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Defining Communications
By Jane Watson   Printer Friendly Version

If you check any job postings, you'll see that almost all positions from middle-entry level and on up list excellent communication skills as a requirement.

Yet I have never heard of anyone who has decided not to apply for a position because he believed his communication skills were not good enough. Most people equate their communication skills with breathing. They are alive; therefore, they are good communicators.

But strong communication skills are an acquired art. They must be learned, honed and conscientiously practiced.

According to the dictionary, to communicate means "to transmit information, thought or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood." Therefore, communication is a double-barreled word; it involves transmitting as well as receiving skills. Under receiving skills we have listening and reading. Under transmitting are speaking and writing.

People assume they are good communicators because they have taken some writing courses in school, can carry on a conversation and are able to read a newspaper. They overlook the fact that the basis of all communication is listening, and few people are professionally trained in this area.

Listening serves as the basis

Poor listening skills can create misunderstandings, a loss of ideas, clients, customers and a lowering of morale.

Listening is an extremely complex skill. It involves five steps: sensing, selecting, interpreting, storing and responding. Each step must be carefully followed before the next step can be executed. We have to be able to absorb both the content (the words) and the context (the delivery) of the message into our stream of consciousness. We have to focus on a specific portion of the message and mix it with our experiences and knowledge to provide a proper interpretation. Then, we have to store the information in the correct area of our mind and prepare to respond.

To add to the complexity, each of us has a listening preference. We may pay more attention to messages that do one of the following:

offer entertainment
skip to bottom-line information
provide technical details
deliver non-verbal clues
create bonds
offer us a chance to criticize

When we get stuck in our listening preference, we cannot climb the ladder to successful communication. Smart communicators are aware of their natural listening styles and know how to adapt their style to meet the specific needs of the moment.

In a study completed by the University of Minnesota and later repeated by Florida State University, Michigan State University and Denver University, it was proved that without training we operate-on a good day-at a 25 percent rate of our listening capacity.

How about asking someone who knows you well how he or she would rate your listening ability?

Reading builds retention

The second communication skill for successful business people in the receiving area is reading. Research conducted during the Gulf War demonstrated that people who received their updates only from radio and TV broadcasts were not as knowledgeable about the situation as people who obtained their information from the print media.

However, the "information explosion" has produced too much to read and too little time to accomplish it. As a result, knowing what to read and when to read has become an essential skill. However, many people need to overcome faulty reading habits, such as superficiality (skimming over important details), slowness (reading with subvocal speech), rereading (backtracking) and working in a poor environment (distractions).

How fast do you read? Do you know when to read for an overview and when to read for depth?

Speech creates believability

Let's look at the transmitting side of communication-speech and writing. Speech is the area where you are judged and instantly found interesting or wanting by your listeners. If you speak well, people will think you are smart. If you don't, you will be labeled stupid.

As with listening, context and content both play a role. Research shows 90% of what people remember about you has to do with the context: how you look, your body language, carriage and the volume, tone and pitch of your voice.

In terms of the content, be careful with the words you choose. Certain words can make people feel uncomfortable and even build resistance. For example, the phrase you should subconsciously irritates most people. A more diplomatic way would be to say, I urge/encourage/suggest or I want...

Speakers are often told to ask their listeners questions to ensure they are interpreting the message correctly. However, questions beginning with why often put people on the defensive. Instead of Why did you do that?, it would be better to ask: What made you decide to take that approach?

Pay attention to the fillers you use when talking. Some people add phrases to their speech that discount their knowledge or predict failure. These are phrases such as: I guess, I don't know, This may be stupid but..., I may have missed something here but... Or, they leave weak messages on their voice mail: I am sorry I am not in right now. A stronger message would state: I appreciate your call. I will be back in my office at 2 o'clock. Please leave a message.

When you speak do you come across as an intimidator, a wimp or a confident professional?

Writing provides a record

Writing records ideas and events, provides information, requests action and persuades people. Yet it is the most difficult of all the communication skills because there is no immediate feedback. You do not have your audience's body language or questions to determine whether they fully understand your message and will take the appropriate action. In addition, your readers do not have the context to aid them. They can't tell by your spoken tone whether a comment is meant to be amusing or insulting/friendly or condescending, and they make their own interpretation.

I have two other concerns in relation to writing. One, although writing styles are constantly changing with technology and the changing marketplace, many people are using an outdated style. Two, the writing style taught in schools is an all-purpose style and doesn't fit completely with the needs of today's business readers.

When was the last time you checked the style and tone of your writing?

Whether you are involved with manufacturing, service, the public or private sector, communication is the cornerstone of every enterprise. Good communication skills should not be listed as a job requirement and then forgotten. They should be measured in every performance appraisal so they become the goals of all managers and staff.

Lee Iacocca, in his autobiography, claims a successful manager must be able to express his thoughts clearly in both writing and in speaking and be able to listen. How high can you rate yourself?

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