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Coaching Clinic: Communication is harder than you think | Comment

“The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has happened,” playwright and political activist George Bernard Shaw once said.

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In everyday life, we need good communication skills to help us build connections and relationships when we share our feelings, wants, and needs. Similarly, in leadership, we need excellent communication skills to help us foster belonging, inspire teams and drive commitment.

We’ve been doing it all our lives – so it should be easy, right?

The truth, unfortunately, is somewhat different. Good communicators are rare and most problems in organizations have their roots in poor communication. Whether it’s misunderstood change agendas, toxic work cultures, or problematic relationships between divisions, somewhere the communication will have gone awry.

Communication is at the heart of thriving work cultures and is a key driver of engagement within teams. Most organizations have internal and external communications teams and dedicated budgets for managing communications. However, experience tells us that the most impactful communication within your organization is one-on-one.

Communication is at the heart of thriving work cultures and is a key driver of engagement within teams

Two individuals exchanging information and data, interpreting responses, drawing conclusions, trying to connect and sharing experiences – what could go wrong?

Unfortunately, with every communication interaction we have, there are multiple places where opportunities for misunderstanding exist.

Frame diagram

This diagram illustrates the complexity:

  • The source of communication is the sender – when you speak or email, you are the source.
  • The message in the center is what the sender is trying to convey.
  • Encoding is the construction of your message. Good encoding – appropriate language, for example – makes your message clear and therefore reduces the risk of confusion. If you are communicating your message to more than one person, remember that each person may receive it differently.
  • Decoding is the process that occurs when the recipient hears or receives your message. Effective decoding occurs when you have spoken clearly and demonstrated a level of understanding. Decoding is hampered by excessive tone, jargon, or words.
  • Feedback (such as verbal and non-verbal language) helps you interpret how your message was understood.
  • Noise is anything that interferes with the process – either internally (mental disturbance) or externally (a noisy environment).

The message is exposed to multiple distortions, which means that the sender and receiver can have completely different interpretations of an interaction.

Four simple rules

Fortunately, following a few simple rules will immediately reduce the likelihood of your communications going wrong.

First, practice active and empathetic listening. It sounds simple, but it’s an area most people struggle with. Listening with empathy is crucial for building relationships, fostering trust and belonging. To be truly listened to is an extraordinary experience. We encourage all of our coaching clients to improve their listening skills by being truly present in the conversation and watching for barriers to good listening: often our own judgments, beliefs and perspectives.

Second, seek first to understand, then to be understood. When we listen with the intention of understanding well, there is a significant effect on the sender: they feel valued, you build trust, they increase their awareness of what they are trying to convey, and most importantly, you see both the situation more clearly.

Building relationships and belonging should be a key goal for companies using hybrid working

Third, work hard to foster connection. The past two years of working remotely have brought connection challenges to many teams. For this reason, building relationships and belonging should be a key goal for companies using hybrid working. The relationship creates connection, mutual respect and trust; without it, the risk of misunderstanding is increased.

Finally, we must remember that everyone has different communication preferences and only by communicating can we understand what they are. Experience suggests that at the one-two-one, team and organizational level, there needs to be a communication charter to reflect this.

What should a communication charter contain?

Good questions to consider when exploring your organization’s communications approach include:

1. How do we like to think and solve problems?

2. How do we contact each other outside opening hours?

3. How do we keep each other informed of progress?

4. How do we convey important but non-urgent information?

5. How do we communicate when our teams are on different work schedules?

6. What is our meeting strategy or policy?

7. How do we balance collaboration and intensive work time?

8. How do we communicate between teams or departments?

9. What tools do we have and what tools do we use?

Natalie Hall and Phanella Fine run Risinga human capital consulting firm focused on culture and leadership

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