Louder Than Words: The Key to Effective Communication
It is a well-established maxim that “Good communication is the key to successful projects.” Clear, concise, specific communication is the goal, and this applies to business as well as day-to-day life. The trouble is following through on it.
People live and work in a variety of fields and situations. They may be technical, mundane, easy, or contentious. Not all projects or life situations are the same, but they do have some similar elements. One of the most significant elements is experiencing the issues caused by failures in communication, which is very apparent not only in business but households world-wide. Sadly, it is a prevalent problem. Over 90% of issues in any project can be directly attributed to information gaps and the assumptions made as a result. Exploring what constitutes “good communication” is essential, and understanding how to communicate properly can be of great value.
So, what does “Communication” mean?
Communication is an information exchange between two or more people. The problem is that what one person says may not be with the other person hears. Why? It happens because people do not think the same. In fact, they can’t. They do not have the same experiences or the same backgrounds. That personal history is what shapes our way of thinking.
How does this happen? That answer lies in the process itself.
How people communicate is quite complicated. Giving simple directions like “turn left here” or “that’s not correct” is straightforward enough, and you don’t need more information. But when you’re trying to convey complex ideas or concepts, it becomes a different matter. That type of communication needs the additional aspect of interacting face to face. This is because the bulk of “true”‘ communication is nonverbal.
Not paying attention to, or not being able to observe directly, the nonverbal part of communication causes people to make assumptions about what’s being said, actions that are necessary, or questions being asked. They must interpret what the other person is trying to convey with insufficient information. When that happens, people will fill in the blanks with what they know or have experienced. Because people think differently, the result will not be what the 1st person was trying to get across. This naturally leads to problems.
A case in point from a recent project: A US client was buying an Automated Vision Inspection machine from a vendor in Denmark. Much of the initial project work needed to be conducted via phone conference, email, or text communications. Our Danish counterparts were mostly bi-lingual English/Danish. While their English was quite good (much better than my Danish!), we encountered several issues because a simple word or phrase in the US did not mean the same thing there. The stand-out example had to do with Factory Acceptance Testing (FAT). When this client stated that a complete FAT would need to be conducted in Denmark before accepting the machine, the vendor was very reluctant to agree. This was, to say the least, quite confusing to the client. It took a lot of discussion back-and-forth and facilitation on the part of CAI to discover that to the client a “complete FAT” meant: spot checks of the equipment, wire ID’s, I/O’s, and components. The client wanted alarms, operation, reject testing, security, data integrity, etc. to be a somewhat more thorough than spot checks but still standard procedure.
To the vendor, a complete FAT meant 100% wire and I/O checks – walking down each one, all components and documentation reviewed and verified, operational testing with many thousands of samples, complete code review, etc. The vendor normally completes and documents all these through their internal version of a “complete FAT.” They were objecting to doing all of that over again. Their idea of “complete FAT” was substantially different from what the client was requiring. They were greatly relieved to learn what we really meant.
How do we communicate effectively?
All good communicators seek to understand before they seek to be understood. Getting a complete understanding of what the other person is trying to get across is crucial to effective communication. Not doing so always leads to confusion.
Because most of the information derived from any communication is non-verbal, you cannot get a complete understanding of anything without considering the other person’s nonverbal clues. Therefore, emails, text messages, Post-it notes, etc. are mostly ineffective when it comes to good communication. They can’t convey the full message… it is incomplete.
Nonverbal communication is something that we all do, whether we are conscious of it or not. You take clues from the person you’re talking with to be sure they understand what you’re saying by observing their posture and their mannerisms (body language). Are they making eye contact with you? Are they fidgeting? Are they looking at their phone or the floor? Does their voice change? Are they talking very fast? These are all nonverbal clues that indicate the person may not fully understand what’s being said in the conversation. They also may be fearful for some reason, bored, or unsure of their information. By paying attention to these signs, you can elicit feedback and adjust how you present the information you need to get across. You can direct the communication process the way it needs to go so that everyone winds up on the same page.
Even though we all process nonverbal clues continuously, we may not be conscious of doing so. Nonetheless, nonverbal communication conveys to us an enormous amount of information on what the other person is thinking but also what they’re feeling. Being cognizant of this and being able to read nonverbal cues is what’s known as Emotional Intelligence or EI.
Emotional Intelligence means understanding the role that people’s emotions play in communication, both receiving and sending. Someone with a high EI will consider how they affect others. Doing so means they are mindful of their nonverbal signals to help the other person. A good example would be how actors or comedians would “read the room” based on how the audience is responding to them, and then change how they respond. The best communicators in the world all have a high EI. They understand what’s going on with their audience by paying attention to their nonverbal clues. This helps guide them in getting their point across.
A high EI requires that you understand not only what your audience is feeling and how your actions impact them but also how their actions affect you. For example; If you’re in discussion with someone on a technical subject and the tone of the other person’s voice changes, that can be an indication that they are anxious or unsure of something. If the volume of their voice changes or if the speed that they are speaking changes, these can also indicate that they may be uncertain, or even be fearful. When you pick up on clues like these, you need to understand what’s really going on and what they’re feeling, then try to bring them back to a level where you can communicate openly and honestly to get a problem solved.
Our emotions are on display 24/7 for the entire world to see, and there is not much you can do about it. If you learn to carefully observe the people you interact with as well as yourself, you will start to pick up on those clues and begin to act accordingly. In doing this, you will have taken a giant step in the direction of becoming a great communicator. Learning to observe the nonverbal signs, understanding why they are there, and acting on them is a very powerful skill that will serve you well in every aspect of your life.
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About the Author:
John is a multi-faceted Manager/Engineer and effective team leader able to work with all types of personalities. He has experience as a Validation Director and Manager, responsible for several multi-million dollar initiatives. These efforts covered equipment and facility lay-out, specification, commissioning, installation, retro-fit, integration, optimization, and validation for diverse manufacturing, filling, and packaging equipment as well as changes to validated facility mechanical and utility systems.