Effective communication

stone age to e-comm

Silena Fox,P.Eng.,Senior Project Manager, IS/IT—Bell Canada

“In the Communication Age,we must learn to extract the knowledge from the information, put it into a dynamic ‘digital’ form, and communicate it to cause action.”

“A very long time ago there was no heaven and no earth and no darkness and no light and so God said, “Let there be light,” and there was! And He called the light day,…and the darkness, night. And that was the first day” (Genesis 1). On the sixth day, he created man! He called him Adam. But—even with all the trees, birds and animals around him—was lonely. So one night while Adam was asleep, God took one of Adam's ribs and created a woman. Her name was Eve. When Adam said his first word to Eve—Communication began.

It's not an exaggeration to describe communication as the “heart and soul” of human relations. Communication is the means by which we come to an understanding of others and ourselves. To grow and develop as persons, we must develop the awareness and skills necessary to communicate effectively. John Diekman, author of Human Connections, says, “if we are going to do anything constructive and helping one another, it must be through our communication.” Communication is the human connection.

Selling an idea, changing someone's behavior, informing someone about the status of a project, is all accomplished through the process of sending and receiving effective messages, regardless of the technology. But you need to remember; it's your responsibility for making communication in your career and in your relationships outside of work—successful.

Imagine for a moment that you have a video remote control, but instead of operating a machine, it operates people with whom you're interacting. It could really help you learn more about communicating with others.

You could push the slow motion button to take a closer look at the action. Or you could rewind and replay the discussion to hear specific statements or questions the other person had. You could even freeze the picture to examine facial expressions and body language that tell a story of their own.

In reality you have only a few seconds to absorb this information and respond. But as you're sharpening your communication skills, it helps to pause or slow down the action. That way you can examine communication closely and learn step-by-step how to be a more effective communicator.

The objective of this paper is to slow things down and to take a closer look at what makes communication—and communicators—effective or not so effective. It will demonstrate ways of how to build your skills as a communicator to make your interactions more productive and enjoyable by examining how to Communicate with Others, Influencing Others, Building Trust and Handling Conflict. The subject of the paper will conclude with the Evolution of Communication and some Guidelines for delivering difficult messages in a new way.

Communicate With Others

Art of Communication

Why are some communications and communicators—effective, and others miss the mark? To answer these questions, it helps to look at how people exchange information and ideas.

You might never have thought about it, but there's a lot going on when two people communicate. Even in simple everyday interactions, understanding each other can require several exchanges— wth questions, responses, explanation, and clarifications. Example:

Mary: They've moved our meeting (initiates)

Phil: They changed the time? (responds)

Mary: No, the room. We'll be in Mike's office (explains)

Phil: Oh, I know where that is (acknowledges)

Mary: Good. See you then in Mike's office (confirms)

Phil: Okay (understands)

Seems like a simple exchange, right? But notice how words can mean different things to people. The word moved had a different meaning to Phil, which required further explanation by Mary to ensure understanding and accuracy. Two-way communication takes concentration and effort from both people.

Barriers to Communication

Have you ever finished a discussion thinking you know what had been decided—oly to find out later that the other person had a different understanding? Have you ever attended a meeting in which it was hard to concentrate because the room was too warm? Has someone's opinion or bias ever hurt your feelings? There are many barriers to good communication. They generally fall into one of three categories:

Environment—Barriers are those parts of your surroundings—other than people—that have a negative effect on a discussion. They include physical discomfort, visual distractions, interruptions and noise.

Verbal—Barriers are ways of speaking that get in the way of good communication. Typical examples are people who speak too quickly or don't explain things. Using slang, jargon, or acronyms can be as confusing as a foreign language to someone who isn't familiar with them. Not listening well is another kind of verbal barrier. Good communication is impossible if the other person isn't paying attention.

Interpersonal—Barriers are relationship issues between two people that have a negative effect on communication. These barriers can be difficult to overcome because they can't be seen, heard, or touched. The two most common interpersonal barriers are incorrect assumptions and different perceptions.

