As a Human Resources consultant, I conduct many training seminars for my clients. In my experience, the most popular and frequently requested seminars usually involve some aspect of communication training. In this article, I am going to focus on some highlights of those communication training courses. Due to the broad nature of the topic, I have chosen to exclude much of the detail included in these courses and only look at some of the more important highlights.
I would like to start with a very brief history of communication theory. One of the very first and most famous people to publish works about communication was Aristotle. The basis of his theory is that communication is an art known as Rhetoric. Aristotle defined Rhetoric as: “the faculty of observing in any given case all the available means of persuasion”. Put very simply, Aristotle believed that communication was a means of getting people to do what you want them to do.
Over time there have been many, communication theorists, each with a new or tweaked approach or theory to what communication is, and what the goal of communication should be. This isn’t a history lesson so I am not going to spend our time talking about all the different theorists. I just want to create awareness that communication has been a topic of discussion since people have been able to communicate.
Throughout history, people have debated and continue to debate the subject of communication. Additionally, there have been many technological advances that have changed how people communicate with one another. It seems like everyday communication becomes faster and easier.
In this article I am going to discuss some different types of communication, some common barriers, and some ways to over come those barriers. My goal is simple; to improve and build on communication skills.
As we know, there are many different definitions of communication. Those definitions will depend on the theorist you are asking.
Let’s start by defining communication for our purposes. I like the definition given by Lawrence Frey, Carl Botan, Paul Friedman, and Gary Kreps which is: “Communication is the management of messages for the purpose of creating meaning.” There are two distinctive ways in which people deliver their messages. They are verbally and non-verbally. Verbal communication is usually understood to be oral and written messages. Non-verbal communication, on the other hand, is usually understood as “the process of sending and receiving wordless messages”. Many people think that body language and non-verbal communication are synonymous; however, body language is actually just one small piece of non-verbal communication. Depending on your source, you may find more or less forms of non-verbal communication, but for our purposes we are going to look at 7 classes:
Body Language – are messages sent by the body, this would include gestures, facial expression, body movement, posture, and gaze.
An example of this type of non-verbal communication would be me talking with my arms crossed, or tapping my food. This may make you think I am impatient or angry.
Vocalic’s – are cues other than words, this would include volume, rate, pitch, pausing, and silence.
I am sure that you have all encountered some one that talks way too fast. Something like talking too fast may lead you to believe that this person is nervous or anxious.
Physical Appearance – these are manipulative cues related to the body, they would include hairstyle, clothing, cosmetics, fragrance, etc.
For example, if I came in here wearing a lab coat, you may be lead to believe that I was some one in the medical profession.
Contact Cues – Contact cues would include frequency, intensity, and type of touch.
This would be like if you were talking with a family member or significant other and they put their hand on your shoulder. This would probably send a message of understanding or caring.
Spatial Cues – they would include interpersonal distance, territoriality, and other spacing relationships.
Have you ever heard of your “box” or personal space? Have you ever been in a conversation with a person who has obviously not ever heard of personal space? They talk right in your face. I used to have a friend that didn’t know what personal space was. With out fail by the end of our conversation, my back was always against a wall due to me trying to move away from him as we were talking.
Chronemics – this is the use of time as a message system, including punctuality, amount of time spent with another, and waiting time.
Have you ever dealt with some one who is always late? I don’t know about you, but this usually makes me feel unimportant.
Artifacts – these are manipulative objects in the environment that may reflect messages from the designer or user, such as furniture, art, pets, or other possessions.
A good example of this would be looking at art in a museum. Have you ever looked at a painting and you are sure that you know what the artist was thinking when they painted it?
(Cicca, A. H., Step, M., & Turkstra, L. (2003, Dec. 16). Show me what you mean: Nonverbal communication theory and application. The ASHA Leader, pp. 4-5, 34.)
Non-verbal communication is a very powerful method of communication (or delivering the meaning). If your body language, vocals or any other form of non-verbal communication is sending one message and your words are delivering a different message, frequently your non-verbal message can be the more powerful message.
The first communication barrier we are going to discuss is cultural. Because different cultures emphasize, value, see things, and hear things differently, it should come as no surprise that they also communicate differently. Communication can become especially complicated if there are different languages and translations involved. Has any one here ever heard that Eskimo’s have 50 words for snow? I don’t know if that is actually true or not, but it does illustrate a good point, that language can be very different in different cultures. Even down to the number of words used to describe something. Another cultural barrier with communication has to do with the non-verbal communication or norms. Each culture has rules about proper non-verbal communication. For example, in some Asian countries people speak in a lower volume and don’t make eye contact when they communicate. Where as, in America, speaking low and not making eye contact can be seen as a sign of weakness. These differences, along with many others that I have not mentioned, may lead to misunderstandings. Additionally, if people are unaware of cultural differences they are more likely to fall victim to the barriers.
Another common communication barrier has to do with communicating across generations. I can remember my grandparents saying things like, “these kids speak a totally different language”. Well, in some cases that may not be totally off base. We have to keep in mind that times have changed since your grandparents and even your parents grew up. I would guess that most of our parents grew up in the 40’s or 50’s and grandparents some where around the 20’s or 30’s. They saw the first TV’s and the first Computers. Now technology makes advances every day. Think of how often you replace your computer or your cell phone. Maybe every few year’s right? When we are communicating with people of a different generation we have to be aware of these things.
The last communication barrier we are going to discuss is of a little different nature. This is a barrier do to ineffective listening. Communication is a two way street. Delivering your message is only half of that street; the other half is listening to other people’s messages. I am sure we all have had experiences with people who are very poor listeners. Maybe it’s your boss, your spouse, your children, or your parents. How does it make you feel when people don’t listen to you? I know that personally I get pretty frustrated.
The fact of the matter is; people frequently forget that it is okay to listen, take a few moments to think of a response, and then speak. Instead we are always thinking of what we are going to say as the person is talking. How can I possibly be giving you my full attention if I am preoccupied with thoughts of what I am going to say next?
Listening is a very important part of communication. Think back to the previous piece pertaining to non-verbal communication. Verbal communication with out listening to other parties is like trying to detect some ones body language with your eyes closed. In order to be great communicators, we must also be exceptional listeners.
Overcoming Communication Barriers
I just identified three very common communication barriers. But how do we over come those barriers and become great communicators?
- The first step to over coming communication barriers is something we just did. Identify the barrier. How can you solve a problem if you don’t know that the problem exists?
- Be more specific. When we are dealing with language barriers, or cultural barriers it is very important to be as specific as possible. If you have a specific message you are trying to deliver you should choose words that will leave little room for interpretation.
- For example, when I go to a fast food restaurant I wouldn’t just order a soda. Who knows what I would get. I say what kind of soda I want, and I also let them know what size I would like.
- Lastly work on more effective listening. Try to incorporate some of the following:
- Make eye contact while listening
- Don’t focus on what you are going to say next
- Clarify meaning by briefly paraphrasing
Over coming communication barriers does not happen over night. These things take a lot of practice. Identify which barriers seem to be most pertinent to you and then work on them one at a time.
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