How to Improve Communication Skills at workplace

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Published Date:11-07-2017
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NOTES ON NOTES ON NOTES ON COMMUNICATION COMMUNICATION COMMUNICATION A FEW THOUGHTS ABOUT THE WAY WE INTERACT WITH THE PEOPLE WE MEET Dr Gordon Coates A free e-book from 13 DEFINITIONS OF COMMUNICATION There are various definitions of communication, and in a moment I will give you three of them. They are not all the same, but they mostly only differ in fairly minor ways. The word itself is derived from the Latin verb communicare, which means "to share" or "to make common". That derivation provides one half of the English meaning of communication. The other half of the meaning of communication has to do with information and meaning. These are related, but not identical, concepts. However, in simple definitions like the three shown below, information is far more likely to be mentioned, than meaning. Why is that? It is difficult to do justice to the interaction between information and meaning in a brief definition, or indeed, in any brief fashion. This matter will be addressed in various chapters and appendices. For now, though, I will simply say that, while information always means something, it rarely, if ever, means exactly the same thing to different people. THREE SIMPLE DEFINITIONS  Communication is the sharing of information  Communication is the giving and receiving of messages  Communication is the transfer of information from one or more people to one or more other people The first of these three definitions is the simplest, and also the broadest. Because of those qualities, it is also a little nonspecific. The second definition reminds us that information, here called a message, must be received, as well as sent, to complete the process. For example, a message launched in a bottle might achieve communication, but it also might not. 14 None of the above definitions requires information to flow in more than one direction (though the first two do rather imply this). Two-way communication is certainly more common, and is often preferable, but a one-way delivery of information, such as advice or instructions, still constitutes communication. The last definition above only applies to communication between people. Animals, plants and machines are also capable of various sorts of communication, but they are not included in this definition. (They are not included in this book, either – though machines do get a brief mention in Appendix 4.) This last definition is perfectly satisfactory for our purposes, though, as this is a book about communication between people. That implies at least two people – one at each "end" of the process. It can, of course, involve many more than two people. ONE SIMPLE PROCESS? How does communication actually occur? If it can be simply defined, as we have seen above, can it be just as simply achieved? It seems to me that the process by which communication occurs is very simple in concept, but can become extremely complex if it is inspected closely. The simple version goes something like this. The sender, who has a message, somehow puts it in a form which can be sent, and somehow sends it in the direction of the receiver. The receiver then somehow receives it, somehow gets it into their brain, and somehow attributes meaning to it. This version includes a great deal of "somehow", but no "how" at all The complex version of the communication process is either utterly fascinating, or incredibly boring, depending on your point of view. Many thousands of pages have been written about it, and agreement between the authors of those pages is 15 far from complete. I have included a little bit about the details of the process in Appendix 1, for any interested readers. However, not everything about the process involved in sending and receiving messages has been banished to Appendix 1. Some of its practical aspects will be discussed in the next chapter. Before that, though, I will make a first tentative step towards redeeming my promise to say more about the related concepts of information and meaning. INFORMATION AND MEANING Whether writing about communication, or simply chatting over lunch, the word meaning is quite often encountered. Because it is a common word that we all use frequently, it is easy to forget something very important about it. While always present within an individual mind, meaning is never fully transferable. I am commenting on this complex matter early in the book, because everything said later, in every chapter, is subject to this limitation – a limitation inherent in all communication. The meaning attributed to any message by the receiver can never be exactly the same as the meaning intended by the sender, because they are different people, with different sense organs and different cognitive function. There are also many other factors which influence the degree to which the receiver's meaning differs from the sender's meaning. In the case of a word or phrase, the surrounding words or phrases usually provide useful clues. Language features (such as formal, informal and idiomatic language) and sentence structure (sometimes called syntactical grammar) also provide extra information. In the case of speech, factors such as timing, stress and intonation are very significant. The overall structure and organisation of the