Communicating and Engaging

Communicating and Engaging

In this chapter we will explore:

  • What constitutes communication
  • The features of different forms of communication
  • Influences on the impact and effectiveness of communication
  • How communication and leadership are intertwined
  • Conflict, negotiation, mediation, and other ‘difficult’ conversations

8.1 Introduction

The Oxford English Dictionary defines communication as ‘the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium’. By definition, as sensing, sentient beings, humans are continually receiving information from their internal and external environment (in vast quantities). We are highly evolved to adapt to, and make sense of, the information we receive in a social and relational context.

Communication (exchange of information), furthermore, is the only tool we have to relate and, in the presence of another, we cannot not communicate. Even if we say nothing, that is a communication that could be interpreted in many different ways.

The information communicated might include not just facts but also emotions, which contextualise the message. Consider being on a wildlife safari: ‘Look, a lion!’ can convey a very different message when it is expressed with delight and excitement from the safety of an enclosed vehicle, as opposed to when it is expressed with urgency and mortal fear when you are outside and exposed.

We need to communicate to connect, and we need to connect to create meaning and action. Effective communication is essential for dealing effectively with complexity. And we are all invested in the outcome of communication, good or bad.

Leadership is relationship. Relationship is communication. Leadership is, therefore, communication.

8.2 How Do We Communicate?

Humans can communicate in many different ways, and it is worth spending a little time considering this, because they all influence how, and what, information is received.

8.2.1 Nonverbal Communication

  • Behaviour. From birth we are designed to mimic the behaviour we see. Even adults will mimic the behaviour around them, such as whether to use the stairs or the escalator (Webb et al. 2011). What and how we pay attention, how we act and to what we respond will create waves of behaviour around us. Our behaviour must be congruent with our other communication otherwise it invalidates it and creates confusion, distrust and resentment. Authenticity is key; we have a refined nose for ‘cow faeces’!
  • Attire. Like it or not, what we wear communicates something about the role, environment, and person. Some may not care whether you wear a tie in the office, but the fact that you are wearing a surgical gown, gloves, and a mask (in the relevant context) might impart lots of information about the environment, the situation and your role. The surgeon who rushes into the student lecture theatre to teach whilst still wearing a theatre gown and mask is communicating a different message….
  • Movement, posture, and gesture. Someone waves from a distance; too far away to see their face. Think about how many different types of waves they might make, and what that might communicate. They might be indicating pleasure, dismissal, danger, distress, or a number of other things – all with the movement of arm and hand.
  • Facial expression. Seven basic human emotions can be expressed in the face (anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise) (Lewis et al. 2008). Micro‐expressions, which are too transient to be consciously appreciated, can also convey significant information, e.g. when telling untruths (Porter and Ten Brinke 2008). Again, there are a myriad of subtle signals we make without a sound. And we are highly attuned to them, making rapid and subtle interpretations.
  • Eyes. The position of the eyes communicates. Looking down might indicate shame or submission, for example, looking up and sideways might indicate that you are recalling a memory, a direct gaze can be assertive, ‘staring into space’ might indicate thought (Spivey and Dale 2011; Scholz et al. 2016).
  • Touch. Physical touch is a profound human communication. It can create and signify intimacy and trust, support, and empathy, but also negative messages such as control, anger, and coercion. Uninvited touch and invasion of personal space can, of course, be deeply uncomfortable and inappropriate. A handshake, a formal kiss in greeting or farewell, an empathetic touch on the hand or shoulder or even a supportive hug (with explicit permission granted) can be quite normal and connecting.

8.2.2 Verbal Communication

The evolution of Homo sapiens has been associated with enlargement of the neocortex and the development of associated language skills to facilitate complex communication in groups (Dunbar 1992). How we speak and how we think are intimately intertwined and our linguistic background might influence our sense‐making, such as how we perceive time and emotion (Boroditsky 2001; Lindquist and Gendron 2013).