Overcoming Barriers

If you understand that barriers exist, you're halfway to overcoming them. To overcome barriers you have to plan ahead and work to avoid problems during discussions. Below are some tips to help you overcome barriers and be more effective communicator.

Environment—Choose an appropriate setting for your discussion

• Plan to talk when there is little chance of distractions or interruptions.

Verbal—Know what you want to communicate and say it clearly

• Ask questions and repeat important information to be sure you understand what the other person is saying

• Listen carefully to what the other person says to you.

Interpersonal—Set aside assumptions or biases so you can focus on the details of each new situation

• Be alert for possible differences in perception

• Be flexible—if someone doesn't understand your idea, try expressing it in a different way, such as drawing a picture or using an example.

By using these tips, you'll have more productive discussions, resolve problems more efficiently, and enjoy better working relationships.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is what people reveal in addition to spoken words. Facial expression, gesture body language, and tone of voice convey what they're thinking or feeling. Most people use words and nonverbal signals to communicate information and ideas.Your tone of voice is also a form of nonverbal communication.

Confusion arise when nonverbal signals are different from the message people hear. When this happens, it's easy to be misunderstood or to misinterpret what's being communicated. To help avoid confusion, pay attention to nonverbal cues. When you're talking with someone, look at the person. Examine facial expressions, body language and gestures. And listen closely; a person's tone of voice can “tell” you important information about feelings or personal needs.

What People Need

For an interaction to be effective, it must meet two basic needs: the personal needs of the person you're talking with and the practical needs on brings to the discussion.

You can meet personal needs by listening to others, showing you appreciate their input, making them feel valued and understood. Practical needs are the reason for the interaction. Accomplishing tasks, solving problems, and gathering information are a few of the most common practical needs you strive to meet in your discussions.

Remembering these needs and meeting them in your interaction helps you accomplish the discussion's goals while building good relationships.

Key Principles

Key Principles are “keys” to meeting personal needs in a discussion. Using them helps others feel valued, appreciated, listened to, and included in the discussion. Addressing personal needs using Key Principles also makes it easier to meet the practical needs of the discussion.

Maintain or enhance self-esteem—When you treat people with respect and help them feel good about themselves, you build their self-esteem. Remember to:

• Provide sincere and specific complements

• Acknowledge contributions to the discussion

• Focus on the situation being discussed, not on your feelings toward the other person

• Avoid blaming or putting someone down.

Listen and respond with empathy—Take time to listen to the other person and show you understand what he or she's saying and how the person is feeling. Remember to:

• Use facial expressions and eye contact to let the person know you're listening

• Listen for facts and feelings, that is, for the situation causing the emotion and the feelings being expressed. That way you can respond to both

Ask for help and encourage involvement—Never assume that people will speak up if they have something to say. Very often you need to draw out opinions from others and make it easy for them to express their points of view. Their help usually leads to better ideas, solutions, and decisions than if you tried to go it alone. It also makes it easier to get things done. When asking for help, remember to:

• Build on “flawed” suggestions rather than rejecting them

• Avoid telling or demanding

• Use the other person's ideas whenever possible.

Interaction Guidelines and Key Actions

Following the Interaction Guidelines helps you keep your discussions on track, cover the subject completely, and turn ideas into action. The Key Action under each will help you follow the Interaction Guidelines and provide important action cues to guide the discussion.

Open—with “what” and “why.” Whatever your practical need—gathering information, brainstorming ideas, or problem solving—this is the first Interaction Guideline for any discussion. Introduce the topic you want to cover by explaining what you want to talk about and why it's important. Highlight any background information that supports the purpose and importance.

Clarify—The purpose of the second Interaction Guideline is to exchange detailed information about the topic, clarifying anything that's unclear. When all relevant information is clear, review it briefly to make sure you're both on the same track.