communication (sometimes called textual grammar) must also be considered, 16 as should the individual characteristics of the sender and the receiver. Any concurrent messages, especially non-verbal ones, will also exert an influence, as will other factors such as the pre-existing knowledge of each communicator and the relationship between the communicators. The method by which a message is delivered, and the form in which it arrives, will inevitably have an impact on the receiver. The purpose of the communication and the audience to which it is directed are also very relevant. The overall situation in which the communication occurs, and the local – and more distant – events surrounding it, also play their part. These various things which influence the meaning attributed to an instance of communication are often referred to as the context of that communication. However, context is not always applied in such a broad way. Sometimes it is used to refer to particular aspects of the influences surrounding a message. Do the preceding paragraphs mean that communication is doomed to constant failure? There is more than one answer to that question. One could argue that the transfer of a representation of some information to the mind of the receiver is all that can be expected of the communication process. From that viewpoint, the process might be considered successful, even if the meaning attributed is not the meaning intended. However, that view of communication will not satisfy everybody. Many will wish to share their intended meanings as closely as possible with their target audiences, no matter how small or large those audiences may be. In order to do that, communication must become an art as well as a science. There will be examples of ways in which meaning can be influenced in most of the chapters in this book. In addition, in Appendix 1, information and meaning will be addressed at a little more length. This will still not be sufficient to scratch the 17 metaphorical surfaces of these elusive concepts, but I hope it will at least give an idea of their nature and significance. 18 SENDING AND RECEIVING MESSAGES Not much can be said about the sending and receiving of messages without the risk of using words to which various experts have previously assigned one or more completely different meanings. For example, I was thinking of referring to the paths followed by information which is sent or received as "communication channels". However, that term has been used in various other ways, so I will avoid it. 1 Instead, I will simply say that messages passed between two people need a way to get out of one person and a way to get in to another person. Therefore, I will talk about "output" and "input". By output, I will mean information going out from a person or persons, so that it is available to one or more other people. By input, I will mean information being received, in a way that ultimately allows it to reach the receiver's brain. There is one thing I need to clarify about these terms. It is possible to imagine the provision of output as an active process, and the reception of input as a passive process. This idea was once quite common, but it does not take into account the fact that receiving information is also an active process, at least as far as the human brain is concerned. Perhaps it is easier to see that output is an active process, because (after using the brain quite a lot, hopefully) we use various muscles to create the output. In the case of input, the sensory organs don't show any visible activity (though plenty of physiology and biochemistry is certainly happening). However, the brain really is very active as the input arrives. 1 I will refer to the minimum number of people (two) in various examples, but in most cases the same example can be applied to a group of people. 19 Therefore, whether I refer to output or input, I am referring to an active process in each case. Now, how does this process actually work? The short answer is to say that inputs are achieved by means of sensations, while outputs are achieved by means of actions. However, that answer, like most short answers, will need a little further explanation. When I say that inputs are achieved by means of sensations, I am not referring to sensational phenomena, such as exciting performances by famous actors. I am referring to signals generated by sensory receptors, which travel along nerve fibres 1 to the brain, where they are then processed. Often, the receptors involved are "organs of special sense", especially the eyes or the ears. However, other sensory nerve endings, mainly those associated with the sense of touch, can also be employed. When I say that outputs are achieved by means of actions, I am not referring to activity in general, but to particular actions, such as talking, writing or physical gestures, which make information accessible to others. These actions involve 2 representing the information in some form which can be sent to, and accessed by, the receiver. (Incidentally, actions which are not intended as a form of communication may also be perceived as messages by those who observe them.) Although output must obviously occur before input when a message is sent and received, I am going to discuss the inputs first. Why? Because both inputs and outputs are usually named after the type of input involved. That being the case, starting 1 The combination of sensory input and its mental processing constitutes perception, which is discussed briefly in Appendix 1. 