How to Communicate Effectively

By Benjamin • 12 September, 20215-minute readBack to all writings

You know that moment when you thought you communicated something, only to realise you were misunderstood? Or that time you thought you replied an email, only to end up being asked the same thing again in a later email? We all know that communication is a skill and that it takes time and effort to hone.

We also know that communication is a two-way street. “Give and take”, “it takes two to tango”…you get the idea. But I suspect we are less aware of how to drive safely on the street of Communication. Often we are not aware of the various potholes and speed-bumps strewn along the way.

In this essay, I’ve compiled five brief thoughts on communication based on my experience in working and communicating with people. People who range from being young and inexperienced interns, to highly experienced people in senior positions. I trust you’ll find these thoughts useful.

• • •

First: assumptions. What are the assumptions in the conversation? Who is assuming what? Are you assuming your listener will understand every term or concept you mentioned, or should you break it down for him? Do the both of you agree on the definition of the terms and jargons you are using, or are you both having nuanced ideas about it?

Also, are you assuming you understood everything you heard? It wouldn’t hurt to recap at the end of the conversation so that both parties are clear about what ideas were communicated (and what wasn’t). What a waste of precious time if you were to act on what you thought you understood only to learn that you had mis-understood.

If assumptions in an important conversation are not identified and addressed, you are not communicating; you are mis-communicating.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw

Second: vagueness. Are you using overly general and vague words to refer to an idea or something you want done? For example, as a person working with creative visual work daily, I need to be careful to be specific in my feedback and instructions. Otherwise, I might get something that is the opposite of what I had in mind.

To me, “make it look presentable/better/cleaner…etc” is useless feedback. It’s generic, vague and not in the least helpful. It would be much helpful if the feedback was articulated clearly. For instance, If there too many colours on the design for your liking, say that you would like there to be lesser colours. Better still, shortlist the colours you prefer from the design. If the poster has a photo, and you want photo to be the highlight of the design, then articulate that. Don’t try to use jargons to sound “professional”—it might end up doing just the opposite.

What should you do then? Be specific. Be clear. Be concise.

Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Next, preconceived ideas. Are you holding on to any preconceived ideas that you are not willing to let go of in the conversation? Is that what your listener is doing? Can you identify what those preconceived ideas are? If yes, then you are one step closer to addressing it and that gives you have a better chance of getting your message across. Otherwise, you may as well be talking to yourself as your listener is probably merely listening to respond and not to understand.

This is where the analogy of communication being a two way street applies. If one person is merely listening, but is not willing to explore the opposing idea on a deeper level, then the street is merely moving one way; traffic is jammed up on the other direction. The same applies to you. Are you willing to suspend your preconceived ideas for the moment so that you are able to properly weigh the various ideas presented?

No doubt it requires a measure of maturity to be able to do so. When you can let go of preconceived ideas, you are being willing to be proven wrong, to be vulnerable; to grow.

“It’s amazing what ordinary people can do if they set out without preconceived notions.”

—Ben Stein

My fourth thought is on interrupting others. Do you allow others to finish their thought before responding? If not, why? Do you think you know better, or that you think you know what they are trying to say, even before they complete their sentence? If so, you need to head back up to my first point on dealing with assumptions.

Allowing others to complete their thought first will allow you to better understand what they are trying to communicate. That way, you will be in a better position to respond. Better still, you might learn something new.

Also, I think interrupting others is really bad form and a faux pax. It inadvertently communicates to others that you have the diarrhoea of the mouth, or that you are insecure about the position you’re in to the point that you cannot even allow others to complete their sentence. In the two-way street of Communication, interrupting others is akin to driving on the wrong side of the road.

Give and take: let others finish, so that they too will allow you to finish.

“Effective listening is more than simply avoiding the bad habit of interrupting others while they are speaking or finishing their sentences. It’s being content to listen to the entire thought of someone rather than waiting impatiently for your chance to respond.”

—Richard Carlson

Finally, discipline. Do you have the discipline to formulate a thought in your mind before blurting it out? Or are you often the first to speak whatever that comes to your mind? Do you have the discipline to not interrupt others while they are talking? Are you able to listen intently with the desire to understand, and not to respond? If no, what is stopping you from developing that discipline?

When answering an email, do you have the discipline to answer it point-by-point such that everything that was raised in the email is addressed? If no, why not? If you practice skimming through work emails that are sent to you, would you accept it if it was also done to you by others? Are you disciplined enough to proofread your emails so that you make sure you are being clear in every sentence. Written communication has the benefit of being written; you can keep editing it until it’s as clear as you would like it to be, unlike the spoken word. When speaking, we have more room for error as communication is happening in real-time. Any discrepancies might be ironed out immediately with a quick call for clarification, unlike written communication.

“Discipline is the foundation upon which all success is built. Lack of discipline inevitably leads to failure.”

—Jim Rohn

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Written by Benjamin. Husband, father, child of God. Married to Huey Lin. Check out their YouTube channel.