  • Language. Consider the richness of language; the complexity that can be illustrated with choice of words, alliteration, simile and metaphor, with poetry and prose. The language we choose has a profound impact on the message that is received. Terse sentences indicate urgency. ‘Hurry up!’ Whereas a descriptive, meandering, wandering, and unhurried sentence, with little diversions and pauses – eddies even – might be evocative of a scene such as river wending its way through a sunlit valley…
  • Speaking. Great speakers know the power of the spoken word to create movement. Think of the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., of Winston Churchill, or of recent US presidents. Language combined with tone, emphasis, rhythm, cadence, structure, and even accent and dialect are profoundly influential. But great speakers should not intimidate us, and for those exercising everyday leadership, clarity, consideration and choice of when and how to speak (above all be authentic to yourself) and what to say are important tools to get things done.
  • Writing. The written word is great for communicating fact and recordkeeping. It is there, literally, in black and white. As a leadership tool, to move people, attention must be given to the audience and their expectation. Closely argued, dense, jargon‐laden papers are common currency in knowledge‐based professions, but require time, knowledge, and concentration to decipher. Social media posts that are crafted to engage pet owning members of the general public might have emotive, uplifting, evocative language, and a style that is distinctly different (and even discomfiting) from the typical veterinary literature.

8.2.3 Pictorial Communication

We have moved into the age of digital communication and, with it, widespread pictorial communication has become the norm. The word processor I am typing this on has a library of icons to add to my documents. But ancient cave paintings show that pictures have been an integral component of human communication. A picture can, indeed, paint a thousand words.

  • Icons. Simple, idealised images, such as ‘Stop’ sign, are effective ways to engage attention and deliver information efficiently and effectively. The Stop sign that was developed for road users is now universally accepted as a means of conveying other information such as ‘Do not enter’ or ‘Desist from this behaviour’. Simplicity is effective.
  • Emoticons. Originally designed in the 1970s but developed and in common use over the last generation, images to convey emotions add colour and complexity to digital communication. They can soften and contextualise messages and add to the richness of a message but must be chosen and deployed with the same care and thought as words themselves.
  • Images. Photographs, drawings, sculpture. Art and other visual images can be used to ask difficult questions, explore emotions and challenges, and communicate complexity. The nonlinear, ‘right‐side’ of the human cortex is wired to make holistic sense of the world as experienced visually. Informatics may be deployed very effectively to communicate complex ideas and messages.

  • Video. Modern mobile phones with high‐definition cameras, cloud storage, and 5G internet connections have made videography a mass media communication. Short video clips that can be uploaded to social media can have massive impact through social influence, activism and global witness of events that is only recently possible. When exercising leadership, we can harness this medium to ‘be present’ and communicate remotely and with impact. We need to be aware, too, that these technologies are pervasive and can be used to capture all of our failings and missteps. Powerful stories can be told, for good or bad.

8.3 What You Want to Say Is Not (Necessarily) What I Hear

There are many important components of communication, as outlined in the Shannon‐Weaver model (Figure 8.1). Whilst this model was originally applied to the medium of radio, it can be adapted to be applied to direct human interaction. The message you intend to convey will be influenced both by your internal experience and frame of reference, as well as your state at the point of delivery which might, for example, influence your choice of language, tone of voice, posture etc. These will contextualise the message, which is then transmitted via a medium, with the potential for interference from within and without, before being received in the context of another set of experiences, states, and frames of reference, before an interpretation is made. With all this complexity, it is amazing that we can effectively communicate at all! But, of course, all the other information we add to the message is communication, too. Even if we did not intend it.

Schematic illustration of a model of human communication derived from Shannon and Weaver.

Figure 8.1 A model of human communication derived from Shannon and Weaver (1949). The original intended message is modified by the sender’s mental and physical state in the moment, the medium and associated noise, the receivers’ state in the moment, and interpreted in light of immediate and historical experience and context.

Source: Modified from Shannon, C. E. and Weaver, W. (1949), The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

It is important to recognise, from this, that in human communication meaning is co‐created somewhere in the middle between sender and receiver. Miscommunications can happen for a number of reasons, but be careful before ascribing blame; what role did you play? Or the situation or system?

8.4 Types of Communication

There are different types of communication with different purposes, roles, and applications. It is worth considering what, when, and how you are communicating and choosing the appropriate type of communication (and medium) for the intended outcome.

