Do we speak to communicate or are we wasting time?
Why is Communication so important?
Speak to me, please. But make sure you are communicating with me, not above me. Have you ever gone to a meeting or listened to a speech and felt like you just wasted your time? You did not get why you were there and could not connect with the speaker. Did you like the speaker and empathize? Or were you wondering what the point was and you just didn’t care? Chances are, you’ve been in meetings or listened to people speak and just tuned out because you felt no connection with the speaker or the subject matter. Your mind was probably wandering and you were thinking about something completely unrelated. It has happened to all of us.
In terms of this communication problem, there are surprising facts in business and in personal life.
- Did you know that communication is the number one skill today that companies are looking at when it comes to hiring new employees? According to a 2013 survey conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major” (1). Good communication involves speaking and listening, and results in disseminating information needed by employees to get things done and to build relationships of trust and commitment. Without it, employees end up working in silos with no clear direction, vague goals, and little opportunity for improvement, which stops them from getting promotions and climbing up the corporate ladder. Poor communication is therefore costly to both employees and employers. Businesses lose an estimated $37 billion per year; a company with more than 100,000 employees loses an average of $62.4 million per year, which translates into $26,041 per worker per year due to productivity losses (2). It is no wonder, then, that companies prefer candidates with good communication skills over those who merely possess technical skills or book smarts but who are unable to communicate effectively with others.
- While we just stated that strong communication skills are important to businesses in terms on money, we argue that this same point can be taken at a personal level as well. If you get denied the opportunity to get a new job or passed up for a promotion due to poor communication skills, that sure impacts your personal life, doesn’t it? But your personal life can be influenced negatively in many other ways too. According to mental health professionals, the vast majority of divorced couples in the United States report that communication problems and the inability to resolve conflicts led to the demise of their marriage (3).
Take stock of what’s important to you in your life. If you were to list the 5 most important things, we are willing to bet that your career and your family definitely make it onto that list (along with things like health, faith, finances, etc.). If communication is so critical to the success of your career and family life, how then, could you not make it a priority to improve that skill?
How does Communication fail?
We all know that “quality” and “quantity” are not interchangeable terms. This concept also applies to communication skills. A quiet, thoughtful introvert does not necessarily have bad communication skills, and a bubbly, talkative extrovert does not necessarily possess good communication skills. The term “communication skills” itself already implies that there is more than one issue at stake – “skills” is plural – so it’s not only about talking. It’s also about presenting. It’s also about listening. It’s also about internalizing. And it’s also about perceiving.
Have you ever been in a situation where somebody said to you, “It’s not what you said; it’s how you said it!” Sometimes when we speak, we forget that our words are not the only things conveying our message. The tone we use is part of our communication, as is our body language. If we are not aware of what we are communicating with our bodies, or if what we communicate with our bodies is not in line with what we are communicating with our words, the listener will be confused and communication will fail.
We also have preconceived notions that interfere with communication because we may assume the listener has the same preconceived notions when most likely that is not actually true. Case in point: recently our family watched an episode of America’s Funniest Videos in which people tricked their loved ones with a riddle. “There were 30 cows in a field. 28 Chickens. How many didn’t?” None of the people in the videos got it, and many got frustrated with the people who asked them the question. “Didn’t WHAT? I don’t get it!” While we all shared a good laugh over their reactions, none of us could figure it out either. This miscommunication is actually easy to avoid in writing: “There were 30 cows in a field. 20 Ate chickens. How many didn’t?” This one was all in good fun, but you get the idea that sometimes you assume that your listener possesses the same knowledge or is thinking along the same lines as you are, when in fact that person is not in that place and therefore does not receive your message as you intended it.
Similarly, your listener may have preconceived notions that block proper communication. We have a perfect example from our own lives to prove this point. Some time ago, Ally (my wife) was worried about her mother, who needed to have heart surgery soon. This worry was piled on top of the worry over my mother, who suffers from a chronic illness that also causes us a lot of concern. While she was at work, Ally received a text message from me (Mushi) that said something had happened and I (Mushi) needed her to come home. Alarmed, she called me and asked what was going on, only to hear and I said, “It’s not something I can discuss on the phone. Can you please come home?” Imagine the thoughts that were torpedoing through Ally’s head as she drove home. Once she was home, I reported that I had been laid off from my job. What was Ally feeling and thinking? Relief, that both mothers were ok, and anger, that I had been so insensitive and allowed her to think that somebody had died. What was I feeling and thinking? Worry, about what would happen to the family if my income was gone, confusion, over why Ally was reacting so strangely, and anger, because Ally was so angry at me. What was NOT happening, as I had hoped would happen, was support and the mutual creation of a plan to move forward.
