Communicating Effectively In The Workplace: Four Vital Steps

Ineffective communication is a major, yet avoidable, obstacle to business productivity. And yes, it can be avoided. Given the will, the bleakest of situations can be turned around for the better.

Management must face squarely the challenge of formulating strategies to encourage personnel to communicate effectively.

On the other hand, managers themselves have to set the example. They need to realize that successful communication is no one-way process.

On the contrary, repricocity is the essence of communication. This applies whether the process is conducted verbally or through the medium of the written word.

Managers are human beings involved with other human beings. They are far more than givers of information or instructions. Communication is as much a matter of human relationships as it as about transmitting facts.

To communicate successfully managers and supervisors have to understand the other person, and have to work hard to get the other person to understand them.

Before we go further, consider these two versions of an imaginary conversation between the CEO of a small company and his work supervisor. They will give us some insight into the pitfalls, and help us to avoid them.

First scenario

The CEO, Mr Richardson, pages Mr Smith, the work supervisor, to come to his office. When Mr Smith walks in a minute or two later, the CEO is busy with what appears to be an unexpected but very important telephone conversation. In due course, he replaces the receiver, but his mind, clearly, is still very much on what he had just heard.

"Hi Mr Smith. Please sit down. This is why I called you: at the moment, we have an official lunch break lasting one hour. As from the first of next month, I want to reduce this lunch break to 30 minutes only, and bring the afternoon quitting time forward by a half-hour. No doubt, the staff will appreciate the opportunity to get home earlier. Will you please inform everyone concerned? Thanks for your time."

Mr Richardson begins to examine some papers on his desk and waves with his hand to indicate that he has nothing further to tell the supervisor.

The supervisor, in turn, opens his mouth as if starting to say something, but thinks better of it and all he utters is a weak "OK, Mr Richardson."

Mr Smith exits.

Second scenario

The CEO calls his supervisor into his office. He is on the telephone when Mr Smith arrives.

"Good morning Mr Smith" he whispers courteously, after excusing himself momentarily to the person on the line. "Take a seat, won't you? I shouldn't be long."

"Thanks for your patience," the CEO adds after putting down the phone a couple of minutes later. "That was our landlord. He dropped quite a bombshell. They have sold this building, which means we will have to be out of here in a few months. Oh, well. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise; we're rather cramped in these premises, aren't we?"

"Yes, Mr Richardson - but I hope we find another place in time."

"Hopefully, everything will work out. How are things by you? I hope no one is aggravating you too much. Now, this is why I called you: two or three people have come to me with the suggestion that we shorten the lunch break, so that everyone can knock off earlier. What do you think?"

"Well, personally I'd welcome the change, and I know that some of the office people would think the same way. On the other hand, many of our workers do a lot of shopping during the lunch hour at the big mall over the road. They might need a full hour for this, and after work might not be so convenient... Maybe I should canvass everybody and come back to you with a consensus.. We're pretty busy right now...Can I attend to it next week and come back to you?"

"Excellent. I know there's a lot of pressure now. Keep me in touch and let me know how I can ease matters...Oh, I almost forgot - Kate told me yesterday that your son has decided to tie the marital bond. Hearty congratulations! Who's the lucky guy?"

"Thanks. His name's Jeff Black. I think you play golf with his father."

"Sure do. A lovely family. My warmest wishes to them both..."

**********

Doubtlessly, you feel that the Mr Richardson of Version One has quite a lot to learn.

Firstly, he has declined - to his peril - to give his full attention to the task at hand. Secondly, he is probably still under the subconscious influence of an educational system that expects the teacher or lecturer to pronounce, and expects the unfortunate students to listen or take notes.

Now that he is in a management position, he has instinctively assumed the role of a teacher who knows just about everything, and expects others to passively imbibe his knowledge.

The vital four steps in effective communication might well help people like this Mr Richardson to correct this distorted view of the communication process. Some call them the four A's of communication. We can only discuss them very briefly here, although each of these four is worth an essay on its own.

Attention

Winning the attention of the person with whom we wish to communicate, is an obvious first step. In order to achieve this goal, we must first try to eliminate - as far as is humanly possible - what experts in this field call "noise". This includes everything that distracts, be it noise in the literal sense, physical or emotional discomfort, personal problems, negative attitudes, or distracting mannerisms or dress.

Respect for the other person is an important prerequisite for attention getting. The human greeting, or inquiry about the other person's health or personal circumstances, is an effective catalyst in this process. To be sure, if such introductions are false or stereotyped they might serve little purpose. Real empathy on the other hand, all the more so in downward communication from superior to subordinate, leads quickly to the second step in the process.

Apprehension

Although this word usually carries the connotation of "fear", its primary meaning is "understanding". We have preferred the term "apprehension" here primarily to retain the mnemonic of "four A's" Its two meanings, however, are related; they are two sides of one coin. The task of the communicator is to change the aspect of "fear" into that of "understanding".

Achieving apprehension is a critical part of the communication process, but it is a very subtle one also. Managers sometimes defend their inability to communicate by asking, "Do you understand?" This is usually an unfair question, and even the somewhat improved "What do you understand?" is often perceived as a threat.

On the other hand, if there is the right relationship between the transmitter and the receiver of a message, indirect ways of establishing the degree of understanding will present themselves. As Version Two above illustrates, encouraging a free flow of input from the receiver is the best way of ensuring that understanding has been achieved.

Assimilation

As crucial as is the function of apprehension (in its positive sense as we defined it,) it is not enough. Often, a person has understood a message perfectly, but he or she has not accepted it. Alternatively, it is accepted in a half-hearted manner, without any conviction. Communication is still incomplete if he has not assimilated the information into his own being.

The initiator has achieved an ideal result if the recipient has assimilated the message to the extent that he becomes one with the sender, as it were. Assimilation of a concept presented by management, or by another worker, goes a long way towards ensuring active participation, and harmonious cooperation, in the workplace.

Action

This is the final step in our communication process. It is that ingredient which propels abstract or theoretical knowledge into the world of reality. So often a good idea in business (no less than in other spheres) meets with facile acceptance or agreement, but is not translated into action.

If assimilation has indeed taken place, action on the part of the receiver should follow inevitably. But what we have said about the two-sided nature of communication applies here as well. The originator of the message must play his part, too, with abundant support and encouragement.

Azriel Winnett is the creator of HODU.COM - YOUR COMMUNICATION SKILLS PORTAL. This popular website helps you to improve your communication and relationship skills in business and professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene. New material added almost daily.

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