Develop—Here, you and the other person work together to generate ideas and suggestions to solve the problem or accomplish the objective. You'll have your own ideas but ask other's ideas as much as possible. Build on each other's ideas to find a better solution than either of you might have thought of alone. After completing Interaction Guideline 3, you should have a list of realistic alternatives. Depending on what you're trying to accomplish, the list might include possible causes of a problem, ideas for improving a process, additional information to gather or possible actions to take.

Agree—This Interaction Guideline meets the practical need for discussions to yield results. When agreeing on actions, use the other person's suggestions if possible. That person will be more committed to the goal if he or she has input on actions to be taken. Together, choose what you're going to do from the list you created in development. After choosing which action will be taken, decide who will be responsible and the time frame.

Close—During this Interaction Guideline, highlight what's been accomplished by reviewing major decisions and actions agreed to. Also decide how you will check progress. Set a date for the next meeting. Remember to thank the other person.

The Interaction Guidelines and Key Actions work like a road map for moving through a discussion.

Remember the remote control in the Introduction? Pick it up again and push the play button. You're ready to try your new skills in “real time.”

Influence Others

Basics of Influence

What's Influence? It's not giving orders. It's not demanding action. It's a way to put ideas into action by involving others. By influencing others effectively, you can make continuous improvements without “pulling rank” or relying on position power.

One of the most important parts of influencing others is making sure you approach the right people. By involving appropriate leaders, co-workers, suppliers, or customers, you won't be wasting anyone's time and effort, and you'll start on the right track.

Team works and empowerment means it's up to you to bring about changes and improvements. With the right planning and skills you'll have the ability to improve quality, save time, reduce costs, serve customers better, and make your work more productive and satisfying.

Think of the interactions you have with people at work. Many of those interactions involve influencing other to make improvements and help you do your job more effectively. It's not easy to influence others. Everyone has experienced the disappointment of receiving lip service, having good ideas turned down or worse, being considered a troublemaker. Such negative experiences can make people quit trying to positively influence others.

Planning is an important step to any discussion, particularly when influencing others. Using the Influence Planner allows you to anticipate what might happen in the discussion and helps you prepare to respond appropriately. Step of the Influence Planner:

• Situation Summary—What is the situation to be changed or improved?

• Objectives—State your suggestions

• What support, approval or resources are needed to implement?

• Benefits—Which organizational values or goals are achieved by your idea?

• How does your idea save time or cost, improve quality, or better serve customers?

• Preparation Strategies—Who's influence?

• Possible objection?

• Known facts, data from others?

• Options or compromises?

• Visual aids?

• Preparation Actions—What do I need to find out?

• When and Where—Date and time

• Location.

Everyone wants to do a good job, have input into how work is done, and contribute to the organization's success. In today's team-orientated environment, it's important for employees to be able to communicate ideas and influence others to take action without causing conflict or relationship problems. You must be able to inform others of your viewpoints, gain their support through collaboration and involvement, rather than demanding action or pushing for your ideas to be accepted.

When you do a good job of influencing others, by preparing thoroughly, planning strategies, and conducting effective discussions, everyone benefits. You'll gain respect and build stronger work relationships; co-workers will see you as a valuable contributor; and the organization will achieve higher productivity through collaboration and teamwork.

Build Trust

Trust means the difference between team members who know they can rely on one another and a collection of individuals who usually look out for themselves. When there's a lack of trust, people at according to their assumptions and fears rather than on the facts of a situation. This is because mistrust comes as much from what people don't know as from what they do know.

On the other hand, when trust does exist, people are willing to ask for help, talk openly and honestly about issues and concerns, take risks, accept new challenges. They can perform their jobs with minimal stress and anxiety because they're confident they can rely on one another.

When trust levels are high, communication and involvement levels increases. These have great benefits for you, your team, and the organization:

• Open, honest, factual communication prevents mistakes and errors

• Fewer mistakes ad errors mean less rework, lower costs, and increased productivity

• Efficiency increases as people seek to involve others

• Increased involvement means higher morale and job satisfaction.

