Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Do, Know, Feel: The Goals of Communication

Why do we communicate? The simple reason is because we don’t do the Vulcan Mind Meld very well. We cannot know directly the thoughts in someone else’s head, nor transmit our thoughts to them. As a result, we have to go through a fairly complex process to get our messages across.

  • Encoding is the process of turning our thoughts into something that can be transmitted. Language is an obvious way to encode messages, but we also add information (consciously or subconsciously) by our tone of voice and our body language. Notice this is the first — but definitely not the last — chance you’ll have to get it wrong.
  • Broadcasting is the process of transmission itself. Whether it’s face-to-face or over email, whether it’s synchronous (real-time) communication or asynchronous (a Facebook conversation), there’s always a physical transmission that accompanies the movement of information from Point A to Point B.
  • Noise and distortion normally occurs during broadcasting, and can take the form of a distraction that keeps the listener from receiving the message, or it can result from a message that isn’t delivered.
  • Decoding takes place in the mind of the listener. The transmitted message (which may be distorted or corrupted) gets turned back into thought. This is a very complicated process.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian, in his groundbreaking book Silent Messages (1971), concluded that tone of voice and facial expression are how feelings and attitudes get communicated (often cited as the 7% word/38% voice/55% expression rule). When the tone of voice or facial expression is in conflict (“This soup is really delicious,” said with a sour look on your face), people tend to believe tonality and facial expression conveys the deeper truth.

Added to the problem of decoding is stereotyping and prejudice. If you have a preexisting idea about an individual or a group, you naturally tend to use that idea as a filter. Race, religion, ethnicity, accent, political orientation, sexual orientation, career — any difference that people notice affects out they interpret what you say.

Because communication is an artificial process, it’s not a good idea to assume your message has gotten across unless you’ve done it right. That means you need a measure of success. How do you know if you’ve communicated effectively?

Well, in project management, success gets benchmarked against your goal. Did you accomplish what you set out to accomplish, and did the underlying problem or issue get solved? These aren’t automatically the same thing, as we all know. Sometimes we communicate our hurt feelings and anger with remarkable effectiveness — but the ultimate outcome may not be to our liking.

The way to think about communication, therefore, is to start with the goal and work backward to the technique. With that in mind, here's the key question: Why are you communicating? On inspection, there turn out to be three goals.

  • We want somebody to do something (Take action)
  • We want somebody to know something (Convey information)
  • We want somebody to feel or believe something (Persuade)

Do. Know. Feel. That’s it. That’s why we communicate. These three goals often interact, of course — the process of getting someone to take some action may sometimes involve conveying information along with persuasion.

Start every communication by thinking about the outcome. What is it that you want to happen with the other person – do, know, feel?

Often, simply thinking clearly about what you want is enough all by itself to show you the way. And when it isn’t, then you know it’s clearly worth some effort to map out a plan. There are great tools available — if you know you've got a problem.

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