What is communication?

What is communication? Well, the short answer is complex. Of course, on the surface it all seems so straightforward; we express ourselves to others and they just 'get it'. Yeah right! If that is your experience congratulations; what is communication is a question you don't need to spend too much time considering.

For the rest of us, the challenge is neatly summed up by my favourite, and most used quotation by Irish author and playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Many of us think we are great communicators and that our messages hit home; we believe people hang on our every word, understand exactly what we are saying, and how we would like them to respond. The reality is frequently quite different.

So, what is communication? One definition would be:  “any act by which one person gives to or receives from another person information about that person's needs, desires, perceptions, knowledge, or affective states".  The first thing to notice in this description is the phrase 'any act'. Communication is not just about our words, it is about everything we are doing when communicating.

I often think of people as computers in the sense that we all have a base operating system: for example a great many computers have a Microsoft base operating system such as windows. In people our base system does things like keeping our heart beating, lungs working, deciding on fight or flight in difficult situations.

A computer then has many different applications sitting on top of its base system, and guess what - so do we as people. We have a wide variety of different applications that mean we process our experiences, and information very differently. Some of us zoom straight into the detail, others prefer concepts and general ideas, some like data and facts, others like a more feelings and emotional based approach. The list of differences goes on and on. This is partly what drives the complexity.

The communication trap is this: we tend to communicate using our preferences, our applications and assume that others will find it easy to understand. If they happen to share a lot of similar applications with us, they might just get it. Yet the probability is they will either have to work a lot harder to understand our message, or will misunderstand and effectively corrupt the message. You know how frustrating it can be sending attachments to people who are using different applications to you. The attachment is either not displayed quite right and sometimes the receiver simply can't open the file.

The second thing to notice about the definition: we are always communicating. It is constant. As a result of this, people are also constantly receiving and interpreting information from us. Messages get corrupted or misunderstood when that interpretation varies, often quite widely from our intended message. To get our key messages received and understood it is important that our non-verbal signals are in line with our words. People pay far more attention to what they are seeing rather then what they are hearing. Without words, communicating is your real meaning is tough, but if your non verbal messages are not aligned the receiver is much more likely to go with what they are seeing.

What is communication?

Well it's an often under rated skill. Good communicators get their ideas heard, make an impact and achieve. Strong communication skills help in all aspects of our lives, whether at work, at play or in our relationships. Building good communication skills is something we should be focusing on regularly.

Richard Lock: International trainer, speaker,and coach helping businesses and individuals learn the secrets of effective communication.

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See also:

RHL Associates for management development