THE ART AND SCIENCE OF COMMUNICATION
by: Ashit K. Sarkar
3E Palmtree Place, 23 Palmgrove Road,
Bengaluru 560 047 (Ph: 080-4112-8153)
Human ability to accumulate, amassing, storing through written and stored records, and sharing this knowledge and to develop and improve by each other over generations, and to communicate effectively in many different ways sets humans apart from other forms of life on earth. This is the vital differential that has given them such a great advantage over all others. Results generated from this key element have enabled them to not only survive but also become dominantly superior to all other species of life forms, and successfully claim to be the owners and masters of the universe, despite being physically inferior to many other forms of life in several other aspects! The highly developed human brain has been able to overcome so many weaknesses by first organising human activities as groups, society or nations from small units to large, and then safeguarding their common interests through organised defence teams and developing commercial activities for the individual, community and general use (e.g. constructing homes, roads and other conveniences like protective clothing, cooked food, vehicles, aircraft, ships, railways, rockets or space vehicles, developing communication facilities like wireless, internet, phones etc., surgical and other treatments, equipment etc. and medicines for different ailments, spectacles, hearing aids, use of natural resources and generating and distributing heat and power - to name a few) that other species are quite incapable of. Unfortunately, simultaneously this increasing competency has also intensified and extended worldwide petty conflicts for dominance and gain for power now into unmanageable destructive capabilities that may sadly end civilization itself one day - even inadvertently!
People have developed different languages and scripts (including translating facilities) as channels for communication - which basically provide the means and ability to transfer information. Local culture further influences languages with different regional dialects. These have been constantly undergoing changes to convey information with greater finesse and exactness. Prose, poetry, philosophy and literature abound in all languages to beautify the language giving much wealth and meaning - all cherish this artistic aspect. At the same time, technology and science widely enable support to the communication process in innumerable ways – whether by Internet, E-mail, Radio, TV, Audio, Video or other means, including translation, encryption, symbols, maps or logos, displays or influencing thought or belief.
This article concentrates on discussing how to make the communication process more effective through a better understanding of the basic principles and factors, or enhance the process or skill - ideally requiring a balanced combination of the use of all the senses and the application of the mind to communicate effectively. While we may take the use of good language and clarity as the means for conveying any communication for granted, we often do not pay sufficient attention to other factors.
In order for any group of people to do anything at all, it is communication that is the most primary requirement, before any kind of interaction, can be contemplated, or as to how anything can be done better by the group! We would have been helpless if there was no easy medium to convey our thoughts or ideas to each other, since the sign language or demonstration has very serious limitations, and unless supplemented with an effective communication system, we can learn or teach very little in our limited lifetime! It requires not only well spoken or written language, but also the wider support of both the audio and visual medium, and/or often by actually performing an activity under guidance repeatedly, using touch and contact to supplement or to give due consideration to several other parameters and principles to enhance and strengthen the process.
Whether it is a management activity, or in our daily personal work, we have to learn the art and science of effective communication that influence our understanding, so that whatever is intended to be conveyed reaches the receiver with minimum distortion or ambiguity, in as clear and logical a manner as contemplated by the sender - whether it is an argument or a disagreement.
When we learn any language, there are four basic skills that we require for complete communication. We learn to first listen, then speak, then read, and finally write.
The different categories of communication are:
✪ Spoken or Verbal Communication: using face-to-face, oral, telephone, radio or television and other media.
✪ Non-Verbal Communication: is anything besides words, such as gestures, actions, facial expressions, body language and other aspects of physical appearance, that communicate something.
✪ Written Communication: letters, e-mails, memos, circulars, books, magazines, the Internet or via any other media.
✪ Visualizations: graphs, images and charts, maps, logos and other visualizations to communicate ideas or messages.
