“Communication is rather an art than a science” as Thich Nhat Hanh, a buddhism monk and author once pointed out. Fully true in my opinion.
Same like in art, communication comes in multiple styles, types and fashions. Whether you prefer the one over the other is something highly subjective. It depends on your personality and on your individual communication preferences.
Still mastering this art, pays off extremely well. A Harvard Business School study shows that communication is on top of the key 7 abilities every professional career needs. Independent of industry and profession (hbs.edu). Just remember the last time you saw somebody delivering an amazing presentation or someone laying down an argument so clear and precise that it left you astonished and impressed.
Beyond strong leadership and the ability to deliver results, excellent communication skills distinguish brilliant managers from others.
But what are excellent communication skills? How to learn them and what to focus on? Especially under the above mentioned fact that communication is rather an art with highly subjective preferences.
A new concept
A couple of years ago I participated in a kind of executive development training. It consisted of multiple 2 day courses on specific subjects such as risk- or innovation-management. Included in one of these courses there was a tiny but for me illuminating section of communication.
We’ve all learned some communication theories and models during school or university. Most of them are right and scientifically proven. But in most cases I couldn’t derive a real “this am I going to do different next time” inside. Typical models like the “iceberg concept” or the “4 sides of a message” are well known and didn’t offer me any new inside.
This course was different. It gave me a complete new view on communication and especially on what it takes to deliver successful communication.
Communication is unlikely
Yes sounds a bit strang, “Communication is unlikely”. This super simple but not intuitive concept, surprised me and made its way into my repertoire of basic understanding of human behaviour.
Before starting to explain it, some credit to the man who created this marvellous concept. The author of this model is Niklas Luhmann, an extremely appreciated German professor often referred as the titan in the field of sociology science (Precht, 2009).
Luhmann most known for his extraordinary work on System Theory describes communication as an interaction of self-containing systems evolving over time and space. Sounds super abstract at first but it isn’t. Let’s start with the basic idea.
As said communication according to System Theory is unlikely. Differnt systems don’t naturally understand each other. This means that the likelihood of Person A being understood when communicating a story to Person B is low.
More precise, it is unlikely that Person B understands completely. Person B won’t get all the factual content, the nuances of emotional and non-verbal information and the complete context in which Person A is providing his information. This in result means that Person B will most likely leave the conversation with a slightly different story in mind or at least with a different emotional association.
And depending on the individual communication patterns and preferences of Person A (sender) and Person B (receiver) this GAP can be smaller or bigger.
Let’s stay with communication patterns and preferences for a moment. Everyone of us has preferences on how we like to receive information. We have a kind of “default-entrance” where we absorb information first and foremost.
Some of us have a stronger reception capability on the emotional or relationship dimension, while others resonate more and quicker on the task and action-oriented dimension. Some are sensitive in hearing critics, others observe more what the senders indirectly tell about themselves.
On top our “default-entrance” is influenced by our mood, by the situation and context and even on the time of the day. Whether we are tired, relaxed, agitated or even angry can influence extremely what we finally “hear”.
Try to imagine you had some guests for dinner. It has been a nice and decent evening with good conversations and you served your well-known and famous dish.
Than all of a sudden on of your guests asks:
“Have you changed the recipy”?
How do you react? What did you listen? What did your guest try to tell you?
What you receive depends on your personality, it depends on your stresslevel, it depends on the intonation of the message, the body language of the sender, on many many things.
But the interesting truth is, that different people will have different reactions, independent being in the very same situation.
Let me give one more example. Imagine someone tells you, “Hey, the doorbell just rang”.
I tried this many times in class and among younger students the predominant response seems to be, “go yourself” with a kind of disappointed and angry tone.
I usually advocate for rethinking and imagining a situation where this response would vary, but usually I’m not overly successful in this 🙂
Back to unlikeliness and default-entrance
I case we want to become outstanding communicators we need to pay very close attention to other person default-entrances.
The key inside is, that although you have your own preferred communication patterns, you need to adapt your communication to reach the other person best. You might need a completely different tone of voice, a different sequence of information or even different focus and arguments.
Your own way of expressing yourself and your preferred way of receiving information is not necessarily helpful for the other person to understand you.
We humans have the tendency to believe that what is good and easy for us to understand, is immediately good and easy to understand for everyone. That’s not true.
Your communication counterpart might have some completely different patterns, a completely different default-entrance.
This also explains why we usually get better in talking, explaining and even arguing with people we have spend a lot of time with. In other words, after 10 years of marriage you get a good feeling of “how to not say it” in certain moments 🙂
The better you understand the other persons way of receiving and processing information the better you can adapt. Just trying to force your communication pattern over the other person won’t make you successful.
As said many times in my courses, this of course does not mean you should run around trying to make you adapt to every person you meet. Of course you have the right to be as you are.
But in case you really want another person to understand you, than try to find the default-entrance upon which they understand the best.
Further Luhmann logic
Apart from unlikely communication due to different preferences and personality’s Luhmann also stated two more important conditions for successful communication.
He stated while communication is already difficult in direct face to face conversions, the unlikelihood even increases over space and time. Again, sounds a bit strange but easy to understand.
We all know that communication happens in various mediums. Some like verbal speech are mostly direct and in realtime. But other mediums like mail, messaging and phone calls are distant in terms of space and time or both.
We all experience that a meeting by phone is much more difficult than the very same meeting in a face to face situation sitting around a meeting room table. The different locations of the participants, the lack of body language, verbal expression and also the unnatural conversation rhythm make it much more difficult to understand each other.
Or take emails or instant messages. I’m sure everyone experienced having send a message which after re-reading a couple of days later we would have done completely different.
Emails and messaging are communication types which usually have not only a space GAP but also a time GAP. And especially the time GAP influences strongly the understanding of the recipient. The very same email can transport and trigger different information, if being read the very same day or multiple days after.
Everything we learned before on the importance of context, mood and even daytime will happen to reading mails as well, thus what the recipient really “reads and understands” is influenced by the very moment the reading takes place.
Unfortunately the moment in which the reading takes place is of course is completely out of control of the sender. The sender has no clue when his message will be read so he can’t be sure what the final conclusion of the recipient might be.
Lastly Luhmann also points out that the very last thing making communication difficult is the pure agreement of the recipient. The recipient might just disagree with what you said. It’s not given that people like what you say or even agree with it.
Even though you as a sender did everything to use the right “default-entrance”, you minimised risk of misunderstanding by using direct face to face conversation, you paid attention to verbal and non-verbal feedback, but still you might not reach through to your counterpart just because he refuses to do so.
I hope to not have dis-encouraged you to become good communicators. The point this post wants to make is that communication is truly important but majorly difficult. And it’s not intuitive. Just doing what comes natural to you might not be helpful to be understood by others.
If you start communicating already with the idea in mind that it is unlikely and that there are high chances to be misunderstood, than you usually prepare better and get more precise in delivering your information.
If there is a very important conversation in front of you, you can use these insides to bear in mind that the better you pay attention and adapt to your audience, the higher your chances to succeed.