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Managers as communicators

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All of us communicate, from the womb to the tomb. It is essential for human existence. Obviously, managers need to be effective communicators. How can Sri Lankan managers do so? Let’s discuss through what, why and how of communication. Overview Communication comes from the Latin root “communis”, meaning to share. It is to keep information in common. Therefore, communication, in brief, is information exchange. It even goes beyond. It is the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behaviour. Effective communication is crucial for the success of individuals as well as institutions. This is true within the individual organisation itself as well as how that organisation communicates with other organisations within its sphere of contact, influence and competition. As scientists explain, communication is a complex two-way process, involving the encoding, translation and decoding of messages. Effective communication requires the communicator to translate their messages in a way that is specifically designed for their intended audience. I have seen managers thrive when they can clearly communicate. It is true for private and public sector alike. That’s why we need to be brilliant on basics with regard to communication. One key important thing to remember is that the message that you intend to communicate is likely to be misunderstood. Therefore, in addition to carefully preparing and presenting your message, stay alert for any signs that your audience is misinterpreting it. Ways of communication “Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something” so said Plato. Managers need to know when to communicate and how to do so. The basic forms of communication are of two types such as verbal and non-verbal communication. It can be in the form of meetings, speeches or writing, gestures or expressions. As we have experienced, non-verbal communication is a primitive form of communication that does not involve the use of words. It rather uses gestures, cues, vocal qualities, spatial relationships etc. to convey a message. It is commonly used to express emotions like respect, love, dislike, unpleasantness, etc. Non-verbal communication is less structured compared to its verbal counterpart and is most often spontaneous. As it is not planned, it is sometimes considered more reliable than verbal communication, as it reflects the communicator’s true feelings. Non-verbal communication enhances the effectiveness of the message as gestures and body language are registered easier and quicker with the audience than verbal communication. Non-verbal communication, when combined with verbal communication, makes a presentation more effective and has greater impact on the audience. However, non-verbal communication has its limitations. Many complex ideas, thoughts or messages have to be communicated sequentially to be meaningful. Verbal communication involves the arrangement of words in a structured and meaningful manner, adhering to the rules of grammar. The message is then conveyed to the audience in either spoken or written form. The key importance is the proficiency of a language. This may be one’s mother tongue in most cases, and English as the preferred international language in other cases. One may struggle in verbal communication due to the lack of language skills. This might be the case of some Sri Lankan public sector administrators and private sector executives alike. What I have seen working well goes beyond verbal communication. It is known as the para-verbal communication. This refers to the messages that we transmit through the tone, pitch, and pacing of our voices. It is how we say something, not what we say. It is in fact making our expressions as words plus enhancements. A sentence can convey entirely different meanings depending on the emphasis on words and the tone of voice. An example can be given as follows: “I didn’t SAY you were stupid” “I didn’t say YOU were stupid” “I didn’t say you were STUPID”. Based on where you stress, the meaning can significantly differ. This is the important aspect to note in para-verbal communication. The mistake I have seen commonly happening is that managers needs to focus beyond “what they say” in being better in “how they say”. We can identify four key facets of communication. They are simply, speaking, listening, reading and writing Effective verbal communication involves the use of both speech and writing to transmit a message. While oral communication is more effective in reaching a focused target audience, as it involves interaction and additional non-verbal cues to augment the speech, written communication is necessary for reaching a large number of scattered recipients. Depending on the situation and the requirements, organisations use both the spoken as well as written channels for communication. Organisations have not paid much attention to listening as a skill. Equal importance should be given to listening and expression. Oral communication cannot be effective unless the audience is good at listening and most of its content is forgotten after a presentation. Developing good listening skills is essential for grasping the contents of an oral presentation and retaining them. Communication process In enhancing our communication, it is important to understand how it takes place. Communication goes through a process, involving the typical phases of sender, message, channel, receiver and feedback. We can elaborate this and present as a linear model of communication. Figure 1 contains the details. For this overall process to work, information needs to be transmitted by all participants. It is important therefore that those involved with communication understand the complexity of the transmission process. Through knowledge and understanding of the communications process, they are more likely to achieve their objective of sharing meaning with each member of their target audiences and so have an opportunity to enter into a dialogue. In the model depicted in figure 1, we can see several key components of the linear model of communication. Source: The individual or organisation sending the message. Encoding: Transferring the intended message into a symbolic style that can be transmitted. Signal: The transmission of the message using particular media. Decoding: Understanding the symbolic style of the message in order to get it clear. Receiver: The individual or organisation receiving the message. Feedback: The receiver’s communication back to the source on receipt of the message. Noise:     Distortion of the communication process, making it difficult for the receiver to interpret the message as intended by the source. The concept of the ‘realm of understanding’ is an important element in the communication process. It recognises that successful communications are more likely to be achieved if the source and the receiver understand each other. This understanding concerns attitudes, perceptions, behaviour and experience: the values of both parties to the communication process. Therefore effective communication is more likely when there is some common ground, a realm of understanding between the source and receiver. The more organisations understand their receivers, the more confident they become in constructing and transmitting messages to them. Key communication barriers “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” That’s how Peter Drucker highlighted the need to identify communication barriers. Let’s use the above liner model to identify key communication barriers. There are a number of reasons why the source/encoding link might break down. For example, the source may fail to diagnose a particular situation accurately. By not fully understanding a stakeholder’s problem or level of knowledge, inappropriate information may be included in the message, which, when transmitted may lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation by the receiver. By failing to appreciate the level of education of the target receiver, a message might be encoded in words and symbols that are beyond the comprehension of the receiver. A complicating factor which may influence the quality of the reception and the feedback is noise. Noise according to Mallen (1977) is ‘the omission and distortion of information’, and there will always be some noise present in all communications. Management’s role is to ensure that Levels of noise are kept to a minimum, wherever it is able to exert influence. Noise occurs when a receiver is prevented from receiving the message. This may be because of either cognitive or physical factors. For example, a cognitive factor may be that the encoding of the message was inappropriate, so making it difficult for the receiver to decode the message. In this circumstance it is said that the realms of understanding of the source and the receiver were not matched. Another reason why noise may enter the system is that the receiver may have been physically prevented from decoding the message accurately because the receiver was distracted. Way forward “Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind.” That’s how F. Scott Fitzgerald highlighted the power of communication. Sri Lankan managers can do more to become better communicators. What are the key barriers of communication? What could be practically possible to overcome them? The next column of ‘Humane Results’ will shed more light on these vital aspects. (Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)

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