A businessman had just turned off the lights in the store when a man appeared and demanded money. The owner opened a cash register. The contents of the cash register were scooped up, and the man sped away. A member of the police force was notified promptly.
Let me ask you some questions about the preceding story. Did the robber demand money from the owner? Was the robber a man? Did the man demanding money speed away? Was there even a robber at all? The answer to all of these questions is that we don't know - there isn't enough information.
I have told that short story to rooms of smart people and asked them to discuss their interpretation. Often, these discussions result in people squabbling over details like children. Effective communication is difficult because we all perceive things differently - our individual backgrounds, attitudes, feelings and experiences all create one massive filter through which we perceive and often distort information. We forget that two people can see the same thing differently and both be right. And in business, bad communication is often the basis for mistakes, low trust, damaged relationships and poor productivity.
So, how do we regain the lost art of communication? How do we ensure that what I said is what you heard? Effective communication only occurs when the message sent = the message received. Communication has not been achieved until the receiver confirms that they received the message which the sender intended to send.
Listen Up: Most good ideas are simple and this one should have been mastered in kindergarten. Of all communication breakdowns, our failure to really listen is the most profound. We all know we should listen better and yet take this essential skill for granted. Effective listening is an active rather than a passive skill; it requires that you are present - in the moment. We must suspend our evaluations and judgments. And we cannot be planning our response, waiting impatiently for someone to finish or taking mental side excursions while people speak. Effective, active listening is the most important element in creating successful communication.
Achieve Dialogue: Dialogue is not just two people talking. Dialogue is defined as creating a pool of shared understanding in an atmosphere of respect to arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome. Shared understanding means that we move beyond our own agendas, perceptions and assumptions. It means we must arrive, through dialogue, at a place of shared, mutual agreement. This process will not be fast or easy in the short term. But it will build trust and collaboration in the long term.
Use Technology Wisely: I am a big believer in using technology to be more efficient - texting and email have become a fundamental part of business. However, like anything, they are often misused and abused. For some communication, electronic formats are ideal. But when we need to have a real discussion, when we need to engage in dialogue, face to face is the only effective venue. Using the wrong communication format for the wrong purpose wastes rather than saves time by causing misunderstandings, eliminating our chance to confirm meaning and unintended emotional reactions. Sometimes we need to get off our rear and go talk to someone!
Effective interpersonal communication is at the foundation of relationships. Whether it is with customers, employees, bosses or vendors, positive and mutually beneficial relationships are the cornerstone of successful business. Make a small investment of your time now, and reap an unlimited return from your business relationships in the future.