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The art of effective communication

By Anna Campbell

George Bernard Shaw said that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. 

My husband and I have been caught out by “that illusion” often as we juggle parenting and working. I am more of a planner than him and I used to tell him that I was going to be away on such and such a day three weeks in advance, just so that he would be prepared.

However, the day of my departure would arise and he would look at me in a perplexed manner as I gathered my belongings to go to the airport and say “but you never told me you were going away”. “Oh yes I did” I would say and cite the date. “But that is far too long ago for me to register” he would reply, “you needed to tell me yesterday”. And so, I have learned to only discuss events with him immediately prior to them happening. Different communication styles start at home!  

The tools we have at our disposal for communicating in today’s world are incredibly advanced. We can, and do, make contact with people all over the world on a daily basis. What this means is that we are also the recipient of such contact on a daily basis and the overload of information can be pretty crazy. More than ever, it is easy to misinterpret sending people information as communication, when the two are vastly different. 

The difference between information and communication can be described with one little word: “why” - why is this information important for me? I will use my marriage again as an illustration.

The school holidays were coming up and I was trying to plan for them knowing I had some work commitments. I kept asking my husband “what days can you take off during July?” He always gave me vague and unsatisfactory responses as we rushed in and out of the house caught up in our usual activities. About two days before the school holidays started, he said to me “oh it’s the school holidays next week, is that why you have been asking what am I doing in July?”

Naturally I rolled my eyes in wifely despair, but in my delighted outrage, I did recognise that I had missed the crucial “why factor”when I was requesting my information. If I had stopped to state - what I thought was the obvious - that the school holidays were in July, I might have got an appropriate answer to my question!

Ah yes, the idiosyncrasies of marriage, I could go on, but I am here to talk about work where unfortunately, such miscommunication happens just as regularly. The challenge in today’s work environment is cutting through the barrage of information that people receive in the forms of emails, reports and meetings.

Creating a meaningful “why” as to why information is critical and requires engagement has now become the holy grail of communication.

I am reading a book at the moment called “Making the Connections” by Bill Quirke. It is quite insightful about some of the issues we face regarding communicating effectively in the workplace. A few of the standout points for me which serve as a sharp reminder of the efforts we need to make to effectively communicate are:

  1. Clarity of purpose about where the company is going is essential for employee engagement; this needs to be understood at every level of the company.
  2. Nothing, absolutely nothing, beats face-to-face communication and creating time and space for good discussion.
  3. Communication and discussion must be relevant and tailored for the individual, or group need; interestingly, when running a small meeting or workshop, 70 to 80% of the discussion items should have local or immediate relevance to the people there, with only 20 to 30% being company or organisational matters, otherwise people simply switch off.

I do love reading those articles in the newspapers about couples who have been married for 50 years or more. Invariably, when asked the reason why their marriages have lasted, the couple’s answer includes good communication, respect, and a sense of humour.

Building companies and organisations where people want to perform and want to stay require the same three elements. Great communication in life, at home, and at work is never going to be easy but when you get it right, it sure helps the wheels run smoothly… so I am told!