Is it Working?

Nearly everyone has an opinion about what determines good communication.

Some people can debate you all day long about how you should express yourself when using words.

“It’s ambiguous to word things that way”, some will say.

“That statement could be misleading if such and such a person were to read it.”

“It’s better to say things this way.”

Then there are the commonly invoked phrases of those who feel quite justified in the face of their critics:

“I have a right to speak however I wish to speak.”

“You don’t get to tell me how to talk.”

“1st amendment rules.”

Here’s an understanding, however, that often gets overlooked or ignored when people get into arguments about how to communicate:

Effective communication takes place when the goal of the communicator has been achieved.

All communication is contextual.

Whenever we speak of communication, we presuppose nothing less than the following three elements:

1) a communicator (the one who is communicating)
2) an intended audience (the people the communicator is trying to reach)
3) a goal (the results the communicator is trying to achieve).

Whenever someone communicates, either they are successful at achieving their goal or they aren’t.

Effective communication isn’t determined by how good you feel about your words nor is it simply determined by how critical others might be of your words. It’s determined by your answer to the follow question: Did you achieve what you set out to achieve when you chose to say what you said?

If you ask someone to pass the salt and they refuse to do so because they thought your request was rude, then your communication wasn’t effective in that context. You might defend yourself in such a scenario by saying “I think their judgement of me is incorrect and unfair” and you might be right.  But you still didn’t achieve the result you set out to achieve, so your act of communication was not effective relative to the specific goal of getting someone to pass the salt.

This is a tricky issue because people usually like to debate over what’s right and wrong. So when a person is criticized for how they express themselves, they tend to defend their right to express themselves in that particular way.

There’s a difference, however, between saying what you have a right to say and saying what you say in way that gets you the results you need.

This is where it becomes important to think about communication not just in terms of right and wrong, but also in terms of what works and what doesn’t work.

If your way of communicating with others isn’t working for you, be honest with yourself about the gap between the results you’re seeking and the results you’re getting. Then ask yourself how you can make the changes you need to make in order to create the outcomes you truly desire.

Conversely, before you criticize others for how they communicate, take a pause and consider their context. Remind yourself that communication is a goal-oriented enterprise. What appears to be a bad way of communicating might actually be a very effective approach given the goals, intended audience, and results of the communicator.

As with all forms of writing, this blog post is itself an act of communication. And it isn’t the last word on how to be a good communicator. There’s much to be learned about the art of understanding others and getting others to understand you. But if we hope to make any progress in that endeavor, it’s imperative that we think about communication in a way that’s much bigger than the arguments we’re capable of giving when we feel the need to defend our communication style.