The most immutable barrier in nature is between one
man's thoughts and another's.
Almost every problem, every conflict, every mistake, and every misunderstanding has at its most basic level a communication problem. William James saw the communication barrier as "immutable." We believe that while communication problems may never be completely eliminated, they can be reduced and often avoided.
We live in a world filled with other people. We live together, work together, and play together. In our personal lives, we need each other for security, comfort, friendship, and love. In our working environment, we need each other in order to achieve our goals and objectives. None of these goals can be achieved without communication. Communication is the basic thread that ties us together. Through communication we make known our needs, our wants, our ideas, and our feelings. The better we are at communicating, the more effective we are at achieving our hopes and dreams.
This section will lead you through an interpersonal communication model that will help you understand your own style of communication and the styles that others use. Once you understand how people prefer to communicate, you can adapt your own communications in ways that will enhance understanding and build rapport.
1 Future Perfect Communication
It is a luxury to be understood.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
When Star Trek's Mr. Spock wants a perfect transfer of information between himself and another Vulcan, he does a mind-meld. By touching skulls, information flows from one mind to another in a faultless process-free of errors, emotional content, and personal perspectives. Unfortunately mind-melding is not available to us. We have to use a much more flawed technique involving the three "Vs" of communication: verbal, vocal, and visual elements.
This chapter discusses the general communication process, including the most common places it breaks down and how you can avoid problems as you work to communicate. For simplicity and practicality, we show the communication process only from your perspective. That is the only part of the process you can, and need to, control. Of course, in successful relationships, both parties participate meaningfully in the entire two-way process. Figure 1-A presents a model of the communication process. The communication process has five basic elements: two people -- the speaker and the listener; two processes -- sending and receiving; and one message.
The problem faced in any communication is how to get ideas from one person's head to another. Since we haven't figured out how to use Mr. Spock's mind-meld method of direct transfer, we are stuck with the problem of using an imperfect system that contains considerable opportunity for misunderstandings.
The speaker starts with what he wants to say -- the message. To send the message, he translates it into words and actions. Literally, he selects words that he thinks will convey his meaning and he throws in a variety of gestures, facial expressions, etc., that he believes will help transmit the message.
The message to be communicated is carried by the three "V elements" -- verbal, vocal, and visual. The words we use make up the verbal element. The vocal element includes the tone and intensity of our voice and other vocal qualities that are often referred to as the "music we play with our voice." The visual element incorporates everything that the listener can see.
It might surprise you to learn that the most powerful element of communication is the visual. Dynamic visual, nonverbal communication grabs and holds onto the listener's attention.
Old story: An old codger and a young whippersnapper are on a mule trip. The youngster is having trouble getting his mule across a creek and asks the oldster for help. The wily veteran grabs a big stick and whacks the mule across the head. The mule trots meekly across the creek. The tenderfoot looks amazed and the old guy just says, "First you gotta get their attention."
Effective communication begins with getting the listener's attention through strong visual, nonverbal elements and then uses powerful vocal and verbal elements to transmit the message.
The listener "receives" the message through a series of filters: his past experiences, his perception of the speaker, his emotional involvement with the message, his understanding of the verbal content, his level of attention, etc. In a sense, he translates the message into his own words, creating his own version of what he thinks the speaker was saying.
Common Problem Areas
Problems arise in three major areas: sending, the environment, and receiving.
Sending: AS speakers, we don't send our messages perfectly. The words we choose may be ambiguous; our tone of voice may not reflect our true feelings; our gestures may not convey the importance of the message.
Environment: There might be too much "noise" in the environment. The message might be presented in the midst of many distractions or to a listener whose mind is wandering.
Receiving: The message can be garbled during reception. A word or a facial expression might be misinterpreted or a previous experience might cause the message to be translated in a way different from its intent.
While communication can break down in several places, people who understand these problem areas have more control of the process and have fewer communication glitches.
Problems in Sending
Let's consider the communication involved in a sales situation. This is represented in figure 1-B. The speaker is the salesperson and the listener is the customer. Imagine that you are the computer salesperson. As part of your sales communication, you tell the customer that the computer you recommend has 2.5 megabytes of RAM. The actual message in your head is that this computer has enough working memory to handle all the programs the customer needs to run. Your customer doesn't understand computer terminology and he doesn't receive the message you are trying to send. This is an example of how the verbal element of communication can throw the message off-track.
Communication can also be derailed by sending inappropriate visual and vocal messages. Most speakers don't understand that the words they use are a secondary element in communication. As a matter of fact, the words used are the least important element of communication. Studies show that listeners generally attend first to the visual and then to the vocal elements of a message, finally focusing on the meaning of the words themselves.
