Just because you communicate doesn’t mean communication has occurred

I work in a world where organizations are obligated to send written communication materials to its employees. Many of these communiques are government required and some government written. Some of the communiques are well intended, but are so poorly written, the Average Joe and Josephine have a very hard time understanding the well-intended message. Yet, too many times, the organization just sends out the material with no attempt to summarize knowing they are masking any real communications. Hence, the title of this post – just because you communicate doesn’t mean communication has occurred – came to mind.

The other day I was facilitating a discussion with employers on communicating better with employees on a subject, in this case how to participate and invest better in employer sponsored retirement plans (or schemes for any in the UK). As a participant in another employer’s plan where I used to work, I received a good (or bad in this case) example of poor communication in the mail the day before. I held it up as my prop while speaking the next day stating this is not worth the paper it is written on and a tree was killed for this garbage. I commented I know what the communique is intending to say and even still it is hard to comprehend.

In the US last summer, plan sponsors of an US retirement savings plan called a 401(k) plan were obligated to send out two sets of communication, both of which were well intended. The purpose was to define better the underlying fees paid by the plans imbedded in the mutual fund investment fees. These services are needed, but few people understand the fees needed to pay for the services. The intent was to improve the transparency of the process. While well intended, most of these communications fell flat or were merely tossed in a file or the trash can. Unless the employer took the time to improve the required portion of the communication, then the goal of transparency was not accomplished.

Yet, this is a metaphor for a lot of communications in life, even if well intended. People send emails and texts all the time. The large majority of senders believe once they hit send, communication has occurred. But, think of all of the emails and texts you receive. On an average day, many people get over 100 or more emails and the same number of texts. Some are set aside unopened and some get deleted. If you think in these terms as a receiver of email or texts, think how many of your communications may be treated in the same manner.

The other issue is communication needs to be about something relevant and understandable to be valued.  Many of the first set of communications noted above did have a good message, but were so poorly conveyed that few understood them. The key is to make it worth reading and make it understandable. The reader has to own the knowledge to remember it. At this moment I am thinking of two very smart people who have written and spoken often – William Buckley (who has passed away) and George Will (who is omnipresent). Yet, I find neither to be a great communicator as each tried to show how smart they were when they write. Yet, hearing Will speak is a much different experience as he speaks to the audience in a more understandable manner. He is equal parts articulate, comprehensible and funny. Yet, when he writes, he tends to write over the audience’s head, as did Buckley before him.

As with many others,  I am guilty of being misunderstood – just ask my wife. Each of us has our imperfections and individual contexts. Some people with whom we communicate often know these imperfections and contexts and it is not unusual for them to read other messages into certain statements, body language or perceived emotions that were not intended. This is one reason I like to be present when a conference call is occurring, so that I may read the body language and make sure people on the phone understand what is not being comprehended on this side of the phone conversation.

Effective communication is an admirable goal, but you have to work hard to close in on reaching the goal. You should understand your audience, consider your media, consider your message and consider the context and other issues. This message may be the most important thing in your day, but it may be issue number fourteen of the intended recipient. So, you need to set the stage for the communication. Or, there may be other more important messages hitting the audience at the same time, so your message might be dwarfed. A small event on a slow news day will get more press than a bigger event on a busy day, e.g. For your communication to be understood, it may be better if you wait until after the other issues run their course.

Finally, consider how you normally communicate. If you tend to be an alarmist, your crying wolf too many times may dilute your message when it is most important. If you are a parent who ends up yelling too much at your teenager, the more effective way to communicate might be calm, firm, straight talk. I have found my kids listen better the calmer I am. I often find it is good to have informal conversations in the car, when some important questions can be leaked into the conversation.

Please remember, just because you communicate doesn’t mean communication has occurred. We should each work on improving our track records in this communication process. We might understand each other a little better.

2 thoughts on “Just because you communicate doesn’t mean communication has occurred

  1. I would add one more proviso: keep it SIMPLE! Never use more words — or longer words — than are necessary. (For what it’s worth: U.S. Grant was supposed to have been a superb communicator. Messages clear and to the point. No B.S. [I used to pit that on a lot of what students turned in to me]). Good message: clear and to the point!

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