Be a Better Communicator

A large part of improving your communication environment at work is improving your own ability to communicate on an interpersonal level. However, as the opportunities to communicate increase - through mobile phones, the e-mail, Internet chat - and the efficiency of it increases, it becomes less interpersonal. Find out how to strike that right balance and move away from the impersonal once in a while and into the interpersonal.

By Dave Neal

Even if you are smart and interesting and a snappy dresser, you may not be communicating effectively at work. Your business culture, priorities, processes and physical environment all play a part in how well information is sent and received. A large part of improving your communication environment is improving your own ability to communicate on an interpersonal level.

One of the paradoxes of the 21st century is that we are able to communicate like never before - we have 24-hour news, email, Internet chat, and mobile phones everywhere - but the quality of our communication seems to be diminishing. We write fewer long letters, we rarely sit down to dinner with the family, we have fewer face-to-face encounters, and we take less time to hold meaningful conversations. As the efficiency of our communication increases, it becomes less interpersonal.

The rate of change is phenomenal. In 1990, only about half a million individuals in the USA had a mobile phone (less than one-quarter of one percent of the 1990 population). By 2000, there were about 100 million mobile phone subscribers (about 35% of the population) and new subscribers signing up at the rate of 50,000 per day.

Despite - or maybe because of - this world of perpetual sending and receiving of information, our contact with other people has become routine and efficient like the drive-through window at a fast-food outlet. We pass some impersonal words, get our meal, and drive off. The process occurs with hardly a thought. We're on autopilot.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with this type of impersonal communication - which we seem to be doing more of - as long as we do not neglect the more meaningful interpersonal communication that makes a real difference in our work and personal lives - which we seem to be doing less of.

Your communication exists on a continuum between impersonal and interpersonal. You should move from one to the other based on your goal; is it more important for you to get the task done or strengthen the relationship with the person or people you are communicating with?

For example, when you are driving through a fast-food outlet, your goal is to get your food and drive away. You don't really care who is behind the window, and he or she doesn't really care who you are. Your focus is on the task, which is to send your request as clearly as you can so you get what you want.

But what if you go to the same restaurant for lunch every day and have the same waiter? Might you be more interested in building a relationship with the waiter? Sure. A stronger relationship might get you a better table at the restaurant, faster service, better food or just interesting conversation. The waiter might get a better tip, a good recommendation from you to other people and more business.

Based on your goals at work, are your communications with employees more impersonal or interpersonal? For the most part, managers and leaders need to find a balance between impersonal and interpersonal communication. Too impersonal and relationships suffer; too interpersonal and tasks suffer.

Despite our best intentions and skill at relating to others, interpersonal communication is a complex process. Rarely are any of us completely at ease or satisfied with our encounters. We often feel misunderstood and frustrated by our inability to convey our messages clearly. The best way to improve as a communicator is to get out from behind the computer and the desk. Engage with people face-to-face, put yourself in varying social situations with diverse people, deal with differing opinions and ideas with respectful debate, and so on.

Don't treat life like a drive-through window. Sit down and chew the fat with people once in awhile.

Dave Neal is a senior partner at 4th Street Training and has helped develop thousands of employees and managers in organisations around the world for over 15 years.

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