The 7 rules of communication

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We all know what communication is: a two-way process in which we act as transmitters of information to someone else, the receiver. The objective, of course, is to generate some response in the receiver. The desired response is usually to get the receiver to take some form of action.

If the process of communication is going to work—if the other person is going to take the desired action—three things must happen:

  • The information must be transmitted properly.
  • The receiver must understand the information.
  • He or she must accept the information.

In any encounter between complex human beings, however, there are obstacles to this process.  Language, background, self-interest, and emotions—all act to block the flow of information from one person to another. But the biggest obstacle is our failure to recognize that these blocks exist. That is what really keeps us from getting our message across and motivating the desired action.

Fortunately, there are some very simple rules designed to help us overcome the obstacles to communication. Most of them we know and probably practice—on occasion, anyway. Nevertheless, it may be worthwhile to review the most important of them here briefly.

Rule 1: Prepare Your “Message” in Advance.
The first rule in communication is to be prepared before you start. How do you prepare? A good way to begin is by identifying the problem that needs action. Make sure you have eliminated all trivial and nonessential questions and are concentrating on the most important issue. Then gather all the information you can find that bears on the problem and use it to develop several alternative solutions. Finally, from among the alternatives, choose the best and most practical course of action available. This is the response that you ideally want to get, but you should also be prepared to compromise, if necessary. In any case, you should be ready to adjust to the other person’s point of view.

Rule 2: Transmit Your Message in Terms the Receiver Can Accept.
You now have identified the problem and worked out the best source of action. The next step is to transmit it to the receiver—simply, clearly, and constructively, so that he or she understands it, too, and can respond without fear or antagonism. Be brief, be precise, and—above all—be careful. Remember that words have different meanings to different people. As the transmitter, it’s up to you to get the message across without misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

Rule 3: Be Aware of the Feelings on Both Sides.
Not only the words you use, but your tone of voice, your facial expressions—in fact, your whole attitude—come into play here. Everything you say and do should make it clear to your listener that you are sympathetic to the person and the situation, and that you genuinely want to be helpful. To do this successfully, of course, you must be aware of both the listener’s feelings and your own. Arrogance, hostility, or fear may exist on either side, but these feelings must be recognized and dealt with before any effective communication can result. Part of your preparation for an interview should be a review of previous encounters with the receiver. Analyze what went on then—what you said, how the receiver reacted, or issues that seemed sensitive. Then key your upcoming interview to these reactions or issues.

Rule 4: Time Your Message Carefully.
Timing is another consideration in communicating. When you deliver your message can be as important as how you do it. Except in an emergency, don’t arrange your interview when the other person is busy, upset, or occupied with other problems. Choose a time that’s convenient for the receiver, when he or she can give full attention to what you have to say.

Rule 5: Listen for the Receiver’s Message.
This is perhaps the most important rule of all: to listen—really listen—to what the other person has to say. Communication is a two-way process and here you should reverse the flow and become the receiver, while the other person transmits to you. Don’t assume that you know what he or she thinks or feels. Listen—carefully and uncritically—to what the other person says. Listen also for what isn’t said. Be aware of expressions, tone of voice, and the words chosen. You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn this way.

Rule 6: Draw the Receiver Out.
Most of the time, people are only too anxious to talk; the problem is getting them to listen. Occasionally, however, you may find that you have to draw the other person out. One technique is to begin by asking fairly general questions. For example, “What do you think about this idea?” or “I would be interested in knowing what your experience with this has been.” Once you’ve gotten the other person to talk, you can narrow down the field of discussion by asking more specific questions: “Why do you think that happened?” or “What did you do then?” If you think the other person has more information to provide, but is having trouble getting it out, you can help by briefly summarizing or rephrasing the last part of what was just said. Often a question does it best: “You think that so-and-so is responsible, is that it?” When the person responds, he or she will probably give you more information. In drawing people out, however, try not to telegraph the answer or response you expect. Remember, you’re trying to find out what the other person is thinking.

Rule 7: Test to Make Sure Your Message Has Been Accepted.
With the obstacles removed, and the information passed on from transmitter to receiver, is the communication process complete? No. Not unless the receiver accepts the information and takes the necessary action—either the course of action you outlined in the beginning or some mutually agreeable compromise. It’s a mistake to assume that people accept everything they understand. Moreover, there are different levels of understanding. Your listener may understand the problem you presented, but fail to see the necessity, or the means, for action on his or her part. You should therefore test to see how well your message has been received. Ask questions—probe for reactions—go back over issues that seem troublesome. Later on, follow up to see that the action you discussed is being taken. If necessary, the entire process may have to be repeated. Nobody has ever said communication is simple—just necessary.

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