I always get a chuckle when clients tell me, “What we need around here is more two-way communication.” I sometimes ask them, “What other kind is there?”
The typical response is something like, “You know – all the memos, e-mails, presentations, announcements, policies, instructions, directives – one-way stuff like that.” To which I reply, “Oh, you mean message distribution. My mistake. I thought you were talking about communication.”
It’s a bit cheeky, but it usually gets people’s attention. Truth be told, most people operate with the misguided notion that when they send out messages, they’re actually communicating. Just listen to how frequently people use the word “communicate” as a transitive verb, and you get the picture. For example, “As soon as we get the strategic plan done, we need to communicate it TO employees.” Fact is, the only legitimate way to communicate is WITH someone, not TO them.
Connectivity is Key
Why is that distinction so crucial? Organizations must shift away from the fundamentally flawed notion that sending out messages – however well crafted – is the same as communicating. Otherwise it’s impossible to achieve the connectivity that the “central nervous system” of organizational communication should be designed to provide.
That is not an off-handed metaphor. In day-to-day operation, an organization is similar to the human body. If the signals that travel throughout the “body” are blocked or distorted, its ability to function is diminished. What’s more, those signals have to travel in all directions to maintain systemic health, not just top down. In a truly healthy organization – just like a healthy body – “information” flows up, down and sideways.
Building on that analogy, effective employee engagement requires a shift in communication from diatribe to dialogue, from conversion to conversation, from persuasion to acceptance, from influence to integration, from crafting messages to building relationships … from doing it TO ‘em to doing it WITH ‘em.
Don’t Leave it to the Professionals
Making that shift requires a basic change in mindset. Organizations must embrace the counterintuitive realization that communication is too important to be left solely in the hands of professional communicators.
Here’s why. Most of the communication that takes place in organizations has little to do with the messages that communicators create and the media they manage. It’s the day-to-day, minute-by-minute exchange of information between every employee that dictates how well an organization performs.
Based on that premise, the top priority of professional communicators should be to help equip everyone in the organization to handle that daily communication effectively. It’s also their responsibility to develop and imbed systems, tools and processes that provide the infrastructure for communication to serve effectively as the central nervous system of the organization, rather than a bullhorn for management messages and mandates.
Making the shift also requires rethinking the qualities of a “great communicator.” Most people think it’s about being articulate, inspiring, clear, confident, a great presenter and public speaker, etc. They believe it’s about the ability to say the right things in the right way at the right time. Rarely do I hear anyone say the most important quality is to be a great listener.
Use Your Ears More than Your Mouth
Most people can learn to be a good message sender with enough training. What epitomizes the truly great communicators is their ability to LISTEN – to deeply, profoundly, empathetically HEAR what people have to say. Along with that, it requires humility, openness, empathy, caring, respect, and similar qualities that seldom jump to mind when we think of great leaders.
There’s an old adage that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason – we’re supposed to listen twice as much as we talk. The way I look at it, one-way communication is an oxymoron. It’s like one-handed clapping. You may move the air around, but you rarely make a connection. Bottom line – it’s pointless.
George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” One good way to make sure it does take place is to stop sending messages and start making connections.
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