Building or Burning Bridges: Positive & Effective Strategic Communication
By Myranda Grecinger
Humans as a species are by nature social creatures. It is imperative that we communicate in order to build lasting relationships and form bonds. Communication is the key to the success of any relationship. Good communication skills can aid us in building strong bridges, but poor communication skills can certainly lead us to burn those bridges down. Communication begins at birth, so it may be easy to take for granted that we know what we are doing because it comes so naturally, but as with any skill, in order to be effective it must be practiced and our methods must continue to improve as we grow.
Whether it is a professional relationship with your coworkers, boss or subordinates, a romantic relationship, a friendship, family, teacher and student, student, teacher, or even a first meeting with a new acquaintanceship, even when it comes to public speaking no matter what the situation may be we can be assured of one thing, there will be communication during every encounter in some form or fashion. It is up to us to make the communication that takes place in any social encounter as effective as possible. When two or more people meet there is always something to accomplish, it could be to catch up on what is going on in their lives, or to debate a controversial topic, or to teach or learn something, strike a business deal, interview for a job, the possibilities are really endless, but whatever the purpose, each party needs to be able to be heard and understood for effective communication to take place so that the meeting can be a satisfying experience for everyone involved.
Every day I have the opportunity to observe people interacting and communicating. I utilize this opportunity to study what seems to be working and what does not. One of the things that I have found is very important is strategic flexibility. Strategic flexibility is an important part of good communication. It is a term that describes a person’s ability to gather, store and effectively utilize an arsenal of communication behaviors in the right situations. There are six steps to applying strategic flexibility in our day to day encounters, they are anticipate, assess, evaluate, select, apply, and reassess and evaluate. (Hybels and Weaver, 1986)
We must anticipate communication situations that may arise. For instance, let’s say a person knows that tomorrow they need to tell their boss that they need some more time off from work. The person knows that her reaction could go many ways, so they consider the possibilities ahead of time so that they are better prepared. Perhaps she will not have a problem finding a temporary replacement and will be very understanding of the employee’s situation. Maybe she will become irritated and threaten to replace them permanently. It is quite possible that she will be frustrated and will simply accept the situation but not be happy about it. In any case, the employee has anticipated each of these possible reactions.
According to Hybel and weaver in Communicating Effectively (1986) the employee will also need to assess the conditions and components of those situations. This part is a little more challenging; it takes a bit more foresight. In the case of our employee, he is aware that she will likely be in a hurry for the morning meeting; this usually means it is difficult for her to get a clear grasp on what he is saying. He also knows that most morning she is late getting ready and will likely be distracting with call returns and customer complaints. On top of all of this he knows that his boss is already annoyed with how much time he has had off already this year.
After he has thought of all of the things that will likely be adding to the circumstances surrounding the conversation our employee will need to select the appropriate communication skills from his communication behaviors arsenal and apply them carefully (Hybels and Weaver, 1986). Some nonverbal cues may be helpful in this situation, such as standing in a location that is easy for her to see while he displays a bit of sorrow for disappointing her and understanding of how difficult this makes things for her, with the use of facial expressions, body language and sighs. I also think that he will need to show her that he truly understands everything that she is trying to convey to him during the conversation with some active listening techniques and reiterate the necessity behind what he is doing.
When he has completed this process he will then need to reassess the effectiveness of the communication in the potential encounter and then reevaluate the choices that he made in communicating (Hybels and Weaver, 1986). he will do that by playing back the whole scenario in his head before it has ever happened in reality so that he can figure out any areas that he may be able to improve upon for the real thing. This way, the way that he reacts to her whether it is verbal or non verbal language can be adjusted to insure a better outcome. This part of communication takes some foresight and practice but can be a very useful tool in preventing being caught off guard during an important communication.
The more skills that a person has to work with and the more skill that they have in using them, the better they will be at whatever they are trying to accomplish. In this case, this is effectively communicating. So, every opportunity that someone takes to observe someone else’s communication transactions or even their own, the more equipped they are for their next conversation, discussion, lecture, order, interview or whatever the situation may require.
There are several important pieces of communication, but the physical elements are the clearest explanation of the total process. In their book, Communicating Effectively, Hybels and Weaver define these important physical elements for us. All of these things must be taken under consideration before communication begins as well as while the process is going on in order for our communication to be effective.
Sender-receiver denotes the individuals involved in a communication transaction. Messages are the compilation of ideas and emotions that the sender is trying to convey and the receiver is attempting to interpret. The channel is the method by which the sender sends the messages and the receiver obtains them. Feedback is a term that describes the return messages in response to the original. Noises are the things that interfere with our ability to clearly communicate, this could be external noise which is happening in the environment around us or internal noise which is whatever may be going on in the mind of the sender-receiver, either way, they are distractions that we must overcome. The final component is the setting which is the place and atmosphere where the communication takes place. Although there are many types of communication, they all require these elements.
