No one would talk much in society if they knew how often they
misunderstood others. - Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
Many of the problems that occur in a organization are the direct result
of people failing to communicate. Faulty communication causes the most
problems. It leads to confusion and can cause a good plan to fail.
Communication is the exchange and flow of information and ideas from one
person to another. It involves a sender transmitting an idea to a
receiver. Effective communication occurs only if the receiver
understands the exact information or idea that the sender intended to
Studying the communication process is important because you coach,
coordinate, counsel, evaluate, and supervise through this process. It is
the chain of understanding that integrates the members of an
organization from top to bottom, bottom to top, and side to side.
The Communication Process
That is what we try to do
Speak to those near us
During the transmitting of the message, two processes will be received
by the receiver: content and context. Content is the actual words
or symbols of the message which is known aslanguage - the spoken
and written words combined into phrases that make grammatical and
semantic sense. We all use and interpret the meanings of words
differently, so even simple messages can be misunderstood. And many
words have different meanings to confuse the issue even more.
- Thought: First, information exists in the mind of the
sender. This can be a concept, idea, information, or feelings.
- Encoding: Next, a message is sent to a receiver in words
or other symbols.
- Decoding: lastly, the receiver translates the words or
symbols into a concept or information that he or she can understand.
Context is the way the message is delivered and is known as
Paralanguage - it includes the tone of voice, the look in the
sender's eye's, body language, hand gestures, and state of emotions
(anger, fear, uncertainty, confidence, etc.) that can be detected.
Although paralanguage or context often causes messages to be
misunderstood as we believe what we see more than what we hear; they are
powerful communicators that help us to understand each other. Indeed, we
often trust the accuracy of nonverbal behaviors more than verbal
Many leaders think they have communicated once they told someone to
do something, "I don't know why it did not get done...I told Jim to it."
More than likely, Jim misunderstood the message. A message has NOT been
communicated unless it is understood by the receiver (decoded). How do
you know it has been properly received? By two-way communication or
feedback. This feedback tells the sender that the receiver understood
the message, its level of importance, and what must be done with it.
Communication is an exchange, not just a give, as all parties must
participate to complete the information exchange.
Barriers to Communication
Nothing is so simple that it cannot be misunderstood. - Freeman
Anything that prevents understanding of the message is a barrier to
communication. Many physical and psychological barriers exist:
- Culture, background, and bias - We allow our past
experiences to change the meaning of the message. Our culture,
background, and bias can be good as they allow us use our past
experiences to understand something new, it is when they change the
meaning of the message then they interfere with the communication
- Noise - Equipment or environmental noise impede clear
communication. The sender and the receiver must both be able to
concentrate on the messages being sent to each other.
- Ourselves - Focusing on ourselves, rather than the other
person can lead to confusion and conflict. The "Me Generation" is
out when it comes to effective communication. Some of the factors
that cause this are defensiveness (we feel someone is attacking us),
superiority (we feel we know more that the other), and ego (we feel
we are the center of the activity).
- Perception - If we feel the person is talking too fast,
not fluently, does not articulate clearly, etc., we may dismiss the
person. Also our preconceived attitudes affect our ability to
listen. We listen uncritically to persons of high status and dismiss
those of low status.
- Message - Distractions happen when we focus on the facts
rather than the idea. Our educational institutions reinforce this
with tests and questions. Semantic distractions occur when a word is
used differently than you prefer. For example, the word chairman
instead of chairperson, may cause you to focus on the word and not
- Environmental - Bright lights, an attractive person,
unusual sights, or any other stimulus provides a potential
- Smothering - We take it for granted that the impulse to
send useful information is automatic. Not true! Too often we believe
that certain information has no value to others or they are already
aware of the facts.
- Stress - People do not see things the same way when under
stress. What we see and believe at a given moment is influenced by
our psychological frames of references - our beliefs, values,
knowledge, experiences, and goals.
These barriers can be thought of as filters, that is, the message leaves
the sender, goes through the above filters, and is then heard by the
receiver. These filters muffle the message. And the way to overcome
filters is through active listening and feedback.
Hearing and listening are not the same thing. Hearing is the act of
perceiving sound. It is involuntary and simply refers to the reception
of aural stimuli. Listening is a selective activity which involves the
reception and the interpretation of aural stimuli. It involves
decoding the sound into meaning.
Listening is divided into two main categories: passive and active.
Passive listening is little more that hearing. It occurs when the
receiver or the message has little motivation to listen carefully, such
as music, story telling, television, or being polite.
