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Communicating with Staff - 22 June 2010

A man flying in a hot air balloon realises he’s lost. He lowers the balloon closer to the ground and spots a man in a field, so he shouts out, “Excuse me, can you please help me? I promised to return this balloon to its owner, but I don’t know where I am.”

The man on the ground replies: “You are in a hot air balloon, hovering approximately 350 feet above sea level and 30 feet above this field. You are between 40 and 42 degrees north latitude, and between 58 and 60 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be an engineer,” says the balloonist.

“I am,” replies the man on the ground. “How did you know?”

“Well,” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost.”

The man on the ground says to the balloonist, “Well, then, you must be a manager.”

“I am,” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” says the man, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are in the exact same position you were in before we met, but now it is somehow my fault.”

That famous story highlights the best definition of communication. Communication hasn’t occurred when you’ve spoken, and it hasn’t occurred when you’ve listened. Communication hasn’t occurred when you’ve provided information, and it hasn’t occurred when you’ve sent an email. Communication has only occurred when there’s been an exchange of understanding. This means that what you’ve said has been received in the way it was intended and that you’ve gotten something back to let you know that was the case.

Here are four ways to strengthen communication via the exchange of understanding.

Fill the void: People will plug communication gaps with their own crazy ideas, or worse, they’ll rely on gossip spread by others. Avoid lingering doubts by saying the unsaid.

Translate the facts: Providing employees with data isn’t enough to make them comprehend your expectations. Interpret the figures by using comparisons, symbols, and language.

Tell stories: Sometimes, what you say has greater resonance if you share a tale. Personal anecdotes and analogies are a welcome break from the predictable and dull corporate-speak.

Understand emotions: Before communicating, consider the present emotion of the recipient in advance and then adapt your communication style to suit their mood. Also, be conscious of your own emotions. Are you showing any? Don’t hold back. If you’re excited, look excited. If you’re happy, act happy. It’s contagious.

To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, the biggest problem with communication is the illusion it has taken place.

 

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