Poet George Bernard Shaw famously said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. While many things have changed since Shaw’s time, this wisdom remains true today.
The jungle called communication
We have endless opportunities to communicate but the main challenge today is ensuring our messages are received, loud and clear.
As early as the stone age man knew that he needed to communicate with others. It was something he recognised kept him alive. When he needed food, rest and wanted to divide up the workload he knew all these things needed to be communicated to his fellow man.
Inscriptions in cave walls notwithstanding, the spoken word became his main communication tool. He allocated names to objects which allowed him to indicate what he wanted. Children to this day have the urge to learn to talk for the same reason; the desire to tell others what they need.
Today verbal communication remains our most important communication tool. But for it to function effectively it requires both a speaker to transmit a detailed message, and a listener to make sense of it. How the message is interpreted is all-important. For this there are many different verbal communication skills. They range from the obvious (being able to speak clearly, or listening, for example), to the more subtle (such as reflecting and clarifying which involves reflecting back to the communicator your understanding of what they have just said). These skills are even more important in written communications, where there is little or no non-verbal communication to help with the interpretation of the message.
Ensuring our message is understood correctly is even more important when communicating with those experiencing hearing difficulties. But verbal communication is sometimes not an option. For this sign language was developed to help deaf people express their feelings, contribute to a conversation, learn, and live their lives as normally as possible.
Sign language is one of the earliest and most basic forms of human communication. Native Americans utilized simple hand signs to communicate with other tribes and to facilitate trade with Europeans and as early as the 11th century monks developed basic gestures to aid with essential communication during a vow of silence.
According to business guru Peter F. Drucker: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” With this he is referring to body language, or rather non-verbal cues. Body language is the use of physical behaviour, expressions, and mannerisms to communicate nonverbally, which is often done instinctively rather than consciously.
The study of body language is well-known tool in the law enforcement world. The FBI has been known to study body language so they can catch unspoken clues by suspects or even victims, enabling a more calculated and more comprehensive judgement of people. It is also big in the gaming world where the game of poker involves the competence of reading and analysing the body language of the opponents.
Whether we are aware of it or not, when we interact with others, we are continuously giving and receiving wordless signals. All our nonverbal behaviours—the gestures we make, our posture, our tone of voice, how much eye contact we make—send strong messages. They can put people at ease, build trust, and draw others towards us, or if these messages are at odds with what we are saying, they can offend and confuse people. But when done right, our body language helps with the interpretation of the message.
With the advent of digitalisation, the sheer array of communication possibilities has increased, and these have brought many benefits. Video telephony brings us closer to distant relatives and instant messaging means we can ask a quick question, and receive a reply, in little to no time at all. And we are now not only communicating with human beings; we talk to Siri and Alexa like they are a member of our family.
But as the possibilities grow, it is leading many to doubt the quality of communication. Instant messaging means that our messages are extremely brief, and we cannot observe body language while we communicate, which often leads to misunderstandings. Skype and FaceTime calls are great, but the technology doesn’t always play along, meaning that slow internet connection can lead to a broken conversation. Messages are flying around constantly but are too often lost. This can lead to a breakdown in communication.
It’s about communicating!
Communication methods are so important, but they are ultimately simply a means to an end. Simply choose the ones that allow you to say what you need to say, and the recipient to understand it. Many adults struggle to learn languages, in large part due to nervousness over making mistakes. What we seem to forget is that what is important is not grammatical perfection, rather ensuring our meaning is heard loud and clear!