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The most effective organizations are those whose cultures emphasize building strong interpersonal relationships, whether internal or external. Doing that requires effective communication.

Communication is Key…

Communication is one of the most fundamental skills we possess as humans. We are social beings who live in an interdependent world. From the most basic survival instinct, like a baby letting her mother know she is hungry, to the complexity of corporate leaders mobilizing a global and diverse workforce, effective communication is the glue that holds us all together and moves us forward.

Dictionary.com defines communication as: "The imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing or signs". Simple, right? Or not. As we all know, this seemingly straight-forward definition belies a much greater level of complexity.

…and Fraught with Pitfalls

Even when we converse in our native language, misunderstandings and disconnects are common. We’ve all experienced painful "failures to communicate" with loved ones, friends, and co-workers where the message intended to be sent was NOT the message that was received.

In the context of business, ineffective communication can lead to results that are less than desirable, or even downright disastrous. In a recent report, the State of the American Workplace, Gallup found that only "13% of employees strongly agree that leadership in their organization communicates effectively with the rest of the organization". What can a manager (or any person, for that matter) do to be an excellent communicator?  

I think that we have communication challenges with each other because we believe it is such a simple process that it doesn’t require rules. But if that is true, why are there so many miscommunications and misunderstandings among ourselves and others?

But communicating is not simple and, it may come as a surprise to you that, doing so effectively is a process more than an art. Once we understand and follow the process correctly, we will learn that following simple rules is necessary to have clear communications and to verify that the party we are communicating with actually received the message as intended.

Here’s the communication process, gone wrong:


The originator of the message "sends" it to the receiver and it’s done… RIGHT? Some questions come to mind. Was the message sent clear? Did it reach the intended receiver? Did the receiver understand the message the way it was intended? Hmm. What could have gone wrong?

The answer is "Noise in the Channel." Every time a message is sent, there are distractions going on. Maybe there is background noise. Maybe the receiver is distracted, or not paying attention, or doesn’t really care. Or, maybe the message was delivered in a hurried manner and it was garbled. No matter the situation, Noise in the Channel always exists…yet there is a remedy to solve this basic problem: feedback.


It seems so simple, doesn’t it? So, why doesn’t it happen? Well, it takes time to ask for and receive feedback on your communication. But, it’s worth the extra time if it helps to improve clarity and minimize confusion and frustration. For example, try taking the time to say, "Please respond to me (send feedback) with your understanding of what I said, so that I am sure I communicated with you effectively." Not doing this can create a great risk that your message was not clear, was garbled, or that the receiver wasn’t in a good receive mode to understand what you were trying to convey.

If you will include this "simple" step in your communication process on a regular basis, you will quickly see that successful communication will grow by leaps and bounds.

Ancient Rome to the 20th Century

Cicero, the great orator of the late Roman Republic (circa 75 AD) said, "If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my language." We are all unique in our experience and perceptions. This richness of humanity means that our interactions are, by definition, complicated and unpredictable, so we need to go deeper and communicate using feelings and emotions as well as intellect.    

Almost two millennia later, Dr. Stephen R. Covey would give us more details on how to do this in his international bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Habit #5, "Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood", advocates for "empathic listening" which Covey considers to be the highest form of listening (the first four levels are ignoring, pretending, selective listening and attentive listening).

Seek First to Understand…

According to the book, empathic listening means getting "inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel". Cicero would have been proud.

Specifically, Covey tells us that we must:

  • Approach interactions with a sincere desire to understand. If not, others will see through the lack of authenticity.
  • Listen not only with our ears, but with our eyes and our HEART. We must engage our right brain as well as our left.
  • Avoid responding "autobiographically", or from our own frame of reference. Said another way, don’t project our own home movies onto other people’s behavior.

…Then to be Understood

These concepts apply whether we are communicating one-on-one or one-to-many. And when it is time to deliver our own message, having been an empathic listener first allows us to frame how best to be understood within the context of the receivers’ viewpoint. We might even find that we’ve changed our initial opinion or content. Paradoxically, in order to influence others, we ourselves need to be "influenceable"!

All of this may sound like a bit "touchy, feely", but the reality is that using our emotions and right brain, along with strong left brain listening skills, will help us to be more empathetic, to communicate more effectively, and to connect more genuinely with others in our professional and personal lives.


Thanks to HPISolutions’ Founder and CEO, Jerry Houston and Strategic Partner, Diane Janovsky for their terrific contributions.