People speak at 100 to 175 words per minute, but they can listen
intelligently at 600 to 800 words per minute (WPM). Since only a part of
our mind is paying attention, it is easy to go into mind drift -
thinking about other things while listening to someone. The cure for
this is active listening - which involves listening with a
purpose. It may be to gain information, obtain directions,
understand others, solve problems, share interest, see how another
person feels, show support, etc. It requires that the listener attends
to the words and the feelings of the sender for understanding. It
takes the same amount or more energy than speaking. It requires
the receiver to hear the various messages, understand the meaning, and
then verify the meaning by offering feedback. The following are a few
traits of active listeners:
- Spends more time listening than talking.
- Do not finish the sentence of others.
- Do not answer questions with questions.
- Are aware of biases. We all have them...we need to control them.
- Never daydreams or become preoccupied with their own thoughts
when others talk.
- Lets the other speaker talk. Does not dominate the conversation.
- Plans responses after the other person has finished
speaking...NOT while they are speaking.
- Provides feedback, but does not interrupt incessantly.
- Analyzes by looking at all the relevant factors and asking
open-ended questions. Walks the person through your analysis
- Keeps the conversation on what the speaker says...NOT on what
- Takes brief notes. This forces them to concentrate on what is
When you know something, say what you know. When you don't know
something, say that you don't know. That is knowledge. - Kung Fu Tzu
The purpose of feedback is to change and alter messages so the intention
of the original communicator is understood by the second communicator.
It includes verbal and nonverbal responses to another person's message.
Providing feedback is accomplished by paraphrasing the words of the
sender. Restate the sender's feelings or ideas in your own words, rather
than repeating their words. Your words should be saying, "This is what I
understand your feelings to be, am I correct?" It not only includes
verbal responses, but also nonverbal ones. Nodding your head or
squeezing their hand to show agreement, dipping your eyebrows shows you
don't quite understand the meaning of their last phrase, or sucking air
in deeply and blowing it hard shows that you are also exasperated with
Carl Roger listed five main categories of feedback. They are listed
in the order in which they occur most frequently in daily conversations.
Notice that we make judgments more often than we try to understand:
Imagine how much better daily communications would be if listeners tried
to understand first, before they tried to evaluate what someone is
- Evaluative: Making a judgment about the worth, goodness,
or appropriateness of the other person's statement.
- Interpretive: Paraphrasing - attempting to explain what
the other person's statement means.
- Supportive: Attempting to assist or bolster the other
- Probing: Attempting to gain additional information,
continue the discussion, or clarify a point.
- Understanding: Attempting to discover completely what the
other communicator means by her statements.
Nonverbal Behaviors of Communication
Without knowing the force of words it is impossible to know men." -
To deliver the full impact of a message, use nonverbal behaviors to
raise the channel of interpersonal communication:
- Eye contact: This helps to regulate the flow of
communication. It signals interest in others and increases the
speaker's credibility. People who make eye contact open the flow of
communication and convey interest, concern, warmth, and credibility.
- Facial Expressions: Smiling is a powerful cue that
transmits happiness, friendliness, warmth, and liking. So, if you
smile frequently you will be perceived as more likable, friendly,
warm and approachable. Smiling is often contagious and people will
react favorably. They will be more comfortable around you and will
want to listen more.
- Gestures: If you fail to gesture while speaking you may
be perceived as boring and stiff. A lively speaking style captures
the listener's attention, makes the conversation more interesting,
and facilitates understanding.
- Posture and body orientation: You communicate numerous
messages by the way you talk and move. Standing erect and leaning
forward communicates to listeners that you are approachable,
receptive and friendly. Interpersonal closeness results when you and
the listener face each other. Speaking with your back turned or
looking at the floor or ceiling should be avoided as it communicates
- Proximity: Cultural norms dictate a comfortable distance
for interaction with others. You should look for signals of
discomfort caused by invading the other person's space. Some of
these are: rocking, leg swinging, tapping, and gaze aversion.
- Vocal: Speaking can signal nonverbal communication when
you include such vocal elements as: tone, pitch, rhythm, timbre,
loudness, and inflection. For maximum teaching effectiveness, learn
to vary these six elements of your voice. One of the major
criticisms of many speakers is that they speak in a monotone voice.
Listeners perceive this type of speaker as boring and dull.
Speak comfortable words!" - William Shakespeare
When speaking or trying to explain something, ask the listeners if they
are following you. Ensure the receiver has a chance to comment or ask
questions. Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes - Consider
the feelings of the receiver. Be clear about what you say. Look at the
receiver. Make sure your words match your tone and body language
(Nonverbal Behaviors). Vary your tone and pace. Do not be vague, but on
the other hand, Do not complicate what you are saying with too much
detail. Do not ignore signs of confusion.
