The Necessary Ingredient for Effective Communication


Several things in my personal life lately have caused me to arrive at a conclusion about what makes communication work well. Hang on. This is going to get deep.

This is not a revelation in the sense that no one has ever realized it before. It’s more of a revelation in the sense that suddenly something clicked in my own mind. Here it is:

Communication works to its fullest potential only when it happens against the backdrop of trust.

Let me share a couple of personal stories that illustrate why this is so.

I’ve been trying to teach my 13-year-old son the nature of trust lately. He is a good kid, but like many kids his age and younger, he occasionally stretches the truth with me. Or he tells me his version of the truth. Kids have a way of convincing themselves that something really happened a certain way and then it becomes truth to them.

Truthfulness is something he will learn with time and experience. As part of his learning, I’ve tried to help him understand that trust takes a long time to create but only an instant to tear down. One lie — or one instance of bending the truth — is all it takes. Then we have to start over at square one.

When a lack of complete trust exists, it’s difficult for my son to communicate to me about things that are troubling him. Is his throat painfully sore or just a little scratchy? Is that kid really picking on him for no reason, or did he do something to provoke it? He gets frustrated because he’s trying to communicate something to me and I’m not fully receiving it.

I also thought about trust as it relates to grown-up relationships. I’ve just begun a relationship with a wonderful woman I’ve known for many years — most of my life, in fact. We were friends long before we began dating. We have a shared history and we trust one another.

That trust came into play as we had a conversation recently. The subject was difficult, but we communicated quite well. She expressed something that was on her mind and I was able to receive it with empathy and understanding. I could respond and she could understand my perspective because she trusts me too.

I have been in other relationships with women I didn’t know nearly as well. We’d not had the time to build trust in one another. So, when those difficult conversations came up — as they inevitably do in any relationship — communication couldn’t take place to its fullest potential.

This is why communication is so difficult in the workplace. Employees don’t trust management. One co-worker doesn’t trust the other. A customer doesn’t trust the company they’re dealing with. If trust ever was created, things happened to tear it down — lack of transparency, broken promises, office politics.

Communication can’t take place in that kind of environment. Executives and PR professionals can say all they want, but audiences aren’t in a place where they can listen with empathy and understanding.

We communication professionals like to treat communication as a sterile, unemotional process. At its core, though, communication is wrapped up in human issues like trust. There’s just no escaping it.

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9 Responses

  1. Your’e absolutely right about the importance of trust, Robert. But communication done well can also play a huge role in building that trust. And to do it well, we need to not think of it as a “sterile and unemotional process” at all.

    I actually disagree that communication professionals think of communication in that light. I just think too often we try to push it into the sterile box of other business processes in an attempt to justify its value. But it idoesn’t fit well in those boxes precisely because communication is unavoidably loaded with emotion. That’s what makes it so much more engaging than, say, accounting – the humanity of it.

  2. Great column, Robert . . . and great point, Rueben.

    Whenever I do focus groups in an organization, the first thing that comes to light is the lack of trust in leadership. The lack of trust in senior managers. The lack of trust people have in their own supervisors, sometimes.

    The question is, can great, honest, relevant, candid, creative communication overcome that trust? Or does the trust have to be there before any of that communication can take hold.

    I’d like to think good communications (which, by the way, is very rare in the workforce, unfortunately) can overcome the trust issues.

    But only if both sides are trustworthy . . . and therein lies the problem.

    Wonderful post, Robert.

    Steve C.

  3. Rueben and Steve, you are both making a good point that communication can help overcome trust issues in an organization. But the key words to me are “can help.”

    I’ve worked in many organizations, and with many clients, in which there was such a lack of trust that it actually crippled the communication efforts. To my point in the post, trust is such a fragile thing and when it is broken, it takes a very long time to restore.

    But one way to restore it is to open the lines of communication — about the issue of broken trust, first of all.

  4. Well, this is why communication is political; everything we do takes place in a socio-political context having to do with rich people’s attitudes about middle-class people and vice versa, middle-class people’s attitudes about poor people and vice versa, managements attitudes about labor and vice versa.

    And it’s EXACTLY why modern communicators, who believe they can be effective if only they’re organized and align their messages and their media and their measurement tools, are fools.

    Unfortunately, they’re fools who tell management exactly what it wants to hear, and they get hired over the guy who says, “Look boss, we need two years of trust-building just to get the guys down at the Trenton factory to listen to the first word out of your mouth.”

    Yep, great post, Robert.

  5. Well, David, you know me — I’m a firm believer in communication strategy. I do believe we communicators need to speak the language of business or else we will never be given the resources or the opportunity to do what we do. And I don’t believe it’s all smoke and mirrors (not that you used that term). I believe there is legitimacy to well-planned, well-crafted communication that supports business goals and I believe it can be measured to some extent.

    However, I also believe you are right that sometimes communication must be approached in a much more organic, human way. You hit the nail on the head: Unless the basic human relationships are in good order, no amount of well-planned, well-crafted, measurable communication will make a whit of difference. That’s the piece that too many number-driven business leaders miss.

    And all of this is what makes our jobs as communicators so interesting — and so exasperating.

  6. “Unless the basic human relationships are in good order” …

    But that’s the thing, Robert: In many (most? most? most?) organizations, the basic human relationships are NOT in good order.

    Maybe you disagree with that, and think most organizations are generally healthy. I think most organizations—not all, and the amazing, miraculous exceptions like Southwest give me confidence in the rule—are generally rotten.

    Now (thanks to your provocative post) we’re getting somewhere. Some more musings on and around this subject, here:

    http://writingboots.typepad.com/writing_boots/2009/11/a-blog-thats-afraid-of-politics-is-afraid-of-communication-itself.html

  7. As I said, you hit the nail on the head with that point. You and Steve both allude to the generally negative environment (culture?) that exists in most organizations — including the lack of trust. We agree on this point.

  8. Trust, what a topic. Very nicely handled, Robert (as usual). Your examples are well-thought-out. Thanks for being brave enough to share real life, personal examples. That has so much more power and meaning.

    There has been much to erode trust in today’s organizations. But I believe it can be rebuilt over time. Communicators can lead here. Thought leaders like you will show them the way.

    Les

  9. […] a year ago, I wrote about this very subject. At the time, I said that communication works to its fullest potential only when it happens against […]

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