Trust Traps

Everything you do on the job has some effect on the levels of trust that exist between you and the people you work with—team members, co-workers, and customers. Most likely, you view your own actions as basically trustworthy. You hope others view them in this way too.

Yet sometimes what you say or do is misunderstood. At other times you might not realize how your actions affect others. What you view as an honest mistake, a simple misunderstanding, or a moment of poor judgment, someone else might view as a sign that you are basically untrustworthy.

So what went wrong? You might have fallen into a “trust trap,” an action that prevents others from trusting you. First step toward avoiding these damaging actions is knowing what they are. Five are essential damaging:

• Making assumptions

• Breaking promises

• Covering yourself

• Spreading rumors

• Bypassing people.

Trust Techniques

Mistrust has much to do with lack of involvement and communication. There are five techniques (SMART) for involving others and ensuring a clear, common understanding of ideas, actions, and outcomes:

Share thoughts, feelings and rationale—The technique brings your unique perspective on a situation into the open. The most direct, most reliable way to be heard and understood by others is to speak up. When you maintain this kind of open, honest communication with co-workers, team members and others, they realize they confidently rely on you to make significant contributions to the challenges that face your team and organization. When sharing your feelings, relate to something of mutual interest, are unique to you, maintain the other person's self-esteem and should be work related.

Make commitments you can keep—Often when people disagree, miss deadlines, or don't provide expected results, it's because they weren't clear in the first place about what was supposed to be done. The purpose of this technique is simply to ensure that whenever people make commitments, they come away with matching expectations. Those expectations are clear by specifying who will do what by when.

Admit Mistakes—Everyone makes mistakes. The people whom we trust understand and accept this. People usually don't expect perfection, but they do expect honesty. The truth always comes out at some point, it's better for people to know you're imperfect and honest rather than imperfect and dishonest.

Request and accept feedback—Are you meeting people's expectations, using your time effectively and communicating ideas clearly? The only way to find out is to get feedback. When you request and accept feedback, it doesn't mean you don't already have your own ideas about what you're doing effectively or less effectively. It only means you value other perspectives and are willing to consider them. To get feedback you can take action on, be specific about the feedback you need or use open-ended questions. This technique can be use with others to build trust more effectively and when you share the rationale behind decisions you've made or actions you've taken.

Test assumptions—People don't always communicate with us clearly. And we don't always hear and understand them clearly either. So it's not unusually to miss details or feel as though you need to check your understanding of a situation. Sometimes the information has simply been left out and still needs to be collected. Mistrust often arises from miscommunication and the root causes of miscommunication is assumption. To test your assumptions and to ensure that the information you do have is factual, to do the following:

• Recognize assumptions

• Seek information

• Check your understanding.

Using those techniques encourages others to do the same. Over time, trust grows and strengthens; an environment of trust is created.

Handle Conflict

Conflict is what occurs when differing ideas, interests, or perceptions cause people to behave with close-mindedness or anger. The result is often hurt feelings, distrust, or even major arguments when people fail to resolve conflict; working relationships become difficult or disruptive. Sometimes information is not shared and the quality of work suffers. It's important to be able to resolve conflict at work. Conflict hinders cooperation, can reduce quality, and makes communication difficult. Your ability to handle conflict will help you solve problems more quickly, meet customer's needs, and improve working relationships.

Differences are okay. It's common for people to feel differently about issues or problems. And these differences alone aren't necessarily bad. Differing points of view can promote creativity and innovation. Discussing differing opinions can lead to unique approaches in solving the problem. When you and co-worker build on each other's ideas, the combined effort will produce better answers or solutions that one person's alone.

What People Need

The Challenge of handling conflict is to meet the personal and practical needs that are part of every discussion. The practical needs are to resolve the conflict and the problems behind it. But that's only possible if you meet the other person's personal need, which can be very strong in a conflict discussion. The needs to be listened to, treated with respect, and involved in the discussion are extremely important in conflict discussions. Meeting these needs is the key to meeting the practical goals of the discussion.

