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In the 15 years that I’ve been consulting about effective communication, I’ve searched for a definition that explains exactly what communication is. Here’s my definition of communication:

Communication is the acccurate transmission of an idea from one person to another.

As human beings, we think in ideas and encode these ideas into a form of communication such as words, then transmit them to other people.
My students have asked me challenging questions, which have forced me to refine the definition to one simple, universally-understood phase…

This is more complicated than it sounds.

Does Communication Occur If It’s One Way?

Does a billboard communicate? Some people would say yes, and some people would say no.

Is the billboard communicating if nobody reads it?Does a billboard communicate?

The billboard is always there. Its words and images are printed on it. But, if nobody reads those words and images, is the billboard communicating?

Where does communication start?

Does the billboard communicate by its existence? Going further down the road (pun intended), does the billboard communicate if somebody reads the words?

What if somebody read the words but doesn’t understand what the words mean?

What if somebody reads the words and understands what they mean, but doesn’t take the action that the billboard advocates?

Again, when does communication occur?

the definition of communication

ake a minute and think about the definition again – then let’s dig a little bit deeper.

Communication Is More Than Words

Clearly, there are many ways, other than words, to transmit your ideas.

Remember… we think in ideas, not words. Once we have the idea we encode the idea into words, body language, voice tones, colors, or another medium to convey the idea(s) to other people.

A good example of this happens when we send a text message.

Idea via Daniel: “We’ve gone out a lot this week and spent a lot of money, and I need to save to buy Emily the ring I’ve been saving for. I haven’t had a chance to get to the grocery store, but I think there’s still leftover chicken in the freezer. I should probably make that before too long, anyway. Let me see if she would be ok with that.”

Encoded & Conveyed text message to Emily: “Chicken for dinner at my place?”

Decoded via Emily: “He doesn’t like me and doesn’t want to go out in public with me anymore.”


Why Communiction Fails

Because the idea is separate from the way it is communicated, errors can occur in transmission.

We may think we have communicated our idea properly, but in reality, the other person has no idea of what we mean – or even worse – they think they know, but have a completely different interpretation.

You’ve probably been on both sides of this phenomena.

How To Make Communication Work

Communication is a sequential process with four steps:

  1. The idea you want to transmit
  2. The medium to encode the idea
  3. The transmittal of the idea
  4. The encoded message is decoded and interpreted by the receiver
the communication process
As you can see, it’s easy for things to go wrong.

This is supported by research that shows that 40% of face to face communication is misunderstood and 60% of email is misunderstood. There’s not yet any research for texting, but I suspect that it’s even worse – especially for critical conversations. (Poor Daniel!)

There’s even a Murphy’s law for it: what can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood. Or… if communication can fail, it will.

Don’t Be Daniel

Ask yourself these questions the next time you need to be sure that you communicate effectively:

  • Exactly what is the idea that you want to communicate?
  • What is the best way to transmit this idea to the person(s) you want to communicate with?
  • How can you be sure your idea was received and understood as intended?

Don’t hang Daniel out to dry! What are some of your blunders as you’ve worked through the communication process?

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