“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – Bernard Shaw
This is my favorite quote about communication. For me, it serves as a reminder to really make sure that my message is being heard and understood by my audience. I wanted to talk about this because communicating is something we all do every day, with each other, our coworkers, our business partners and stakeholders, and outside of work with our family, friends, and even strangers that we encounter as we go about our daily lives.
In EA, our roles often require the need to explain or get input from others about work we’re doing; what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, or how we’re doing it. This is where clear and effective communication becomes vitally important.
Communication can be both very simple or incredibly nuanced depending on the message being delivered and the delivery method. Communication can include verbal and nonverbal cues, written or spoken words, gestures, facial expressions, and various forms of media. Due to the wide array of factors involved in communicating, misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and miscommunications may occur.
The “illusion” or belief that you’ve communicated something can come from a variety of factors. The primary place we see this is in our day-to-day interactions in meetings and emails. We may assume that since we spoke about an agenda item, or sent a message and it was received on the other end, the communication process is complete.
However, this perspective overlooks the vital step of ensuring that the intended meaning and understanding have been accurately conveyed. Simply transmitting information does not guarantee that it has been comprehended or fully absorbed by the recipient.
Of course, communication is not solely reliant on the sender but also depends on the active participation of the receiver. The receiver’s interpretation, perception, biases, and preconceived notions play a significant role in the overall communication process. The same words or gestures can be interpreted differently by different individuals based on their unique perspectives, cultural backgrounds, and personal experiences. If we fail to recognize and address these factors it can easily lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication.
One of the common contributing factors to the illusion of communication is the assumption of shared knowledge or other assumptions between the sender and receiver. People often operate under the assumption that the person they’re communicating with has the same understanding or background information, leading them to skip crucial details or explanations. This assumption creates gaps in comprehension, leaving the receiver with an incomplete or distorted understanding of the intended message. Considering the recipient’s knowledge or point of view about the subject of the communication is a vital part of crafting the message. Communication also includes emotional expression, empathy, active listening, and feedback. It’s important to consider the emotional impact your message may have on the receiver. If you communicate something that could be considered “bad news” without addressing the emotional aspect, the communication may fail to create a meaningful connection or achieve the desired outcome.
To overcome the illusion of communication, we need to be mindful and intentional in our approach. We want to foster an open and receptive environment and encourage active listening, empathy, and clarity. Senders of information, whether it’s spoken or written, should express their message thoughtfully, considering the needs, knowledge, and background of the receiver. At the same time, the receiver should actively engage in the communication process, ask for clarification, and provide feedback to ensure a shared understanding. Use techniques such as paraphrasing, summarizing, and asking open-ended questions to help clarify and confirm the intended message. Using bullet points or a small table to organize or emphasize information, and using various communication mediums, such as visual aids, diagrams, or examples, can enhance understanding and minimize ambiguity.
The quote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” encapsulates the idea that effective communication goes beyond the mere transmission of information. It underscores the need for active participation, empathy, and clarity to ensure a shared understanding between the sender and receiver. It’s up to us to acknowledge and address the barriers to effective communication, enabling us to foster better connections, build trusted partnerships, and achieve more successful outcomes.