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Effective Communication: Easier Said Than Understood

As a management consultant, I have observed that most problems in an organization are the result of people failing to communicate effectively. Have you ever said "you didn't understand my directions" or "we don't see eye to eye"? Effective communication occurs when the receiver comprehends the information or idea that the sender intends to convey.

Communication: Two-way process of reaching mutual understanding, in which participants not only exchange (encode-decode) information but also create and share meaning.

Communication is the label for a group of behaviors (the things you do and the things you say on a regular basis) that are important when working with people. The communication process involves having a message that you need to communicate, and the message is sent to the receiver, either verbally or non-verbally. The receiver then translates the words or nonverbal gestures into a concept or information.

The effectiveness of the communication depends on three factors: content, context, and the receiver. Content is the actual words or symbols that constitute a part of the message, known as language. It can be either spoken or written. We all interpret words in our own ways, and even simple messages could be understood differently.

Context is the parts of communication that surround a spoken or written word or passage that can influence its meaning. The context for communication may sometimes seem to contradict the communication—for example, when factual information that the person knows about the subject challenges or contradicts what is being conveyed in the communication itself. In spoken communication, context might include body language, facial expressions, gestures, and the level or state of emotion. In my observations while coaching leaders, I have seen that context is a critical component of effective communication that often gets overlooked. As we believe what we see more than what we hear, we sometimes trust the accuracy of nonverbal behavior more than verbal behavior. So when we communicate, the other person notices what we say, how we say it, and what he or she knows about the subject.

Another often overlooked part of effective communication is the emotional state of the receiver. Effective communicators pay attention to the following five issues as they relate to communicating:

  • How you should communicate with the receiver (e.g., e-mail, voicemail, brief written summaries, dialogue and interaction). E-mail is a great way to deliver data. It is a poor way to communicate personal information, and it is often ineffective as a tool to get support or to address conflicts. Personal contact and dialogue (e.g., phone, face-to-face, or handwritten notes) are the best ways to communicate personal messages such as performance improvement suggestions, conflict, praise, etc.

  • What you should communicate to the receiver—does this person need this information/message?

  • When you should communicate with the receiver—do you need to set an appointment with them? Does anytime work? One-on-one meetings or in a team? Only when they ask? A particular time of the day or week?

  • How frequently you should communicate with the receiver (e.g., daily, very frequently, only when there is a problem, same time each week).

  • What preparation is needed to gain the receptivity of the receiver—will it require significant preparation? Short and sweet will work fine? Someone else needs to be there, too? Multiple conversations?

Normally we think communication is complete once we have conveyed the message; "I don't know why it was not done. I had asked him to do it." Chances are the message was not perceived properly. A message hasn't been communicated successfully unless the receiver understands it completely. The only way to know if the message has been properly received is by two-way communication or feedback. Here are the communication barriers to two-way communication or feedback.

Ourselves: Focusing on ourselves, rather than on the receiver, can lead to confusion and conflict. Often, we are thinking about our response, rather than focusing on what the other person is saying. Some other factors that cause this are defensiveness (we feel someone is attacking us), superiority (we feel we know more than the other does), and ego (we feel we are the center of the activity).

Personal Biases: If we have a preconceived concept about the other person (e.g., they're a complainer, they're lazy, etc.), we may dismiss the person. Our preconceived attitudes affect our ability to listen.

Thinking Conditions: People don't see things the same way or see as clearly under stress. What we see and believe at a given moment is influenced by our psychological frames of references—beliefs, values, knowledge, experiences, and goals. The Four Thinking Conditions are:

  1. Relating—low stress, highest clarity in thinking, and able to use the energy and consider perspectives of others.

  2. Reflecting—low stress, high clarity in thinking, and ample time to draw upon our memories, feelings, and thoughts.

  3. Responding—our energy is used for acting or deciding, but not thinking, so we don't consider different perspectives, and we are subject to our own biases.

  4. Reacting—this is a high stress state, and the clarity in thinking is very low.

It is important to be aware of whether or not the receiver is able to hear and receive the message due to his or her current emotional state or stress (i.e., thinking condition). I'm always amazed that business people fail to recognize that it is an exercise in futility to try to communicate with someone when they are in Thinking Condition 4. In this respect, we can all learn a lesson from a 6-year-old. A six-year-old know just the right time to approach mom or dad about that new toy they want. They know the thinking condition that presents the opportune time to approach the parents for this request.

These barriers are filters that we use to decide what is useful for us. No one can completely avoid these filters. A way to overcome these filters when you want is through active listening and feedback.

Active Listening

All of us can hear, but not all of us can listen. Hearing and listening are not the same thing. Hearing is involuntary, and listening involves the reception and interpretation of what is heard. It decodes the sound heard into meaning.

People generally speak at 100 to 175 words per minute, but we can listen intelligently at 600 to 800 words per minute. This means most of the time, only part of our brain is paying attention, and it is easy for attention to drift. This happens to all of us. The cure: active listening. This involves listening with a purpose. It may be to gain information, obtain directions, understand others, solve problems, share interests, see how the other person feels, even show support. This type of listening takes the same amount of or more energy than speaking. This requires the listener to hear various messages, understand the meaning, and then verify the meaning by offering feedback. Here are some of the traits of active listeners:

  • Do not finish the sentences of others.

  • Are aware of their biases. We all have them … we need to control them.

  • Plan responses after the other person has finished speaking, not while the person is speaking.

  • Provide feedback but do not interrupt incessantly.

  • Take brief notes. This forces one to concentrate on what is being said.


Feedback is restating the other person's message in your own words. It helps to make sure that you understood the message correctly. How much better daily communication would be if listeners tried to understand before they tried to evaluate what someone is saying!

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