Change : Communication: The Air That We Breathe

Richard Cooke is a Facilitator, Coach & Change Agent and the founder of I-Change. He has been working in the fields of personal and business change for over 25 years, working with international blue chip companies and individuals. Trained as a chartered accountant and in various alternative disciplines. See www.i-change.biz. for more details, or email info@I-change.biz


Communication, is it the air that we breathe ? And if so are many of our companies choking to death ? How long since you drew a deep lungful of sweet air ?

This may all seem a fanciful analogy to you but let me develop it for you. Air is vital for our health, indeed, respiration is literally one of our vital signs. It flows in and out. It is exchanged between systems. It circulates round the body. Without it you die. Is there a single feature here that does not ring equally true for communication ?

A good measure of the vitality and health of an organisation’s health is it’s ability to communicate both within itself to all it’s constituent parts and to the outside world. If you go into a building and the receptionist is really clued up on what is going on, animated and informed, then not only is he/ she able to do their job properly but everyone dealing with them will start their business with that enterprise in the right spirit.

Let’s explore the analogy a little more. Communication has to flow in both directions. It has to be regular, natural and part of our way of life / work. The ‘airways’ have got to be clear and healthy in order for the right amount of flow to take place. Closed doors, mixed messages, a secretive culture, politics can all be impediments to good healthy communication. 

Communication has to be exchanged; you ‘breathe in’ what I ‘breathe out’. What perhaps we forget is that communication is not just the words we say, the emails we send, or the notices we put up. In fact, studies show that only 7% of the meaning taken from communication comes from the actual words. The rest comes from things like body language, tone, context etc. If you think that an organisation can’t have body language, think again ! We have all come across open, friendly organisations, and dour, grey ones.

Also, we give great weight to logic, but logic is relative. How often have we felt that the other person’s logic is nonsense? There needs to be attention paid to the power of feelings. They are usually the real arbiter of our actions, no matter how we like to dress it up.

If the air that we breathe is communication, then the meaning we take from it is the oxygen. We would like to think that what we meant was what others understood, but we know, often from painful experience, that this is not always the case !

Who’s Reality ? Yours or Mine ?

A further difficulty in communicating successfully is that we have all our messages screened by a series of filters we are so used to that they are totally invisible to us. Let us examine the process which translates an external event into meaning :-

  1. Something happens in the outside world - perhaps someone speaks to us
  2. We gather that data via the 5 senses. We hear them speak ( remembering that we also hear accent as well as just words ). We see their lips move, their expression, their posture, who is talking ( who it is and what kind of person it is. Think how different it would be to hear a policeman say “Excuse me..”, than to hear it from a small child)
  3. Our brains then receive that stimulus via the various nerves, and we have to decide what it means. What it means to us ; what it means in this context, what it’s significance is.

Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one” Albert Einstein

This process I have just described takes places constantly. If we had to decide what everything meant from base data, we would never get anything done because our brain is constantly being bombarded by stimuli. 

In order to test this, take a moment to notice what you can hear right now, listen to all those noises you have tuned out. What are you wearing, can you now feel the material. Notice all the things around you were not consciously aware of, all the things in your field of vision that you have dialled out

So in order to stop your brain going into melt-down, it has evolved a series of filters to tune out everything that isn’t important. Now here’s the rub, just because we feel something is important, or is important to us, doesn’t mean that the other person’s brain filters will agree!

Importance is very subjective and is relative and contextual. It might be important to know that the mortgage rate has gone up by 2%, but would you want to be told in the middle of a soccer game if you were a big fan? Being told that you are stupid by another motorist is one thing, but if your boss said it…?

People’s filters are invisible and unique and we don’t know what they are, and most of the time they don’t either!

There are other sorts of filters, such as:

  • Vows: Such as “I’ll never fly again!” This saves me making up my mind each time I have that choice on how to travel.
  • Beliefs: Such as “There is a god”. If I had to reason this out each time I need to have some moral guidance, I’d never act. So until something happens to change my beliefs (which is pretty hard to do), I will act as if this is the case.
  • Values: Such as “Charity is good.” These tell / remind me what is important to me.
  • Memories: I don’t have to fully focus on something if I can remember previous experiences of it. This is very handy with complex mechanical skills, such as driving.

All of these filters distort what we actually experience, into our own version of reality. This is why the police distrust witnesses who all give exactly the same version of events, because they only do so if there has been collusion. What we think is real, is actual and entirely internal experience !

So what can you do about this ?

  • Remove as many barriers as possible. Everything that may get in the way, does get in the way.
  • Are they in the ‘right’ space ? Physically ? Emotionally ? Is this the right time ?
  • Remember everything you do and day, and don’t do and don’t say is also communication
  • Consider what are they likely to be worried about and how they could misinterpret your message ?
  • What’s important
    • To them ( if your message is important link it to something that you know is important to them )
    • To us ( don’t get distracted )
  • Remember and be clear about why are you talking to them ?
  • What do you want them to:-
    • Do
    • Feel
    • Remember
  • Don’t expect them to see it from your view point, they can’t.
  • Don’t rely on a single form or channel of communication
  • Remember that if people have to choose between believing your words and your actions ( as they interpret them ) they always believe your actions

And as Albert Einstein advocated:- ”Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler

So good luck with your communications in future, and I hope that this article was a breath of fresh air ! Remember communication needs to be:-

B i-directional
R egular
E veryone
A ttention
T rust
H ear

and

O nce you’ve said it… it’s out there!
X ercise those communications muscles
Y ou are you telling them this ?
G ather data
E motions - how will / are they feelings?
N ever lie !


© Copyright Richard Cooke 2006

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