June 24, 2020
NACA Director of Finance & Operations
Has there ever been a time when the need for improved communication was greater? In the best of circumstances, effective communication is difficult. A specific skillset is required whether family, social, or professional relationships are at play. The sudden need to physically distance ourselves during a global pandemic adds another challenge to communication. Email, text and video conferences have replaced in person social activity, conversations and meetings. To add to the complexity of human relations and communication, the tragic killing of yet another person of color, George Floyd, fueled outrage and a movement to demand much needed changes in the culture of law enforcement, a major part of the fabric of society. However, like most newsworthy events, everyone doesn't see things from the same perspective. And debates do not usually spring from empathy and a need to understand the other person's point of view. People gravitate toward those who are like minded with the results being further polarization.
The challenges of effective communications at a personal or professional level can be much more easily overcome compared to greater challenges such as adapting to prolonged physical distancing and remote communication. And those challenges pale in comparison to the emotionally charged fallout from the senseless killing of George Floyd. But in all cases, differences in culture and background create barriers to communication among individuals and groups. The need to hone communication skills is greater than ever. Is there a way to bridge the communication gap?
Even though language is learned at a very early age, we are not born with the ability to express or receive thoughts, ideas and knowledge in a way that the full intent and meaning are conveyed. Effective communication is a skill set that must be learned through intentionality and practice and is so highly valued that much has been written about how to develop and improve these skills.
Since June is Effective Communications Month, and especially as we are in a time when remote work and physical distancing, as well as a nationwide movement for a cultural change are presenting even greater challenges to communication, it's a perfect time to review a few of those skills that make up the effective communications "toolbox."
We sometimes mistakenly believe because someone is a family member, friend, or long-time work colleague that we already understand how they think and feel about things. We hear what they are saying through a filter that may distort the true meaning of the message. Electronic communication adds another layer that filters out the ability to read body language and other cues that in-person communication allows for.
Another barrier to active listening is at times we are so convinced in the truth or superiority of our own opinion that we fail to listen to facts to the contrary. Or, conversely, we may hold back our thoughts and feelings for fear that our comments or thoughts will be taken out of context. The desire to contribute positively to the conversation may be overpowered by fear of being misunderstood. How do you overcome the loud roar of debate? Listening is the first step to finding common ground?
Active listening means that you pay attention by looking at the speaker, putting aside distractions, refraining from mentally preparing a rebuttal, and "listening" to the speaker's body language. You demonstrate that you are listening by facial expressions and posture, by nodding and encouraging the speaker. Active listening also means that you put aside preconceived ideas and perceptions and park those opinions while listening with an open mind.
Active listening also includes feedback to clarify what is being said and deferring judgement and allowing the speaker to finish before asking questions. Responding with respect and honesty demonstrates you are listening and builds trust.
Sometimes less is more. Thinking about what you want to convey before communicating will help you focus on the key points and reduce the risk of clouding the message with superfluous information. Think about the specific information the other party will need to act on your message. Don't leave anything to guesswork, even if it may seem to be implied.
Body language and nonverbal cues are an impactful part of communication. Eye contact, gestures, tone of voice all contribute to the message you are trying to convey. Being relaxed and friendly encourages others to speak openly. Eye contact shows that you are focused on the other person and what they have to say. Mutual respect is cultivated when you demonstrate by these nonverbal cues that you are attentive to the other person.
Choosing the right medium
The appropriate form of communication depends on the topic under discussion. The situation in which we currently find ourselves eliminates the normal in-person meetings that we might use for certain discussions. Especially now, when the Coronavirus emergency has resulted in furloughs, salary reductions and other adjustments in the workplace, thought should be given to how these communications are handled. Though normally they would be in person, it may be necessary to conduct these conversations via video conference. This may make nonverbal cues more difficult to pick up on but the right tone is important to convey the sensitivity required in the circumstances.
Email can be effective when the person you need to communicate with has a very busy schedule, as long as the subject matter is not sensitive in nature.
Phone calls are used much less frequently than they were in the past, but this means of communication is not obsolete. Emails don't convey tone and context the same as the human voice and open up the possibility for misinterpretation. When something needs a quick resolution, the phone may be a better choice than the risk of an email getting bogged down in someone's inbox.
We are all in the midst of an unfamiliar situation and a national movement that impacts communication as much as any other aspect of life. Now more than ever, we need to sharpen our communications skills to send and receive thoughts, ideas, instructions and other messages that are clearly understood. By listening respectfully, being clear and concise, using appropriate nonverbal cues and the right medium, we can improve, if not ensure, that effective communication is achieved.
Brenda Bakeris the director of finance and operations at the National Association for Campus Activities. Baker has dedicated her 40-year career to managing associations' financial resources and services.
Related Professional Competency: Professional Development