Why Communication is so Hard: 7 Things to Improve

Why Communication is Hard

Communication (or lack of it) is the most frequently cited cause of workplace dissatisfaction, disengagement and frustration.  It can lead to relationship breakdowns, corporate collapses and world wars.

In a recent “Wait But Why” post about Elon Musk’s latest big idea, Tim Urban provided a deceptively simple explanation of why communication between people (through any medium) is so challenging.

Let me paraphrase:

  1. You think in concepts: emotions, senses, feelings, memories.
  2. Some of the things you think, you ‘convert’ into words inside your own head.
  3. Some of these thoughts, come out of your mouth (or fingers)
  4. Some of the things that come out of your mouth (or fingers) are heard (or read) by somebody else
  5. They ‘convert’ the words they have heard (or read) into verbal thoughts inside their head
  6. Some of which are then ‘felt’ as conceptual thinking

What could possibly go wrong!!

The first three of these steps result in loss of fidelity.  What started out as a highly complex, holistic, three dimensional, multi-dimensional, temporal, colourful ‘whizz-banger’ of an idea, was compressed into language.  Rich and wonderful, but not quite the same.  Then it was ‘edited’ again when you said it or wrote it.  Whatever your intention, by the time it came out into the world where others could find it, it was more of a ‘fizzer’ than a ‘whizz-banger’!

Then, assuming anybody heard or read your ‘fizzer’, it now goes through the reverse process: an idea – once gorgeous and rich and filled with wonder – gets absorbed, and the missing data (created by the compression required to move from concept to language) is ‘filled in’ by the person who received it.  Who has no idea what you actually intended.  And the language they fill in the blanks with drives how it becomes a concept in their own thought process.

In practice this means that how someone feels right now is a far greater determinant of what someone will ‘hear’ than what you actually said – let alone what you were trying to say.

To make matters worse, almost all communication advice, training, or guidance I’ve seen only focuses on steps 2-5 (or even only 3 and 4!).  It fails to take into account how ‘low-res’ our verbal communication is compared with the richness of our own internal worlds.

So what can you do about it?

I’ve pulled together 7 practical steps you can take to improve the odds of success when it matters most.

Seven Practical Steps to Better Communication

Step One: Meditate (Often)

Although I can’t possibly prove it, I believe that most people have no real idea what they are thinking in their inner world – they feel and sense and act on impulse – but don’t know why, and can’t put it into words, let alone be aware of it while it is happening.

Meditation helps this.  But only if practised consistently over time.  An App like Headspace (which I use) is a great place to start – guided, and easy.

Step Two: Identify Intent to Communicate (in Advance)

Sounds easy, but isn’t always possible.  But when it really matters – its the launch of the new strategy, or an organisational change process, or that job interview you really want to nail, then you absolutely can.

Why?  If you aren’t aware you plan to communicate, there’s not much you can do.  Being mindful and deliberate about your intent gives you a fighting chance.

Step Three: Distil your Message with Intent (in Advance)

Of course you know you need to prepare, but spend some time really getting clear about what you want to communicate: not just what you want to say, but what you want to convey, how you want the other party to feel, what you want them to do.

Spend some time thinking about how they might be feeling, and what they might read into what you say.

Explore more than one approach.  Try using alternative words to your regular vocabulary.  Think about shock words – (Tony Robbins is great at this).  Get really comfy with what you want to get across, so that you can adapt and iterate in real time if you need to.  Think about how you can use emotion to add dimension.

Step Four: Practice (in Advance)

So perhaps this is obvious, but do you do it?  

You can practice by yourself, and that’s helpful to a point.  But you already know what you’re trying to say!
You really need to practice with somebody else – or several somebodies!  Ideally someone who is in the same context as your intended audience.

And if you’re going to ask someone to listen to you – you need to be open to hearing what they have to say in response.

Step Five: Observe and Adjust (During)

So you’re in flow – delivering your well prepared, practised message.  You have to tune in to your audience, you have to be open to and mindful of how it is landing, and be prepared to adjust mid-flight if necessary.

This is where all the practice pays off.  You know what you want to convey inside and out – you can change the words, you can change the order of the ideas, you can dial it up or down, change the tempo, involve the audience (or choose not to).  But whatever you do, don’t stick to the script if its clearly failing to connect.

Step Six: Seek Feedback (After)

Just because you’ve delivered the message, doesn’t mean it’s too late to adjust the delivery.  Seeking feedback from your intended audience is a great way to figure out if it ‘landed’ and to identify why if it didn’t.

Whatever you do, don’t get defensive.  Nothing makes someone clam up more than offering you their thoughts and getting push-back!  You need this feedback.  It will make you more effective next time, but more importantly, it will give you early warning if people have got the wrong end of the stick.

Step Seven: Reflect and Repeat if Necessary (After)

Take a moment.  Or a day.  Or two.  And let it sink in.  Let it percolate.  Reflect on the feedback.  Reflect on the activity and chatter that happens afterwards.  Reflect on the direct responses you receive.  Mindfulness kicks in again here (so useful!)

And decide whether you need to take a different tack – or if you made it through the ordeal with the integrity of your ideas intact.

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