Carol Burnett said, “Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own.” In contemporary terms, we might say, “Words, once they are tweeted, have a life of their own.” However we choose to do it, what we say, write, tweet, blog, text, or email, has the same root issue: communication without thought can become problematic.
We often think of communication as a simple human task using words. But communication is more than words – it’s five components that combine to create this complex thing that is often no more than a sentence.
The source (or sender), using their own cultural and experiential filters, creates a message that is transmitted through some medium to the receiver, who uses their own cultural and experiential filters to interpret the message and create feedback – all of which is called a communication loop. Then the process starts all over again, originating with either party to create a series of loops that make up a conversation.
No wonder we sometimes fail to understand each other!
The bad news about this complex thing called communication is we all experience its frustrations. But the good news is we can improve our ability to communicate with some thoughtful preparation and practice.
To start, consider that communication is simply the process of creating shared meaning. But as you can see in the Communication Loop description, both the sender and receiver(s) rely on their own experiences and background to write or interpret the message. Differences in culture, beliefs, or gender identity can get in the way of creating shared meaning.
Additionally, the medium or method used by the sender to transmit the message may have an impact on shared meaning. Email and text messages are poor ways to convey emotion compared to a phone call or face-to-face conversation.
How to Communicate Better
Here are some practical and simple ways to improve how you communicate.
- Slow down. If there’s no emergency, give yourself the luxury of a few minutes to collect your thoughts and sit with the information before you do anything.
- Think first. If you’re the sender, take a few minutes to recall what you know about the person or group receiving your message. If you don’t know them well or at all, think about what kind of first (or second) impression you want to make.
- Be direct. There’s no need to be flowery or obtuse. Add something friendly or courteous, but be sure your language is direct and clear. You can edit if the tone isn’t right, but don’t side-step the issue to be addressed.
- Show authenticity. Sometimes communication evokes emotions that we think we should hide. Rather than giving in to that idea, find a constructive way to express the emotion you’re experiencing.
- Be concise. It’s tempting to use more words than necessary to fully express what’s on your mind, but it seldom results in greater clarity. The same holds true for repeating yourself.
- Ask questions. Be sure you’re fully participating in creating shared meaning by asking questions to clarify anything that seems fuzzy or unclear. If there’s any lack of clarity, you may not be creating the same shared meaning as the other(s) in the conversation.
If Carol Burnett is correct, and I think she is, remember your words live on beyond the moment you express them. Improving your communication will leave a legacy of clarity, directness, and kindness others can learn from and follow.