8.5 If You Want to Be Heard, First Listen

If leadership is about sensing, understanding, creating direction and change, then those exercising leadership should first understand the situation, the emotions and the lived experiences around them. That requires the ability to listen and to ensure the accuracy of your understanding. Even in crisis situations it is important to take stock and check the accuracy of your interpretation of events. We cannot not communicate, but we can not listen.

Listening to others, and ensuring they feel heard, builds their trust and lowers their arousal (Stone et al. 2010). Active listening is a skill that can be developed with practise and merits effort. It includes:

  • Paying attention. Give those who are speaking your full, focused, attention. Put away all distractions and really listen. Give them the gift of your time. Let them know they have your full attention. Regard them fully, nod your head, and cock your ear, use your voice (‘Yes’, ‘I see’, ‘Go on’, ‘Uh huh’).
  • Hold silence. Don’t be tempted to fill the space with your own voice. This can be uncomfortable, especially for knowledge professionals who are trained to solve problems. It is amazing how much more rich and deep conversations become when you create a safe, comfortable, holding silence for someone to express their truth. And how much clearer solutions become when you do.
  • Be aware of self. Practise listening not just to the words, but how they are delivered and how you respond with not just your head but your heart and gut. Your emotional and intuitive responses impart data, albeit including aspects of your own framework and mental state. Awareness is key; from noticing comes choice in how to respond. Trusting your antennae as you enter a room, or a situation, or in a conversation, means that you are accepting that your subconscious is at work for you and assimilating all the myriad pieces of data that your conscious mind would be overwhelmed by.
  • Defer judgement. We hear the information, we diagnose the problem, we know the solution, and we prescribe it. And at that point we stop listening. Only what if there is more going on? What would we miss? Defer that judgement and remain curious.
  • Check understanding. ‘Have I understood correctly?’ Checking understanding reassures the listener that you are truly listening and that their message is being received as intended and it should reassure you for the same reasons.
  • Acknowledge feelings. We communicate not just facts, but senses and feelings. Being truly heard includes having those feelings received and acknowledged. It is right and proper for the listener to note, and verify, those feelings because they too contain data that contextualises the exchange.
  • Reflect back. ‘What I heard you say was…’. This is a powerful way to both check understanding and to give the speaker the benefit of hearing their own words. This helps them clarify their own thinking, adjust the message if necessary and embed mutual understanding.
  • Paraphrase. ‘So, what I think you are saying is…’ Hearing your own sense‐making from someone else’s mouth and in different words is an even deeper means of ensuring mutual understanding and meaning making.

As Nancy Kline says, in her book Time to Think, ‘Listening of this calibre ignites the human mind. The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking’ (Kline 2011).

8.6 Asking Great Questions

A great question is one that deepens understanding of both deliverer and receiver. Open‐ended questions, that cannot be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, offer mutual exploration. Avoid leading questions, where you know the answer you want to hear, and be genuinely curious, without preconception. A question to which you already know the answer can be asked to aid learning; answers found are much more likely to create new connections in the brain than facts delivered. Using questions to deepen understanding is based on the teachings of the Greek philosopher, Socrates (Table 8.1).

You can usually tell that a question has had an impact by the response of the target who might well say ‘Great question’ or respond with silence and look away as they think deeply. Give time for those questions to land and be ready to ask, ‘And what else?

Table 8.1 Question types and examples used in Socratic questioning to deepen mutual understanding.

Question type Examples
Clarification What do you mean when you say X?
Could you explain that point further?
Can you provide an example?
Challenging assumptions Is there a different point of view?
What assumptions are we making here?
Are you saying that…?
Evidence and reasoning Can you provide an example that supports what you are saying?
Can we validate that evidence?
Do we have all the information we need?
Alternative viewpoints Are there alternative viewpoints?
How could someone else respond, and why?
Implications and consequences How would this affect someone?
What are the long‐term implications of this?
Challenging the question What do you think was important about that question?
What would have been a better question to ask?

8.7 Think About Your Intended Audience

What stakes do your intended (and unintended) audience hold in the context? This will influence your choice of medium and message. Stakeholders can be assessed based on their level of support and potential impact.

Nov 6, 2022 | Posted by in SMALL ANIMAL | Comments Off on Communicating and Engaging

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