Evolution of Communication

“Communication” evolved from the Stone Age to e-Com and will continue to evolve. Man's methods of communicating between diverse locations can be considered to form an index of our technological development. The first known methods of signaling were Greek and Roman signal fires, which were, limited in their information content to the occurrence or non-occurrence of predefined events. In Africa the use of jungle drums transmitted messages between villages. Their use disseminated more information than fires, since the beat of the drum could be changed to convey different information. With the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, the requirement for timely and accurate mechanisms for information distribution grew, resulting in the development of machines that communicate with one another. The Technology Revolution introduced into businesses the Voice, Data, Image and Video Communication in order to survive. In fact, much of our modern society is based upon the communication of messages whose information content is generated by or through the use of machines.

Technology and globalization now have created an environment in which teams communicate and collaborate virtually, across boundaries of time, geography, and organization. Technology introduces a critical variable that radically changes the choices for, and the effectiveness of, communication and collaboration.

The fact remains, that all these forms of information communication play a key role in today's businesses, but the soft skills of communication and the communication techniques will never change regardless of the technology. While the project manager must understand the technology sufficiently, it's his soft skills, that he should master, which help him, communicate effectively in order to deal with vendors of communications products and services thus, making cost-effective choices among the growing array of technological options.

Guidelines for Delivering Difficult Messages in a New Ways

Have you ever used email to apologize to a co-worker? Delivered a reprimand to a subordinate with a voicemail message? Jetted across the country just to deliver important news in person. The various communication options at our fingertips today can be good for convenience and productivity—and at the same time very troublesome. With so many ways to communicate, how should a manager choose and use the one that's best—particularly when the message to be delivered is bad or unwelcome news for recipient? Business communication consultants come up with the following guidelines for effectively using the alternative ways of delivering difficult messages:

Choose how personal you want to be—A face-to-face communication is the most intimate. Other choices, in descending order of personalization: a real-time phone call, a voicemail message, a handwritten note, a typewritten or printed letter and the most impersonal—email and fax.

When one way won't do, take two—Voice communication gives you a wide range of tonal signals that can ensure your attitude is conveyed as strongly as your language. Written communication means you've got a record, which can be critical in these litigious times. Why choose? Use both.

In writing, take pains to say how you feel—Because so many of the signals conveyed by voice are lost in writing, learn to write in a way that convey exactly how you feel.

Never deliver any message impulsively—The ancient admonition to count to 10 or take a deep breath before responding to any provocation is true in spades for difficult business communication. A rash outburst can haunt a career for years—and today's technologies provide whole new avenues for instant oblivion.

Consider anything in writing as public information—Review the who, why, and what of every email message you write.

Don't touch that dial until you've thought about voicemail—That's typical of many companies, which makes it important, particularly when you're calling to deliver a difficult or important message, to decide how you'll handle voicemail before you place a call. Is this a message that can be left as a recording? The answer will be “no” if there's no emergency and you need more than a minute to deliver it, or if it's important to hear the recipient's immediate reaction. If you get bumped into voicemail under these circumstances, request a return call or give an approximate time that you'll call back or be prepared to deliver all the essentials of your message quickly, so you aren't foiled by a short recording time.

Follow up to confirm and clarify—If your difficult communication is delivered by any means other than an unhurried in person or phone conversation, use one of these direct methods to follow up as promptly as possible.

“The more we automate information handling, the more we will have to create opportunities for effective direct communication.”

References

Stallings, William, and Van Slyke, Richard. 1995. Business Data Communication 3rd Edition, Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Held, Gilbert. 1991. Understanding Data Communications from Fundamentals to Networking. John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Duarte, Deborah L., and Snyder, Nancy Tennant. 1999. Mastering Virtual Teams. Jossey-Bass Inc.

Edwards, Anne. 1969. A Child's Bible. Wolfe Publishing Ltd.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville,Tenn.,USA

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