On Communication Per Se (a few random thoughts)
On Discussing Communication
Trying to speak of something as messy as communication in technical
terms seems to be another form of the "math and science" argument, that
is, math and science and technology are the answer to all of our
problems. - Anonymous
But what forms of human behavior are not messy? Learning is not
"antiseptic," yet it is discussed all the time -- we do not leave it to
the academics, Bloom, Knowles, Dugan, or Rossett. Leadership and
management topics seems to be even messier, yet we categorize it, build
models of it, index it, chop it and slice it and dice it, build pyramids
out of it, and generally have a good time discussing it. But when it
comes to "communication," we call it too messy to play with and leave it
up to Chomsky, Pinker, and others to write about so that we can read
about it. Yet we all communicate almost every single day of our lives,
which is much more than we will ever do with learning or leadership.
In the mid 1960s, Paul Ekman studied emotions and discovered six facial
expressions that almost everyone recognizes world-wide: happiness,
sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. Although they were
controversial at first, he was booed off the stage when he first
presented it to a group of anthropologists and later called a fascist
and a racist, they are now widely accepted. One of the controversies
still lingering is the amount of context needed to interpret them. For
example, if someone reports to me that they have this great ideal that
they would like to implement, and I say that would be great, but I look
on them with a frown, is it possible that I could be thinking about
something else? The trouble with these extra signals is that we do not
always have the full context. What if the person emailed me and I
replied great (while frowning). Would it evoke the same response?
Trust your instincts. Most emotions are difficult to imitate. For
example, when you are truly happy, the muscles used for smiling are
controlled by the limbic system and others, which are not under
voluntary control. When you force a smile, a different part of the brain
is used -- the cerebral cortex (under voluntary control), hence
different muscles are used. This is why a clerk, who might not have any
real interest in you, has a "fake" look when he forces a smile.
Of course, some actors learn to control all of their face muscles,
while others draw on a past emotional experience to produce the
emotional state they want. But this is not an easy trick to pull off all
the time. There is a good reason for this -- part of our emotions
evolved to deal with other people and our empathic nature. If these
emotions could easily be faked, they would do more harm than good
So our emotions not only guide our decisions, they can also
communicated to others to help them in their decisions -- of course
their emotions will be the ultimate guide, but the emotions they
discover in others becomes part of their knowledge base.
Mehrabian and the 7%-38%-55% Myth
We often hear that the content of a message is composed of:
However, the above percentages only apply in a very narrow context. A
researcher named Mehrabian was interested in where people get
information about a speaker's general attitude is positive, neutral, or
negative, towards the person the speaker is addressing in situations
where the facial expression, the tone, and the words might be sending
- 55% of the content from the visual component
- 38% from the auditory component
- 7% from language
Thus, he designed a couple of experiments. In one, Mehrabian and
Ferris (1967) researched the interaction of speech, facial expressions,
and tone. Three different speakers were instructed to say "maybe" with
three different attitudes towards their listener (positive, neutral, or
negative). Next, photographs of the faces of three female models were
taken as they attempted to convey the emotions of like, neutrality, and
Test groups were then instructed to listen to the various renditions
of the word "maybe," with the pictures of the models, and were asked to
rate the attitude of the speaker. Note that the emotion and tone were
often mixed, such as a facial expression showing dislike, with the word
"maybe" spoken in a positive tone.
Significant effects of facial expression and tone were found in that
the study suggested that the combined effect of simultaneous verbal,
vocal and facial attitude communications is a weighted sum of their
independent effects with the coefficients of .07, .38, and .55,
However, they also noted a couple of limitations of their studies:
These findings regarding the relative contribution of the tonal
component of a verbal message can be safely extended only to
communication situations in which no additional information about the
communicator-addressee relationship is available.
Thus, what can be concluded is that when people communicate, listeners
derive information about the speaker's attitudes towards the listener
from visual, tonal, and verbal cues; yet the percentage derived can vary
greatly depending upon a number of other factors, such as actions,
context of the communication, and how well they know that person.
Butler, Gillian, Ph.D. and Hope, Tony, M.D. (1996).
Managing Your Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mehrabian, Albert and Morton Wiener, 1967, "Decoding of inconsistent
communications," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Mehrabian, Albert and Susan R. Ferris, 1967, "Inference of attitudes
from nonverbal communication in two channels," Journal of Consulting
Pearson, J. (1983).
Interpersonal Communication. Glenview, Illinois: Scott,
Foreman and Company.
Pinker, Steven (1997).
How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.