2 Representation of information is a complex matter, the basic principles of which are discussed in Appendix 1. For now, an everyday meaning, "to render or present something in a way which can be accessed", will suffice. 20 with the outputs would be rather confusing, as their names would make no sense until the inputs had been discussed. INPUTS Three of our five senses – sight, hearing and touch – are used as major inputs. These are usually referred to as the visual, 1 auditory and tactile inputs respectively. They are sometimes called input channels; however, as previously mentioned, the term "channel" is used in various ways, so I will avoid it. The importance of the major inputs is often in the order given – first visual, then auditory, then tactile. However, people vary in their ability to use a particular input, as well as in their preferences for different inputs. Also, some people have reduced or absent function affecting one or more senses, which naturally modifies their available options. Although the three major input methods react to different stimuli, and receive various types of information in their different ways, each of them can also be employed to receive words. Visual reception of written words and auditory reception of spoken words are everyday experiences. Communicating words by touch is perhaps less intuitive, but an efficient method of achieving this has been available, in the 2 form of braille , for nearly two hundred years. 1 The tactile sense is sometimes subdivided according to the type of sensation, such as light touch, pressure, joint position, temperature, pain of various types, and so on. However, these subdivisions are not usually considered when discussing tactile communication (which, in practice, usually involves light touch or pressure). 2 A system of writing developed (from a much more complicated existing system) by Louis Braille (1809-1852). It employs patterns created by up to six raised dots, the positions of which are arranged in two columns of three rows each, in order to represent the letters and numerals. (to next page…) 21 The other two known senses play relatively little part in deliberate communication. The sense of smell is only available as an input when proximity allows. In that case, unless nasal congestion or some other pathology has put it out of action, a wide range of odours can be sensed, even when the substance involved is at a very low concentration. In some cases, a single molecule is sufficient for the recognition of an odour. Strong olfactory stimuli are provided by many types of food and drink, as well as many plants and perfumes, but their meaning is usually nonspecific. Various body odours also constitute powerful non-verbal messages. However, transmission of verbal information via the sense of smell, though theoretically feasible, is not used in practice. The sense of taste generally requires olfaction as well as tongue contact, as most taste sensation is actually mediated by the sense of smell. However, five tastes, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury, can be sensed by the tongue alone. The provision of food and drink is a form of communication involving taste. However, the use of taste to receive verbal information would be even less practicable than the use of olfaction. That covers the five known senses, but it is possible that pheromones also have a role in communication. Pheromones are volatile secretions, produced by many vertebrates, which influence social or sexual behaviour when their evaporated molecules are sensed by the "vomeronasal organ" of another member of the same species. (braille, continued) This makes written communication possible when the visual input is unavailable. Extensions of the system can accommodate various complexities such as mathematical and musical notation. Simply embossing the letters is a slower alternative to braille. It can be very useful when one of the parties involved does not know braille, though. 22 However, although humans have a (possibly vestigial) vomeronasal organ, its role in human communication awaits clarification. Further research might conceivably uncover an unconscious, but highly significant, communication process, based entirely on the wafting of pheromone molecules through the air circulating between two or more people. Time will tell. In any event, as far as is known at the time of writing, we mostly use our visual, auditory and tactile senses as inputs. All three can receive information which does not include words. By making use of writing, speech or braille, as appropriate, all three can also be used to receive words. Importantly, many people seem to use one of the three main inputs more effectively than the other two. The same preference usually influences their use of outputs. I will have more to say about these preferences after looking at the outputs, which are the subject of the next heading. OUTPUTS As mentioned earlier, the outputs are named after the inputs used to receive them. The major outputs are thus called visual, auditory and tactile, just like the major inputs. In other words, if a gesture is made, the visual output is said to be employed. If a sound is created, the auditory output is said to be employed. If a part of the sender's body, or an object acting as