Communicating Your Understanding – OPEN

Communicating Your Understanding

Active listening in the workplace

George Pitagorsky

Communication is the process of exchanging information through verbal and non-verbal messaging.

It is the single most critical part of project initiation, planning and performance. In fact, it is the most important part of working with anyone on anything. Communication is the foundation for all relationship and healthy relationships are the foundation for successful performance.

We must be able to share our thoughts in a way that promotes mutual understanding. That is the first step in being able to plan, solve problems, avoid and resolve conflicts, define and deliver products and services, and more.

Dr Stephen Covey’s fifth habit of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. He said,

“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Listening is the key to understanding. Intend to listen and then reflect on what you have taken in, ask questions about it and reflect your understanding back to the other parties to make sure you understand in the same way they do. Then, you can seek to be understood by communicating your views while being open to feedback and questioning.

Covey thought that most people do not listen with the intention to understand. Instead they listen with the intention to respond. Often the intention to respond leads to missing part of the content of the message and bypasses reflection of what has been said and understood. That opens the door to misinterpretation and unnecessary conflict.

Listening is not just about hearing. Listening in the context of the communication model includes seeing, feeling and hearing. It goes beyond the receiver intending to understand. The sender who “listens” with eyes, ears, and other senses picks up on the receiver’s needs and is more likely to be understood. So, when Covey says “seek to understand” we can include in that the idea that as senders we seek to understand the receiver so that we can send our message in a way that is most likely to be understood.

Saying you understand does not communicate that you understand.

You must show that you understand by saying what you understand and determining whether the others agree that what you understand is what they understand. That common or mutual understanding assures that further dialogue, debate and action will be effective.

Note that an understanding of what another person has said or written does not imply agreement.

You can understand what another person says and not agree with it. In fact, unless you really understand what the other person says and is thinking, you cannot know whether you agree or disagree.

For example, an IT project leader, in conversation with the people representing the client and the client’s end users, says “I understand” and in effect cuts off communication. To complete the circle of understanding, the IT Project Leader must show his/her understanding, orally at first, and then, if the information is to be used to initiate work or as a base for decision making, in some concrete form such as a document, email or prototype. The statement of understanding can be preceded by questions to clarify the understanding. Often, a dialog is needed to refine the understanding.

One communicator, the sender, encodes and sends a message, the other receives it, “decodes it” and sends feedback, which is then decoded and used by the original sender to determine his/her next steps. The encoding sets up the message. It is influenced by the sender’s field of experience. The decoding is based on the receiver’s field of experience.

The field of experience is the cultural background, language, knowledge, attitude, relationship, etc. that have come together to influence understanding. The greater the differences in the fields of experience between the communicators, the greater the need for care and effort in making sure there is a common understanding of the message.

A message travels from sender to receiver via a channel. The channel represents the media – the means by which the message is sent. It might be email, oral face to face or via telephone, video, etc.

Here is an example of how the channel effects the communication: in a discussion about a requirement, the client says, “I want a hard copy report of all transactions for a day and to have a PDF copy of it stored for future use.” That is the initial message. It is encoded by the sender. The analyst, hearing this, rolls her eyes and makes a face. That is the second message (sent using body language). If the channel is voice via telephone, that message will not get through. If it does get through, in a media that allows for visual contact, it will trigger a response from the client.

Noise is part of the transactional model. Noise gets in the way of mutual understanding. In the communication model, noise is not limited to physical sound alone. Noise may be physical, physiological, psychological or semantic.

Physical noise is sound or disruption in the communication environment. It might be loud music, static, the buzz of machinery. Physical noise distorts the message or disrupts receiving the message.

Physiological noise is related to the speech and hearing of the communicators. For example, physiological noise includes hearing problems, speaking too slowly, too softly, too fast or too loudly. It also includes poor pacing and creating run on paragraphs by forgetting to pause.

Psychological noise includes distracting thoughts that take the mind away from the topic at hand and get in the way of listening, wandering from topic to topic in an unrelated sequence, biases, beliefs, sarcasm, irony and unrecognized attempts at humor.

Semantic noise relates to differences in meaning. This is not limited to differences in natural languages. It includes differences in meaning arising from the use of jargon and terms that require common understanding of technical, scientific or organizational content.

With an understanding of the goal of communication and the nature of the communication process, it becomes possible to improve communication in the project setting. Be mindful of the environment, the needs and nature of the other parties and of one’s own tendencies and the need to minimize noise and accommodate the noise that will remain to achieve mutual understanding.

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