. Taking a breath, shaking it out, being mindful and knowing yourself and what works to calm yourself down can help you to get some balance. If you know the people you are speaking to you may feel comfortable to explain your morning in some way before you start with the meeting.

Body Language: 
This links through to body language too- how we stand or sit, our facial expression and gestures can all convey meaning. It is suggested that people that are targeted by bullies are more likely to carry themselves passively, head down, shoulders hunched, like they are trying to be smaller... they look vulnerable. Imagine if we came into a conflict situation looking passive, our intent to state our case convincingly is already undermined before we utter a word. If we come into that meeting and we are edgy, clenching fists, shoulders tight, avoiding eye contact, appearing negative... then the people we are meeting with are likely to feel it. I know I do.
To get people alongside we need to be aware of our body language. Consider the statement from above "Have you done your homework yet?" and try saying it with the following stances:
  • hands on hips 
  • standing over someone who is sitting 
  • sitting while the person we are talking to is standing 
  • with a smile on your face 
  • your palms down on your lap or a table 
  • with/without eye contact 
  • with your face in your hands 
  • with arms folded 
Does how you use your body impact on the tone you use? I am thinking sometimes our body language can influence our tone despite our best intentions or perhaps that is just the perception... but then someone very wise once said 'perception is reality' so how we are perceived is really important when we have a message we want to get across.
If you are working with people who are hyper-vigilant, perhaps they are under a lot of stress (child in an unstable home, co-worker going through a divorce, student really struggling with academic pressure) then the way you come across in interactions can impact hugely on how much what you are saying sinks in. If you appear aggressive or threatening in any way then you may have already lost their focus as they slip into defensive modes to protect themselves. So it pays to run a little mental check over yourself to see if how you may come across is how you want to be perceived.

Other stuff: 
Stereotypes are handy devices used by cartoonists to help tell a story with minimal words. They can be a great storytelling device, they are used on TV all the time. However in real life they really bug me, that people still come to a whole lot of conclusions about a fellow human being before they meet them properly is unfair. It is too easy to short change genuine connection with prejudice, in fact it is lazy, unfortunately our brains are so busy having a constant stream of information coming in that sometimes it takes the easy option if we are not mindful.

I remember as a young teacher I used to wear knee high coloured stripy socks, mini skirts, knitted vests with little animals on them, pig tails and painted my nails with spots or stripes (well before it was cool).... sometimes all at the same time. Not exactly this week's best dressed candidate. I also used to get really frustrated when my colleagues didn't take me seriously, however, I guess it looked like I didn't take things seriously either and so assumptions were made and I had to live with that or work through it. It was a lesson learned and over the years I have learned to adapt my dress depending on my audience but it does irk me a little at times.

It upsets me hugely however when I see parents being judged negatively by teachers just because of how they look or what they wear but worse still is when we judge children by how they look... that little boy with the snotty nose, grubby jersey and smelly socks gets a hard enough time from the other children I am guessing, he deserves a chance from us. As a reliever I don't know these children and their family backgrounds, all I know is that each of them has a right to be valued as a unique human being with gifts, dreams and something to offer. And the ironic thing is that when we judge someone based on how they look we often convey that before they speak so they are already on the back foot and in some cases already defensive because they have seen that look before. It becomes a bit of a vicious circle.

Good Communication 
Mindfulness is key for me when I think about good communication. All parties are present and aware of their internal dialogue, they are checking their biases.
They are listening for meaning, with an intent to understand. This is not about looking for holes so we can leap in and undermine, it is about learning what the other person is saying and then presenting our perspective if necessary.
Good communication is a two way process, we are sending and we are receiving. When I am presenting, I might be doing a whole lot of the talking but I receive a whole lot of feedback throughout my presentation that impacts on what I say and how I say it.

It is funny when I am writing these blogs because I read them aloud to make sure they make sense to me (well as much as possible), but when I speak I use tone and gestures, I do find it hard to keep my hands still. And then when I publish I do so knowing that there is a chunk of what I am hoping will be conveyed that is left to chance because those who read it may not 'hear' it as I do. I imagine that this is a risk that all writers take and why editors or critical friends are so important in the literary process.

I guess a lot of what I have said here is concerned with interpersonal communication as opposed to written only. Regardless good communication is an artform and is dependent on so many variables. I would say that if you feel authentic in your communication then you will be operating from a good place for a start.

If you were to write a list about what good communication looks like or feels like what would your top three indicators be?

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