an extension of the sender's body, makes contact with the receiver's body, the tactile output is said to be employed. Also as mentioned earlier, outputs are achieved by means of actions, which create messages, and sometimes also transmit them over a short distance (as in speaking, for example). These actions are performed by various parts of the body, but not by the sense organs which act as inputs. Outputs and inputs involve different parts of the body. That is not to say that there 23 is no connection between them. Input is almost always used to monitor the production of output. One example is listening (input) to the sound of the voice, as well as the words produced, while speaking (output). The eyes might seem to be an exception to the separation of inputs and outputs. Muscle contractions can change pupil diameter, or move the lids or the eyeballs, to create a visual output – which then becomes the input to the receiver's retina. In a sense, then, eyes can create messages which can be received by eyes. However, the input sense organ (the retina) is quite distinct from the output message creator (the various muscles which control the pupils, lids and eyeballs). In general terms, visual output might be created directly by gesturing or smiling, less directly by choice of clothing, or indirectly by using a projector. Auditory output might be created directly by clapping or speaking, less directly by playing a musical instrument, or indirectly by playing a recording through loudspeakers. Tactile output might be created directly by shaking hands, less directly by rocking a cradle, or indirectly by providing comfortable chairs for visitors. In practice, most communicative output can be assigned to one of these three main categories (though olfactory and gustatory outputs are also possible). As mentioned above, the role of pheromones in human communication is uncertain at the time of writing. PREFERRED INPUTS AND OUTPUTS Having looked at the available inputs and outputs, the question arises whether the particular method in use at a given time has any influence on the quality of communication. I mentioned previously that different people appear to favour different inputs and outputs – but do such preferences matter? 24 Importantly, a preference for a particular method does not exclude the others. However, it does reduce their use, either for input or output, in comparison to the favoured method. Unless there is a specific disability preventing the use of one or more of the inputs or outputs, they will all be available to some extent. However, the preferred method(s) would probably be used more, and presumably also more effectively. Although the output method employed can influence the choice of words, any further alteration at the receiving end would reflect sensory or cognitive errors. There would presumably be more risk of such errors if the message arrived via a little-used input. However, in the case of non-verbal communication, which is discussed later, understanding appears to be generally better if messages arrive via preferred inputs. As a great deal of the emotional component of communication seems to be non-verbal, emotional communication is more sensitive to input and output preferences. (Estimates of the proportions of communication which are verbal and non-verbal will be discussed later, under Non-verbal Communication.) None of this would really matter if we all used all the major inputs and outputs all the time, but that is unusual. It would also not matter if people always used the same inputs and outputs as each other when communicating, but very often, they don't do that, either. Among other things, this suggests that people who work with people, especially in a therapeutic role, might be wise to pay attention to all their inputs and outputs. This should reduce the amount of information lost in either direction and might also be a way of improving one's own non-verbal communication. The significance of preferred inputs and outputs has been emphasised by many authors, and is also a central feature of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) which is an interesting 25 approach to communication, persuasion and some aspects of hypnotherapy (potentially, though not necessarily, including covert hypnotic suggestion). NLP has its roots in some observational studies of the interactions between clients and therapists which were made by 1 psychologist Richard Bandler and linguist John Grinder in the early 1970s. A "new code of NLP" was also proposed by John Grinder et al in the early 1980s. Putting into practice some of the ideas of anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson, Grinder and Bandler carefully recorded the interactions between three successful therapists (Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and later Milton H. Erickson) and their clients. Analysis of the resulting audio and video material revealed a number of interesting patterns of behaviour, quite a few of which were related to the input and output preferences of those involved. When I first studied NLP in 1980, it seemed like a very promising development, likely to have significant implications for counselling and psychotherapy. However, the emphasis since then seems to have been more on marketing books, seminars etc as aids to self development, salesmanship, management training and related things, rather than developing