So you see, you cannot always assume that the listener knows what you know or feel, but you should also refrain from assuming that you know what the listener knows or feels. Such assumptions are barriers to good communication, and they stand in the way more often than not. Often, our communication problems are rooted in small misunderstandings. We get caught up in our own world or our own perspective and unintentionally ignore the fact that the other party approaches the situation from a different perspective or is concerned with what’s going on in his or her own world. Sometimes as speakers we forget to give the proper context and this leads a disconnect between speakers and listeners. Communication failure is the result.
From the day we are born, we start communicating. Babies cry for food, they cry when their diapers are dirty, and they cry when they are scared and need to be held. Crying is the only way they can communicate their needs. When parents routinely ignore these cries, babies learn early on that they are not communicating effectively and they may get frustrated and cry more, or give up and save their energy. Either way, communication is failing. New parents should be wary of advice that tells them to ignore their baby’s cries. Later on in life, toddlers who are curious about the world around them ask tons of questions. Why is the sky blue? Why can’t we fly like a bird? Why do mommy and daddy have to go to work? Sometimes adults are simply unable to answer these questions, and sometimes they are just tired of them and tell the children to stop asking. Again, communication failure is learned early on. But we digress. The point here is that we all have an innate need to communicate but that we are likely to encounter more situations in which we are unable to communicate effectively than situations in which communication is successful. That is, unless we make a conscious effort to learn how to communicate more effectively with those around us.
Unfortunately, after having experienced many failed communications, many people develop an inner voice that gets in the way. That voice that tells us people won’t listen or care. That voice that tells us people won’t get what we are trying to say. That voice that tells us we’re just no good at speaking in front of a group. That voice that makes us terrified of being called on to speak when we are not prepared. The result is anxiety, and we fail to put our thoughts together and speak clearly and precisely. This may often lead to avoidance of situations in which you may be asked to speak. However, by now you should realize what a great impact good communication skills have on the quality of your life, so you know that avoidance is not the answer you are looking for.
Communication has many forms, and in the dictionary, you will find many definitions listed after this term. Merriam-Webster includes (among others) the following: “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior” and “a technique for expressing ideas effectively (as in speech)” (4).
To put it simply, communication is the exchange of ideas, the transfer of knowledge or emotions to others. People need to communicate to meet their own needs or to help others meet theirs. Effective communication is like a dance; there are partners who rely on each other to do their part the right way, or there will be missteps and falls. Communication is a two-way transaction that involves a sender (speaker/presenter) and a receiver (listener/audience). The result is a connection between the two.
Figure: Speaking Formula
The way for a speaker to achieve a successful connection is to focus on meeting the needs of the audience. Remember that the listener comes in with a “WIIFM” attitude (What’s In It For Me?). A speaker must engage the listeners, arouse their curiosity, and get them involved in the process so that he or she can inform them with logic, emotions, and wisdom. In this equation, the receiver is the most important part of this transaction. As a speaker, your job is meeting their needs and making sure they get your point during your delivery. Audience’s minds are constantly wandering and judging, full of expectations and fears, going through endless loops of “what about” or “what if”. Although they may be physically present, they may not be mentally present during your speech. As a speaker, you need to be aware of their needs and keep their minds and emotions present. They will let go of their negative feelings, fears, negative thoughts, and anxieties, and enjoy the moment. According to Tony Robins, “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this misunderstanding as a guide to our communication with others” (5). It is always important, therefore, to examine and understand the needs of the listener(s) whenever you are engaged in any type of communication.
Types of speeches
- Planned Speech: This is the type of speech for which you prepare ahead of time, and do your research on the topic and the audience. You plan, rehearse and deliver the speech. Examples of this type of speech are presentations at work, Key Note speeches, special occasion speeches like toasts or eulogies, etc.
- Un-panned Speech: This type of speech tests your ability to think on your feet on demand. Examples of this is type of speech are impromptu speeches (Toastmasters, an international non-profit organization, calls these speeches Table Topics), interviews, meeting participation, etc.
The term “communication” refers to all types of speaking, such as public speaking, delivering presentations, and personal conversations. Our goal is to help you get comfortable speaking to groups with formal presentations or speeches, and while many of the techniques are also applicable to personal conversations, that type of personal communication is not our specialty and we will not focus on it. We will use the term “speech” most of the time but please realize that “presentation” and “speech” can be used interchangeably for our purposes.
Given the far-reaching effects that both poor and strong communication skills can have on your life, you should do everything in your power to ensure that you develop and hone your skills. We hope that our blogs and our book will help you on this journey, and welcome any feedback you may have for us to make improvements for future readers.
- Robbins, Anthony. Unlimited Power. 1986