We survive through communication, and yet communication is fraught with opportunities for failure. In order to convey any message, we have to encode and channel it and the receiver has to hear it, decode it and then respond – at which point they become the encoder and we become the decoder. From exchanges as simple as "How are you?" to nailing the intricacies of international diplomacy, these simple auditory and psychological processes are in play.
Great communication skills will stand you in good stead whether you're a job seeker, middle manager or global CEO. Happily, we can improve communication through practice and by learning from mistakes – and unfortunately, life will almost certainly provide us all with plenty of these!
Here are some of the commonly-committed communications errors, from major failures by leadership teams to mistakes any individual can make from one day to the next. We all make mistakes, and I'm sure I've made a few of these!
World's worst-kept secret: a failure of prioritising messages
Communication around a project is as much a part of the project as any other work stream. In particular, a communication plan for change projects should be a priority, not an afterthought.
The "world's worst-kept secret" scenario happens when management teams fail to prevent communication leaks and, at the same time, don't measure organisational mood, so that by the time big news is officially released, it's been common knowledge on the "shop floor" for days or even weeks and only they have failed to notice.
Leadership teams don't feel ready to communicate negative news only when they didn't factor messaging into the plan in the first place: they thought the important part of the job was simply making the change happen, so nobody thought about how and when to talk about it.
This mistake can be damaging when it concerns news that will impact staff, such as restructures. This kind of news is best shared at the earliest opportunity as part of a comprehensive communications plan.
Leaders delivering news that might be good for parts of a business but not so good for others, should think very carefully about how they deliver those messages and to be sensitive to everybody who will be affected. Regardless of how difficult news is to deliver, tell the truth and only the truth. For all big company news, the first thing everyone wants to know is this: what does this mean for me?
The sound of silence
The inverse of this scenario can often occur in small businesses, where leadership teams assume everyone knows something, so don't bother "going public" with news at all.
There may not be any arrogance or wrongheadedness behind this. It's possible to have a well-meaning "we won't need to tell people about this" approach to spreading the news, but that attitude ignores a fundamental truth of organisational communication: people want to be involved, and want to be told. "We assumed you'd hear about this" can be interpreted as "you're not important enough to tell".
Sometimes it's not what's being said that's important, but who is saying it, and what that tells you, the recipient of a message, about your place in the scheme of things.
Not owning your mistakes
There's a PR strategy for when you make a mistake: acknowledge, apologise, and explain (that is, explain why the mistake happened and how you'll ensure it doesn't happen again).
Generally with this strategy, you need to move fast. That's because silence is dangerous: the longer is lasts, the longer people have to make up their own version of events and why you're keeping tight-lipped about your mistake. We all make mistakes, so people are usually very understanding towards anyone – an individual or a company - that owns up to and sincerely apologise for theirs.
Forgetting to clarify your understanding
Ever been to a meeting or briefing session where so much is discussed that you come away scratching your head about what your actions are? It's easy to be derailed, especially by people who have a tendency to think out loud or go off topic, as many do! I've certainly had my share of meetings where a lot of tangential conversation has left me working hard to follow the thread. But I've never met anyone who had a problem when I said at the end of a meeting, "Do you mind if I just check I fully understand my actions here?" Clarify, clarify and clarify again – the only stupid questions are the ones we don't ask.
We all work with numerous stakeholders and we all have to seek, absorb, manage and act on a vast array of feedback. Anyone who has managed a change project or written a tender may be familiar with the RACI responsibility matrix – Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed. If you're not, it's simply a guide as to who does what, and who needs to be consulted or listened to, in a project. Think of all the people we need to take feedback from in this context. It's a lot to absorb.
When you're managing a lot of information, it's sensible to store it all in one place and channel it via an agreed, standardised protocol, whether that's a communications toolkit such as basecamp, an email using a standard subject line, or weekly meetings. The more scattergun your approach, the more likely you are to miss something important.
So many column inches have been dedicated to the problems of silo mentality in businesses that I don't feel the need to reiterate them here, other than to say that business silos lead to "bunker" thinking, when departments within an organisation won't share information with one another. What business can't be improved by learning and sharing information, skills and best practice across different functions and divisions?
Tools that can facilitate sharing across different functions include unified communications platforms (as above) intranets and cross-functional working groups.
There's an old witticism attributed to the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, a slightly paraphrased version of which is this: "I'm sorry this letter is so long – I didn't have time to write a short one." That's the challenge of communication in a nutshell: it appears to be so easy that we give it little thought. There's nothing we do at work - from day to day interaction to appraisals to major projects - that can't be improved if we spend time planning our communication and analysing how (and why) we communicate.