It makes no difference how educated you are, how extensive a vocabulary you possess or how well you can perform a task yourself, if you can’t communicate with others in a way they can understand, you are at a severe disadvantage. In order to be an effective communicator, the first thing one has to learn is the fact that the burden of communication is on the person doing the talking.
I Told You So
It is unfortunate, but in today’s society so many people are caught up in themselves and tend to blame the listeners when communications fail. Have you ever heard someone say, “I told you ______,” (you fill in the blank,) when something doesn’t go as they expected? “I told you to pick up your toys,” a parent might say to a child. “I told you take out the trash,” a wife might say to her husband. “I told you not to paint that room blue,” a contractor might say to a painter. “I told you I needed those reports by the end of the day yesterday,” a corporate executive might say to the company’s bookkeeper. The list of “I told you so’s” is unending and the blame for nearly every one of them falls on the person doing the telling. Professional sales people know that telling is not selling.
Function Over Form
Once you accept that the burden of communication is on the person doing the talking, it makes it easier to understand why effective communicators always try to speak at or below the level of understanding of the person to whom they are talking. A parent trying to get a child to pick up his or her toys who uses words the child does not understand is going to get predictably disappointing results. The same holds true for the wife who makes her request to take out the trash in the form of an order rather than a request. The way in which she speaks and the attitude she attaches to her words can easily overshadow what she is saying to the point that she fails to get the results she wants. In the business world, the use of acronyms and buzzwords known only to the speaker is one of the biggest culprits of ineffective communication. People who do this are usually ones who are trying to impress others with how much they know and how much smarter they are than everyone else. All they are really doing is demonstrating their ignorance of effective communication skills.
I learned this in my early 20s when I was working in an environment where I was around several extremely brilliant Ph.D. chemists. These highly intelligent people played a game with each other in which each day one would bring in a new word, give its meaning, and then they would all try to use the word in conversation with each other throughout the day. I thought this was an interesting way to improve my vocabulary so I asked if I could join their game. I still remember the lesson I learned about communication the first day I participated.
One of the chemists’ words for the day was “vitiate.” Webster defines the word as “to make imperfect, faulty or impure; to spoil or corrupt; to weaken immorally, debase or pervert.” As I was trying to find a way to work the word into conversation, one of my co-workers began making fun of me for playing the “boss’ game” and started laughing at me in front of several co-workers. I looked at him and said, “I’m going to vitiate that smile on your face if you keep it up.” “Whatever,” he replied as he and the others walked away laughing. At that point, it dawned on me that he didn’t have a clue what I’d said. I might have gotten a warm fuzzy about threatening him, but he didn’t know he had been threatened. I would definitely have gotten my point across better if I’d said, “You keep that up and I’m going to bust you in the mouth.”
Granted, that alternative reply might have been a bit crude, but I’ll bet he would have had no problem understanding it, which brings me to another key part of effective communication. When communicating, is it better to be socially or politically acceptable, or is it better to deliver the message in the most understandable way? Naturally, everyone would prefer to communicate in the most acceptable way possible, but there are times when trying to do so can result in the message being missed or misunderstood. Since that early experience with the co-worker decades ago, I have learned that when the choice has to be made, it is more important for the message to be understood than it is to risk it being lost in a lot of sugarcoating.
All About Results
When I was still in the business world and training sales people I would emphasize to all my trainees that no matter how hard they studied, no matter how much they knew, and no matter how charismatic they were, the only thing that truly mattered was whether or not they made the sale. I encouraged them to weed out all the industry jargon and eight-syllable words and make their presentations in plain, easy-to-understand English. I told them that when they thought they had their sales presentation perfected to give it to a middle school student. I suggested that if the middle school student could understand it, I’d be willing to bet that the CEOs could too.
Sales are all about communicating. You can give salespeople the best training in the world, but they will all tell you that one of the first things they learn when they start making calls is that the customers didn’t attend the same training class they did. Every prospect is unique and their levels of comprehension are different. While the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle is critically important for salespeople, it is just as important in every other area of interaction between two or more people.
Don’t blame others for their inability to comprehend your message. When you do this, you become like that great American philosopher of the 1970s, Archie Bunker who would say, “The problem, Edith, is that I’m talking to you in English and you are listening to me in Dingbat.” Something many sales trainers teach is a concept called mirroring. It is simply matching, or mirroring the level of expertise or communication skills of the person to whom you are talking. It’s a technique designed to keep you from being perceived as talking down to prospects.
Whether you are communicating with a co-worker, boss, friend, spouse or child, when you accept full responsibility for getting your message across, you will find your communication skills beginning to improve. When you are talking with someone, even in casual conversation, and what you say is misunderstood, take personal responsibility for the lack of communication. Mentally evaluate how you could have said what you wanted to say in a more clear fashion. By doing this, you will find yourself searching for ways to improve your communication skills. Learning to talk in a clearer, simpler, and more understandable fashion will also make you a more enjoyable person with whom to interact.
The art of effective communication is critical. It is what separates good teachers from poor ones. It is what separates successful coaches from mediocre ones. It is what separates great managers from dictatorial bosses. It can be the difference between success and failure in virtually every undertaking you attempt. When you take full responsibility for getting your thoughts across to others, you will be happier and get many more of the things you want in life. Think about it!