Nonverbal communication is a large part of any communication experience. Body language, gestures, expression, tone of voice, stance, and even general appearance are all a part of non verbal communication. According to the University of California Santa Cruz research has shown that non verbal communication is often more important than the words that are being spoken. The receiver gains many clues from non verbal language as to what is meant by the words being said, for instance, arms tightly folded and lips pursed may be interpreted as “I am angry” or I am not interested in your point of view.” Whereas the sender of the spoken message may interpret fidgeting from the receiver as “I am uncomfortable with this conversation” or “I am uninterested in what you are saying.” The unspoken portion of a conversation sets the tone and sends messages and feedback through channels from both parties. So how each person perceives the other and their reaction is heavy part of determining how effective the communication will be. (http://nonverbal.ucsc.edu/) Self perception is just as important though.
The book, Communicating Effectively, tells us that self concept and self perception are or how you look at the world and how you look at yourself and feel about yourself are important foundations for communication. (Hybels and Weaver). If a person considers themselves to be inferior or is insecure about themselves they may portray that during communication which will limit their ability to express themselves or meet the purpose that they set out to achieve through the communication. On the other hand if a person is confident about themselves and their purpose behind communicating, then that person is likely to be taken more seriously and is far more likely to complete their objectives.
It has been my experience that whatever a person is feeling about themselves while they are talking to me is usually very obvious and if they are insecure, it makes me question the validity of what they are saying. Of course, I have also realized things about myself in communicating, for instance, if I am feeling especially insecure I may try to avoid any serious or emotional discussions because during that time if afraid that what I am saying may be wrong I speak more quietly and tend to stand further away from the people that I am speaking to, and if I am concerned that someone may be offended by what I am saying then I speak more firmly and try to rush through the sensitive areas because I am afraid of what they may think of me. Both perception and self concept is formed through the events, experiences, and relationships that we encounter in our lives and how we react to them, therefore our self concept and perception are in a constant state of evolution, that is, our ideas and emotions regarding how we see ourselves and the world are always growing and changing because everyday invites new experiences, events and relationships.
Finally we come to the most widely recognized portion of the communication exchange, the spoken words. Just as non verbal communication can assist in setting the tone and sending important information the words are also important. Words can carry a lot of power, and they can destroy a relationship or save one. The right words can assist someone in becoming completely intrigued by what someone is saying, but the wrong words can completely turn someone off to the message that is being conveyed.
Making assumptions, accusations and generalizations during any communication exchange can quickly turn a conversation in the wrong direction and cause the intended purpose of the conversation to be lost by causing the person on the receiving end to feel as though they are not understood or must defend themselves. I have actually cut a conversation short before the necessary points had been made because I was feeling as though I were being backed into a corner and I could not handle that feeling of having to defend myself. In all reality later on when I found out what the whole point of the conversation was, it turned out that I kind of agreed and we could have resolved the situation then if the other person had not made accusations that made me feel defensive or if I had known a better way to react.
In the past I have made the mistake of saying “I hate the way that you always do that, you get busy doing something every time and do not even care what I have to say” and my husband has become offended and said things to the effect that “No one always does anything for one and for two I am listening but I was also trying to do something, but I am done now”, however if I were to try the next time I want to say it to instead say “I am uncomfortable with what you are doing right now because it causes me to feel like you are not listening to me” I believe that the outcome may be very different. The way that we phrase things can easily be misinterpreted, so it is imperative that we consider all people involved in the communication transaction and how our words may be interpreted before speaking. For instance, in my house,” I cannot talk about it” usually means “I am not dealing with this right now and I do not care what you have to say on the matter” but every now and then someone says that and actually means that they are unable to comment on the subject and it has started some animosity on occasion.
Active and empathetic listening is a very important part of the receiver’s role. It is important that the receiver be able to identify with the sender and show an understanding of their perspective. Active listening is helps to make sure that the message is being interpreted properly and is getting through clearly and also shows the sender that the receiver is paying attention and is interested in the information. Rephrasing and clarifying the information being received is an important part of this process. Another important part of the listening process happens when a receiver reflects back the emotions involved with the message that they are receiving this assists the sender in feeling as though what they are expressing and how they are feeling is understood. Being that we are social creatures, we are taught from a young age the importance of validation, we get it from our loved ones growing up, it is that little bit of empathy that says “I know what you are going thru and you have the right to feel that way” or “I understand and accept you”.
Every chance that people have to communicate can be seen as an opportunity to practice their effective communication skills. Communication is a necessary part of human existence. Effective communication is the key to making human interaction as positive as possible and assisting us all in becoming more successful in our day to day lives. We all come from different backgrounds, cultures, and belief systems. We all have different experiences to draw on and therefore conflict is inevitable however, the fact that we do not agree on some things does not mean in any way that we cannot still communicate effectively and come away from each opportunity to communicate with something positive. Communication does not have to end in agreement, the people involved just need to feel as though they were heard, understood and also that they were respected to make it a successful interaction.
Effective communication begins the moment we wake up in the morning and continues until we close our eyes at night to go to sleep. We are constantly either communicating something in everything we do and say or preparing to communicate. It is such a large part of our existence and we do it so often that we can easily forget to stop and take notice of whether or not we are doing it well. It is important for everyone to come to the realization that any skill or talent requires practice, critic, and growth to be effective and useful by any means. Being able to speak words does not make one a great speaker, being able to hear does not make one a great listener, being able to move your body does not mean you have clear body language. It all must be acknowledged and studied and practiced daily, these are the things that lead to great communication.
© 2011 Myranda Grecinger