NLP into a form of medical or psychological treatment. To the best of my knowledge at the time of writing, NLP has not been validated as a form of therapy. However, I have personally found some of the ideas which emerged from the early work of Grinder and Bandler quite useful when communicating with patients and their loved ones. 1 Grinder, J. and Bandler, R. 1975a. The Structure of Magic: A Book About Language and Therapy. Science & Behaviour Books, Palo Alto. Also Grinder, J. and Bandler, R. 1975b. The Structure of Magic II: A Book About Communication and Change. Science & Behaviour Books, Palo Alto. 26 I will look at those ideas in terms of the style of communication which often seems to be linked to a preferred method of input and output; or, in some cases, linked to a preference for words and concepts. It is therefore possible to propose visual, 1 2 auditory, tactile and verbal communication styles. If the communication styles of people who are interacting do not match, some information which is intended for transmission might get lost. Equally significantly, some information which was not intended for transmission might still be sent and received (which could be embarrassing). I think it is therefore worth developing an awareness of your own communication style, and also noticing any available clues to the preferred communication style of a person with 3 whom you are interacting. Some useful clues can be gleaned by noting the words people use when giving descriptions. The most revealing words for this purpose are often, but not exclusively, verbs and adjectives. Apart from these verbal clues, some further hints can be discovered by noticing any actions which accompany speech. Sometimes, those actions may be suggestive of one of the major input/output systems. 1 In NLP, the style I call tactile is called "kinaesthetic". The latter word is derived from kinaesthesia, which means sensation from muscles, tendons, and joints in response to body movement or muscle contraction. I don't think that is really the right word for a style which is most closely related to the senses of touch and pressure. 2 In NLP, the style I call verbal is called "auditory digital". "Auditory" might suggest that the verbal style is restricted to mainly auditory communicators, which I think is an oversimplification. "Digital", as mentioned under Watzlawick's fourth axiom in Appendix 3, is more often applied to fingers, numbers or computers, nowadays, than to discrete symbols. 3 In NLP, these clues are called "cues", and the input/output methods are called "representational systems". 27 Some interesting associations have also been noticed between 1 eye movements occurring while processing information, and a person's communication style. When remembering or imagining, the eyes often move sideways or diagonally, in a way which can be related to the person's communication style. Responses to conflict during an interaction also appear to bear some relationship to preferred communication styles. The 2 famous family therapist Virginia Satir found it helpful to classify clients as blamers, placaters, computers, distracters or 3 levellers on the basis of their behaviour under stress. She suggested connections between some of these categories (often referred to as Satir categories) and some communication styles. I will mention some of those connections when discussing the individual styles. As with the other clues, the connection between communication style and response to conflict is suggestive rather than definitive. Nevertheless, I think these clues can be helpful as part of a broad approach to better communication. On the other hand, if too much notice were taken of them, it could very easily do more harm than good. Anyway, to show how the clues may 1 These are actions too, of course, but I have considered them separately because their interpretation relies on derived rules, rather than analogy. 2 Satir, V. 1972. Peoplemaking. Science and Behavior Books, Palo Alto. 3 According to Satir, Blamers are those who, instead of facing a conflict situation squarely, and considering whether they need to change their own state or actions, simply blame others and do nothing about it. Placaters are those who make a similar evasion in the opposite way. They accept the blame and apologise, but still do nothing about it. Computers are those who evade responsibility by behaving in an emotionally distant way, sticking to concepts, logic, mathematics and statistics. Distracters are those who make a similar evasion by going off at a tangent or creating a diversion. Levellers are those who do not evade issues, but instead face them, respond in an open and honest fashion, and seek a solution. 