Assume that you are a company president thinking about moving your account to a new bank. The vice-president in charge of new accounts for the bank you are considering is sitting with a messy pile of papers in front of him. His tie is stained and askew. He sits up nervously as you walk in; his handshake is timid and his palms are sweaty. He makes very little eye contact and his eyes dart around the room frequently. His voice is squeaky and he says "uh" a lot. He mumbles. His words are: "Our bank is the best in the county. Our record for return on investment is second to none. We would really like to do business with you."
We dare you to ignore the visual information and concentrate only on the meaning of his words. The visual element is that most powerful first impression, and people respond to it before, and in spite of, the words that are spoken. The vocal elements are then processed before the actual words are heard and translated.
If the vocal sounds are bothersome or detract in any way from the meaning of the words, people will react and understand less of what was intended. Imagine a vacation-travel salesperson who spoke in a monotone, or an investment counselor who said, "Like..." or "you know..." every other sentence. What if a newscaster's voice was so soft and hypnotizing that you were lulled by it? What if a speaker had a heavy regional or foreign accent? You do notice. You do respond. Sounds are recognized before you even get to the meaning of the words spoken.
Since visual and vocal elements are noticed before the actual words, you need to make sure that your appearance and vocal tone work in harmony with your message. Look for inconsistencies -- a strong message delivered in a weak tone or with soft, flabby words; or a logical, fact-filled message presented in an emotional tone with ambiguous words.
"Noise" in the Environment
During the message-sending process itself, numerous barriers to communication can arise. These barriers are "noise" in the communication process. Noise creates distortions of the message and prevents it from being understood the way it was intended.
Noise can come from many sources. Environmental noise such as ringing telephones, honking horns, and messy, chaotic surroundings can prevent your message from being received clearly. Another environmental factor is time -- is the message being delivered at an inappropriate time? A Friday afternoon prior to a holiday weekend is not a good time to deliver a complicated, fact-filled report on a new marketing plan. Speakers who want their messages to be received clearly and accurately will remove as much environmental noise as possible. They try to present their message in a calm, distraction-free environment at a time when the listener can devote his or her full attention to the message.
Often it is hard to determine the listener's ability to receive a message. The listener may be inattentive or bored. If you're presenting a message to someone who has just won the state's multimillion dollar lottery, chances are good that you will be dealing with a distracted listener. The ability of a listener to receive your message is affected by his emotional state, preexisting commitments, financial pressures, and judgments he may already have formed about you and your message. Before presenting your message, you need to make sure that you have the listener's attention.
Another way of thinking about communication is to compare it to a radio station. A sender and a receiver are required to transmit the message. A powerful station can send a message to a high-quality receiver and the message comes through loud and clear. A weak station trying to get a message over a range of mountains to a 1940 vacuum-tube radio doesn't have much of a chance.
f0 There are three requirements to getting your message through clearly:
Make sure you are a powerful station: Your words need to present your message clearly; your vocal tone needs to match and strengthen your words; and your visual appearance and gestures need to be consistent with your words and vocal tone.
Clear the environment: Anywhere along the process, "noise" -- or static -- can drown out the message. Don't try to transmit over a mountain range. Eliminate distractions, excess noise, and messy, chaotic surroundings. Present your message at a time when it can be received. A radio station that wants to reach business commuters plays its message during the rush hour, not at 3:00 A.M.
Make sure the listener's radio is on. Get your listener's attention. Find out what frequency he's tuned to and transmit on that frequency. If he's interested in facts and figures and you're giving him emotional high drama, you're transmitting on the wrong frequency.
Any time you hear people saying, "I didn't understand what you meant...I thought you said...You never told me...I didn't hear that...," you know there was a failure in one of these areas and your message did not get through. We commonly call this a communication breakdown. However, you can get around or avoid many of these breakdowns. You can project a clear verbal, vocal, and visual signal in a way that gives your listener a better chance to receive it precisely as it was sent. The powerful communication processes presented in this book will help you develop the skills needed to filter out the noise, gain the attention of your listener, and present your message in its clearest, most powerful form. It will also help you establish a feedback process that will allow you to adjust your signal and correct errors received by your listener.
By using noise-free verbal and nonverbal skills during the sending and the feedback processes, you minimize communication barriers and establish an effective, efficient communication climate -- a climate that establishes, maintains, and enhances mutual trust and credibility.
In the following chapters, we present specific verbal, vocal, and visual communication skills: questioning, listening, vocal intonations, image, body language, and feedback. You can then use these skills to send, listen, and give feedback to others as you apply the techniques of effective communication. But, before we get into the specific techniques for improving the three "Vs," it's important to understand the differences in personal communication styles. The next two chapters will give you a complete understanding of how people differ in their communication styles and how to adapt your communication effectively with each style.
Copyright © 1993 by Anthony J. Alessandra and Phillip L. Hunsaker