The Art of Successful Communication

In a European forest, the animals hear of a rumour, saying that the bear has a hit list. All the animals start to wonder whose names are on it.
Finally, the roe buck plugs up all his courage and asks the bear: ”Can you tell me whether I am on your list?” “Yes, says the bear, your name is on my list.” Scared to death, the roe buck runs away. Two days later, he is found dead.
Horror spreads amongst the animals.
The wild boar is the second one who cannot stand the uncertainty any more as to who will be next. He asks the bear whether he is on his list. “Yes”, says the bear, “you are on my list as well”. As fast as he can, the wild boar runs away. Two days later, he is found dead.
Now, panic and agony spread amongst the animals. The rabbit is the only one who still risks a move and ventures to approach the bear. “Bear, am I on your list?” “Yes, you are also on my list.” “Can you scratch me out?”  “Yes, of course, no problem!”

This little story illustrates a crucial aspect about communication: In a nutshell, the process is simple. There is someone, referred to as the sender, who intends to transmit a message. Then there is a recipient, whose task it is to decode the information (s)he receives. If successful, the result is mutual understanding between the two (or more) parties. In the parable, the animal knows “The bear has a hit list and I am on it”.

This is largely what we learn from our parents, in schools and universities. We learn to use words to express ourselves. We learn the grammar, spelling and often even several languages to be able to speak to each other, to read and write and so forth. At last, it is communication that allows us to make sense of the world we live in.

Simultaneously, this is also where the challenges and problems lie. Communication is so inherent and central to human life that people often overlook its relevance and complexity. Therefore, miscommunication lies at the root of many problems we encounter in personal and professional settings. These problems form beyond the surface of a message being transferred, heard and understood.

Here are three reasons why communication is often unsuccessful:

1. Communication is more than transfer of issue-related information. Two thirds of what is being exchanged in a conversation is non-verbal. We use visual and acoustic channels and communicate constantly through our appearance, body language and voice. This includes means such as gestures, posture, facial expressions, voice tone, speed and volume.
Our bodies generate, read and understand this information subconsciously and react accordingly. Thus, knowledge about the meaning and application of non-verbal communication elements can help us to align our messages with our intentions and to understand the true thoughts and feelings of others better.

In the parable: Could the animals have read in the non-verbal elements of the bear’s message that there was room for negotiation?

2. Some of the key situations and challenges that can heavily influence our success in life, depend on our communication skills. It is the ability to communicate confidently, authentically and positively that is required if we want to succeed in a job interview, in small-talk situations when we try to make friends and connections, when we introduce ourselves to a prospective landlord, future parents in law or when we are on a first date. We might also intend to negotiate a higher salary or buy and sell products or services. The mastery of communication skills takes conscious effort and practical exercise for most of us, which only plays a minor role in schools and universities to date. Therefore we stay unable to reach our potential. The reality is even closer to the contrary in light of surveys revealing that one of people’s biggest fears is public speaking.

In the parable: Could there have been a better approach of communication when the  animals went to the bear by which, as a result, the roe buck and the wild boar might have still been alive?

3. We all have different value systems and beliefs through which we see and understand the world. These value systems are inherent in our communication and make sense to ourselves. Unfortunately we often fail to bring these across to our conversation partners. We focus on “facts” that are aligned with our personal belief system and fail to connect with the value systems of others when we communicate. This is true for men who say they will never understand women (and vice versa), for managers and their staff who are permanently frustrated and opposing each other and even for religious leaders who claim to know the truth. In each of these examples, empathic, open-minded communication between the parties, guided by the principles of tolerance, equality and respect, would be the answer. This way of communicating requires more effort and time, since we have to ask questions and listen to our counterpart. The alternatives though, if the communication stays shallow, are permanent arguments and frustration in romantic relationships, burn out syndromes and dismissals at work or hate speech and war against an “enemy” we simply fail to understand.

How often do we leave a conversation wondering what the other person actually meant by
what (s)he said, just like the animals have left the bear without inquiring the context around the hit list?

Throughout our lives as social beings, we are interconnected with others in countless ways. Other people are our best resources, as it is usually them who can open or close doors for us. When we start to consider these points and realize that the systematic and conscious use of communication skills can help us to build better connections, reach our personal goals and therefore live a happier life, then this is where the art of communication starts.

Communication works for those who work at it – John Powell

Playing Mantis has launched a new workshop on ‘The Art of Successful Communication’. The first one will specialize on communication in the business context and is for sales people, customer care personnel, consultants and anyone who interacts with customers on a regular basis and intends to improve his customer relations.

Click here to read more about the workshop.

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