28 become apparent in everyday situations, I will give examples of each type of clue for each of the four communication styles. Visual Communication Style Visual Words A person with a visual communication style might discuss a situation in terms of how it looks. During negotiation or argument, they might try to get you to see their point of view. To be noticed, they might rely partly on clothes, hairstyle, makeup, accessories and so on, which will catch the eye of another person, thus showing themselves in a good light. When describing experiences, they often mention colours, and also use words like clear, vivid, bright, and dull. Visual Actions Visual communicators are prone to drawing pictures in the air with their hands, and often demonstrate any movement they describe by performing it with their own body. Their facial expressions are usually closely related to the verbal message. Eye contact is frequent, and is again related to the verbal message. They may also show a visible reaction (not always an approving one) to your own appearance, or to the appearance of their surroundings. Visual Eye Movements People who favour visual communication often display eye movement upwards and to one side. Sometimes, movement up 1 and to the left reflects recall, while movement up and to the 1 The terms "left" and "right" refer to the anatomical left and right sides of the person whose eyes are being observed, not to those of the observer. 29 right reflects imagination, but this is less reliable than the upward component of the movement. To complicate matters, visual people with extremely accurate recall (sometimes called eidetic or photographic memory) often close their eyes to reduce interference from external sources, while virtually reliving the experience internally. (This can also occur with non-visual eidetic memory, or indeed with memory of any sort, so it is very nonspecific.) Visual Conflict Responses Visual communicators often have a strong sense of how things should look – which sometimes extends to how things should be, what is currently wrong and what should be done about it. Many of them proceed to do something to improve the situation, often with considerable speed and efficiency. However, seeing other people's many shortcomings with such clarity can make it tempting to criticise them, and perhaps also to blame them for what appears to be wrong. The term "visual critic" or "visual blamer" might then be applied. Fortunately for their families, friends and colleagues, only some visual communicators earn either or both of those labels Auditory Communication Style Auditory Words A person with an auditory communication style might approach a decision or problem in terms of how it sounds to them or whether it rings true. During negotiation or argument, they might want to tune in to your ideas and also try to get you to hear what they are saying. To be noticed, they might employ audible signals such as the tone, pitch and volume of their voice. When describing experiences, they often mention how 30 things sounded, and use words like quiet, loud, distorted, blaring and echo. Auditory Actions Auditory communicators pay attention to the sonic aspects of their environment, avoiding noisy shopping malls and construction sites where possible and reacting strongly to stimuli like the tone, pitch and volume of other people's voices. They are quite likely to invest in expensive high-fidelity sound equipment, choosing the components, connecting wires and 1 supporting structures by ear rather than specifications, as they often notice many aspects of sound which others ignore. Auditory Eye Movements People who favour the auditory input/output method often display a horizontal eye movement to left or right while processing information. As with the visual style, movement to the left more often reflects recall, while movement to the right more often reflects imagination. Alternatively, as with any communication style, auditory communicators with very accurate recall may close their eyes to reduce interference from external sources, while they are "hearing" the experience in their memory. Auditory Conflict Responses Auditory communicators often demonstrate their own feelings by the volume, pitch and timbre of their voice and the speed and rhythm of their speech – a complex musical performance 1 If you don't think the connecting wires and supporting furniture affect the sound of recorded music, you're probably not an auditory communicator 31 which other communicators rarely appreciate fully. The performance may include shouting, in some cases. In addition, many auditory communicators are inclined to cross over to the verbal style under stress – which is presumably why the verbal style is called "auditory digital" by NLP practitioners. Tactile Communication Style Tactile Words A person with a tactile communication style might approach a decision or problem in terms of what sort of feeling (or sometimes gut feeling) they have about it, and whether they can grasp its meaning. During negotiation or argument, they might try to impress their ideas, put them to you or get them across to you. To be noticed, they might choose to share their feelings with others. They may use phrases like touch base and get in touch. When describing experiences, they often mention how things feel, especially as regards comfort and texture, and they use words like soft, hard, smooth and rough in their descriptions, as well as warm, cold, friendly and unfriendly. Interestingly, physical feelings and emotional feelings tend to be combined in this style. Even though it is only physical feelings that are tactile, tactile communicators usually seem to experience emotional feelings fairly strongly as well. Tactile Actions Tactile communicators often stand quite close to you. They may also move in a slow and measured way. Any physical contact which is appropriate to the occasion and the culture involved is likely to be frequent and pronounced. Physical contact with pets may be almost continuous Inanimate objects

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