During my bachelor degree at University of Technology, Sydney, I had a course called “Engineering Communication”. That was a compulsory course for all engineering students and it was a 6 credits one. Basically the course taught us a lot of knowledge about communication as well as good practices to have effective communication not only at work but also in our daily life. It has been nearly 10 years since I studied that course and I still appreciate it. The course does not only improve my communication skills but it also helps me to acknowledge the significant importance of communication, both at work and in my daily life. As a result, I would like to write about this interesting topic, may be in several posts. I will begin with the general knowledge about communication in this post. Discussion about good practices and tips for effective communication will be provided in the next post.

1. Understanding communication

According to Webster’s dictionary, communication is a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. The following diagram explains the communication process:
Communication process
A communication process must have at least two people: a sender and a receiver. The sender has some ideas in his mind and he translates the ideas into words by encoding the message. The medium of this encoded message can be spoken words, written words or signs. This message is transmitted to the receiver and the receiver decodes the message by assigning meaning to the words. However, the understanding of the receiver about the message may not be the same as what the sender means. This problem is caused by noise. Noise is anything that interferes with or distorts the message being transformed and it can be both external or internal. External noise is noise that is in the environment such as distractions whereas internal noise occurs within the sender or the receiver. For example, the sender may be too upset to encode an accurate message or the receiver may be too nervous to pay attention to the message.

Communication is important due to the following reasons:
  • In most organizations, communication is considered as one of the most important soft skills that employees should have and it is assessed in most performance appraisal evaluations.
  • Researches have shown that from 50% to 90% of a manager’s time is spent on communicating.
  • Poor communication also has significant impact on productivity. According to Bauer and Erdogan (2009), 14% of each workweek is wasted on poor communication.
  • Miscommunication is a causal factor in approximately 70% to 80% of all accidents (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009).

2. Types of communication

There are 3 types of communication:
  • Verbal: Verbal communications take place over in person or over the phone. The medium of the message is oral.
  • Written: The medium of the message in written communications is printed.
  • Nonverbal: In nonverbal communications, the messages are transmitted via eye contacts, tone of voice, facial expressions, postures, touches, body languages or even the distance between the sender and the receiver.

Research has shown that only 7% of a receiver’s comprehension of a message is based on the sender’s actual words, 38% is based on para-language (the tone, pace, and volume of speech), and 55% is based on nonverbal cues such as body language (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009). Another interesting fact is that our average speaking speed is just approximately 150 words per minute whereas the listening speed is about 400-500 words per minute. This simply means that the audience has more than enough time to hear and as a result, their minds may wander during the conversation.

In communication, the distance between the speakers is also important and this varies from culture to culture. The following chart shows the relationship between the distance and the intimacy level between people when communicating in Western culture:
Communication distance
People have intimate distance when they are really close to each other such as couples. Personal distance is for friends and family members whereas social distance is the distance that one keep with strangers. The distance between people while communicating can tell the intimacy level between them and vice versa, people adjust the distance according to the relationship between them. However, this can vary from culture to culture. For instance, people in such Asian cultures as Vietnamese or Chinese may stay closer when communicating and the chart above may not be applied to them.

3. Communication channels

Different communication channels have different levels of information richness. The following table illustrate that:
Information richness
The key to effective communication is to match the communication channel with the goal of the message. The following table suggests the usage of written communication versus verbal communication depending on the scenarios:
Written communication versus verbal communication

4. Barriers to effective communication

There are a lot of barriers to effective communication. In this post, I only discuss the four barriers that are important in my opinion:

Selective perception
Selective perception refers to the fact that we automatically filter what we see and hear to suit our own needs. This process happens unconsciously and it can act as a time-saver to help us process huge and complex information. However, it can also lead us to missing important or urgent information.

Information overload
Information Overload
In this information age, we are bombarded daily with so much information that we can take in. Those information can come from many sources: TV, newspapers, magazines, mail, emails, faxes and the world wide web. Research shows that information overload can significantly impacts our efficiency, creativity, and mental acuity.

Emotional disconnects
Emotional disconnects
Emotional disconnects happen when the sender or the receiver is emotional upset. A sender who is emotionally upset may be unable to present ideas or feelings effectively. Similarly, a receiver who is emotionally upset tends to ignore or distort what the sender is saying.

Same words can mean different things (or sometimes, nothing at all) to different people and this is called semantics. This usually happens with the usage of acronyms. For example, in my company, we have a project called DFS, which stands for Dragon Fly System. This same DFS acronym may have different meanings for different companies: for an IT company, DFS can stand for Distributed File System whereas for another company, it can stand for Department of Financial Services. Semantics can also happen in the usage of buzzwords, business jargons or technical jargons. For instance, the word “driver” can be understood as a person who drive a car but as a technical jargon, it also means “a computer program that operates or controls a particular type of device that is attached to a computer”.

5. References

Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.