4.2 Communicate effectively

All that ever has been accomplished by humans and all that ever will be accomplished involves com­munication with others. Many social and org­anizational problems derive from unsatisfac­tory relationships brought about by inadequate communication between people.

Success on and off the job often stems from one’s ability to transfer information and express ideas to others. Effective communication fosters friendships that are more meaningful, smoother, and more rewarding relationships with people on and off the job, and increased ability to meet personal needs. Psychologists Abraham Maslow (1970) suggests that the capability to satisfy personal needs arises mainly from the ability to communicate.

The process of communication

Abler and Towne describe communication as a process between at least two people that begins when one person wants to communi­cate with another. Communication originates as mental images within a person who desires to convey those images to another. Mental images can include ideas, thoughts, pictures, and emotions. The person who wants to communicate is called the sender. To trans­fer an image to another person, the sender first must translate the images into symbols that receivers can understand. Sym­bols often are words but can be pictures, sounds, or sense information (e. g. touch or smell). Only through symbols can the mental images of a sender have meaning for others. The process of translating images into symbols is called encoding.

Once a message has been encoded, the next level in the communication process is to trans­mit or communicate the message to a receiver. This can be done in many ways: during face-to-face verbal interaction, over the telephone, through printed materials (letters, newspapers, etc. ), or through visual media (television, photo­graphs). Verbal, written, and visual media are three examples of possible communication channels used to transmit messages between senders and receivers. Other transmission channels include touch, gestures, clothing, and physical distances between sender and receiver (proxemics).

When a message is received by another person, a decoding process occurs. Just as a sender must encode messages in preparation for transmission through communication channels, receivers must sense and interpret the symbols and then decode the information back into images, emotions, and thoughts that make sense to them. When messages are decoded exactly as the sender has intended, the images of the sender and the images of the receiver match, and effective communication occurs.

How communication breaks down

If everyone were to have the same experiences, all messages would be encoded, transmitted, and decoded alike. Symbols would have the same meanings for everyone, and all communi­cation would be received as the senders inten­ded. However, people differ in their personal histories, ways in which they experi­ence things, and emotional responses, leading to differences in the ways in which communica­tions are encoded, transmitted, received and under­stood. Different people attach different meanings to the words, pictures, sounds, and gestures used during communication.

Difficulty with the encoding and decoding of images is not the only factor that affects the effectiveness of communication between peo­ple. Abler and Towne use the concept of noise to describe physical and psychological forces that can disrupt communication.

Physical noise refers to conspicuous distractions in the environment that make it difficult to hear or pay attention. For example, when the environment is excessively hot or excessively cold, or when one is in a noisy nightclub, one may tend to focus more concern on the situ­ation than on the message. Phys­ical noise can inhibit communication at any point in the process – in the sender, in the message, in the channel, or in the receiver.

Psychological noise alludes to mechanisms within individuals that restrict a sender’s or receiver’s ability to express and/or understand messages clearly. For example, senders with limited vocabularies may have difficulty translat­ing images into symbols that can be under­stood easily by receivers. Receivers with inflated self-concepts may filter messages that disagree with their self-perceptions and put energy into defending themselves rather than under­standing the messages. Psychological noise most often results in defensiveness that blocks the flow of communication between sender and receiver.

With the many ways in which communications can be encoded, channeled, and decoded, there is little wonder why so many difficulties exist when people attempt to communicate with one another. Yet communication pro­cesses become more com­plex. Discussing communication in terms of sender-receiver implies one-way communication. However, human communication often is a two-way process in which each party shares sending and receiving responsibilities. As the number of people taking part in a communication increases, the potential for errors in encoding and decoding increases, along with the poten­tial for physical and psychological noise. 

Responses That Block Communication

The following kinds of responses can block effective communication:

Evaluation response. The phrases “You should . . . ,” “Your duty . . . ,” “You are wrong,” “You should know better,” “You are bad,” and “You are such a good person” create blocks to communication. There is a time for evaluation; but if it is given too soon, the speaker usually becomes defensive.

Advice-giving response. “Why don’t you try . . . ,” “You’ll feel better when . . . ,” “It would be best for you to . . . ,” and “My advice is . . .” are phrases that give advice. Advice is best given at the conclusion of conversations and generally only when one is asked.

Topping response, or “my sore thumb.” “That’s nothing, you should have seen . . . ,” “When that happened to me, I . . . ,” “When I was a child . . . ,” and “You think you have it bad” are phrases of “one-upmanship” or assuming superiority. This approach shifts attention from the person who wants to be listened to and leaves him or her feeling unimportant.

Diagnosing, psychoanalytic response. “What you need is . . . ,” “The reason you feel the way you do is . . . ,” “You don’t really mean that,” and “Your problem is . . .” are phrases that tell others what they feel. Telling people how they feel or why they feel the way they do can be a double-edged sword. If the diagnoser is wrong, the speaker feels pressed; if the diagnoser is right, the speaker may feel exposed or captured. Most people do not want to be told how to feel and would rather volunteer their feelings than to have them exposed.

Prying-questioning response. Why, who, where, when, how, and what are responses common to us all. But these responses tend to make the speaker feel “on the spot” and therefore resistant to interrogation. At times, however, a questioning response is helpful for clarification; and in emergencies, it is needed.

Warning, admonishing, commanding response. “You had better . . . ,” “If you don’t . . . ,” “You have to . . . ,” “You will . . . ,” and “You must . . .” are used constantly in the everyday work environment. Usually, such responses produce resentment, resistance, and rebellion. There are times, of course, when this response is necessary, such as in an emergency situation when the information being given is critical to human welfare.

Logical, lecturing response. “Don’t you realize . . . ,” “Here is where you are wrong,” “The facts are . . . ,” and “Yes, but . . .” can be heard in any discussion with two people of differing opinions. Such responses tend to make the other person feel inferior or defensive. Of course, persuasion is part of the world we live in. In general, however, we need to trust that when people are given correct and full data they will make logical decisions for themselves.

Devaluation response. “It’s not so bad,” “Don’t worry,” “You’ll get over it,” and “Oh, you don’t feel that way” are familiar phrases used in responding to others’ emotions. A listener should recognize the sender’s feelings and should not try to deny them to the owner. In our desire to alleviate emotional pain, we apply bandages too soon and possibly in the wrong places.

Whenever a listener’s responses convey nonacceptance of the speaker’s feelings, the desire to change the speaker, a lack of trust, or the sense that the speaker is inferior or at fault or being “bad,” communication blocks will occur.