It must be realized that spoken words do not necessarily mean the same thing to each and everyone, and are also influenced by the listeners understanding of the language, their own experiences, beliefs, prejudices, attitudes etc. and are therefore interpreted differently even if they have been very well expressed. The verbal communication process also depends heavily on the tone and intensity of the voice, and the supportive or otherwise, gestures, facial expressions or body language of the communicator - which is known as the verbal and non-verbal communication. The communication becomes less prone to distortion if one uses simple everyday language, short and logical structure of thoughts and phrases, avoiding jargon and technical terms excessively, and is concise. The key message needs to be stressed, or restated in the summary. Important verbal communication should be checked back by asking the listener to summarise, so that not only it is remembered, but also gets verified for correctness in understanding.
There are many distractions. The receiver is often preoccupied or is mentally involved with his/her own priorities and the attention wanders. A very common habit with many listeners is to mentally compete or start preparing counter-arguments to whatever is being stated, instead of first listening carefully! There is also rejection or filtering out parts of the message that do not readily fit with the listener's own frame of reference. At times personal biases about the speaker, or the subject, override the significance of the message. The effectiveness of the message is consequently reduced. The dynamics of communication plays a very important role in the forcefulness or impact of the message, and the attention given to these factors can result in considerable improvements. The communicator's ability to overcome these barriers is, therefore, crucial. To induce attention, a minor distraction like a joke or a story may lighten a heavy topic and motivate listening.
Any skilled communicator should be aware of the following common barriers to effective communication:
✪ Use of jargon: Over-complicated, unfamiliar and/or technical terms.
✪ Emotional barriers and taboos: Some may find it difficult to express their emotions and some topics may be completely 'off-limits' or are sensitive or are taboo.
✪ Lack of attention, interest, distractions, or irrelevance to the receiver.
✪ Differences in perception and viewpoint.
✪ Physical disabilities such as hearing problems or speech difficulties.
✪ Physical barriers to non-verbal communication: Not being able to see the non-verbal cues, gestures, posture and general body language can make communication less effective.
✪ Language differences and the difficulty in understanding unfamiliar accents.
✪ Expectations and prejudices, which may lead to false assumptions or stereotyping. People often hear what they expect to hear rather than what is actually said and jump to incorrect conclusions.
✪ Cultural differences: The norms of social interaction vary greatly in different cultures, as do the way in which emotions are expressed. For example, the concept of personal space varies between cultures and between different social settings.
To sum up, the six basic ingredients of the communication process are:
✪ # The environment
✪ # The sender
✪ # The contents of the message
✪ # The receiver/s
✪ # The field of experience of the sender and the receiver/s
✪ # Feedback
The listenerís interpretation of the message is influenced by several factors which include expectations, values, beliefs and attitudes, prejudices, hopes, fears and worries or anything else on the mind at that time, besides their own experiences or interests which may filter or distort the message.
The tone and quality of speaker's voice is very vital, it may inspire and motivate, or discourage and generate wrong impressions, and is usually a good indicator of human characteristics. Appropriate variations in tone, pitch and inflexion of the voice, emphasis on keywords, clarity and fluency of speech assist in influencing the listener positively. Supportive body language is a major aid. Direct eye contact inspires, whilst staring, glaring, downcast or shifty eye focus causes negative reactions. A relaxed, or slightly leaning forward posture, squared shoulders and supportive facial expressions also add value to the message, whilst distracting behaviours like finger or foot tapping, fidgeting, yawning, twisting hair or picking ears etc. must be avoided by the speaker.
Effectiveness can be further improved through checking feedback or interaction encouragement by discussions, question and answer sessions, note taking and summarising key points, restating or providing notes. The listener needs to be able to concentrate, through determination and alertness, and certainly interest, for communication to be effectively received. Physical conditions and the environment also play an important role in this process. The time and place chosen to communicate may, therefore, become important to obtain this kind of attention from the listener. Interruptions (like mobile phones, or other demands etc.), tend to break the flow of thought or ideas and disturb others too, and need to be avoided.
The degree of closeness between the speaker's intention, and the listener's understanding or reaction to the message, is the EFFECTIVENESS of the communication. Due observance of the above mentioned factors would surely improve the effectiveness of any piece of communication, and satisfy the objectives, or the purpose, of the communication process.