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Meaningful Communication – 10 Lessons from Life

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It ’s not just words, grammar, language, and the medium that are critical to communicating important messages – it’s the process.  Every aspect of our being involves communications.  Our ability to communicate effectively creates connections that establish trust which builds a bond with benefits for all participants.  Not always a willing student, Life has provided me some crucial lessons on how to communicate important messages.  In this blog, I’d like to share some of those valued lessons.

Lesson 1 – Sharing a common language does not guarantee you can compose an effective message.  Tailor your message to the recipient.  Just because you know what you want to share, doesn’t mean the recipient will visualize your internal concept, follow (or agree with) the rationale, know the context in which it was sent, or interpret the tone with which it was sent.  That’s true regardless of medium, but in a digital world even enhanced with images, emojis, or CAPS, the real tone and intent do not always move with the message.  Think about these factors as you compose the message.

Lesson 2 – Sending a message is certainly no guarantee that it will be received.  Sending is only the first step in communication.  For effective communications, the recipient must be engaged, in active receive mode. A favorite Buddhist expression shared with me by my wife is, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  It’s helpful to work at getting someone into student mode.  You’ll have to judge when to be patient and when to be forceful.

Lesson 3 – Receiving a message does not guarantee understanding.  For all the emails I send, I request a “read receipt” from my recipient. It’s interesting information but not an indicator that the recipient has even read, much less understood the message.  If you need an affirmative response, put the request for such in the body of your email and highlight it.  If you’re delivering your message orally, test for understanding immediately, and make sure you invite candid feedback.  Asking for understanding in a group situation is particularly challenging.  You must figure out how to test for comprehension and do so in a way that does not embarrass any of the recipients.

I used to tell all my employees that I wanted to be treated with a certain amount of disrespect; that is, my role or title should not inhibit feedback.  I invited and often benefitted from the candor this approach encouraged.  To earn trust, to create a free and candid exchange, you must drop all defenses and give your trust to the other person.

Lesson 4 – Understanding the message does not imply agreement.  I also told my employees that my reply, “I understand”, did not mean I necessarily agreed.  Listen carefully to assess your recipient’s response.  Understanding is but one step toward agreement.

Lesson 5 – Agreement does not ensure compliance.  If you do get agreement from the recipient, you’ll need to monitor the recipient or track their actions and reactions to the message to ensure that you’re getting the expected behaviors and/or results.

Lesson 6 – Compliance does not always mean acceptance.  Even if you’re getting the desired response, you may not have changed the recipient’s attitude.  If you’re unsure, ask the recipient.  Ignoring an unfavorable attitude, however, seldom improves it.  Awkward or not, give the recipient a chance to express themselves, and try to do so with active listening, seeking to understand their point of view, not just waiting for a chance to repeat your own message.  Many of my employees have made me a better manager and a better employee by sharing their feedback in a non-judgmental environment.

Lesson 7 – Acceptance does not always result in satisfaction.  Don’t be discouraged by this.  Satisfaction is something only the recipient can control.  Do not push for progress toward satisfaction.  Beware.  Someone else’s frustration or dissatisfaction may be contagious.

Lesson 8 – Satisfaction is but one measure of success.  We’ve all heard, “There is satisfaction in a job well done.”  That’s interesting, but not necessarily applicable.  There are many surrogates for satisfaction.  Look for other measures of success and, when you feel compelled to offer encouragement, focus on the effects of the message you sent which may or may not lead the recipient toward satisfaction.

Lesson 9 – Success is not the same thing as meaning.  This seems obvious.  We want every communication we send to have importance and relevance.  The challenge is understanding what is meaningful to the recipient.  Ideally, both parties will find meaning in the communication.  I spent time working at HHS promoting the Meaningful Use program. They were very rewarding years focused on encouraging deployment of electronic health records throughout the Nation.  During each of my presentations on the program, I told the audience that meaningful conversations in advance, during, and after the deployment were requisites for using IT meaningfully.

Lesson 10 – Achieving meaning is a blessing.  Yes, it is.  A meaningful conversation or a meaningful message can be a blessing, and should be celebrated as such.

This framework can be useful in the process of crafting important communications.  Communications is essential for collaboration. Collaboration is essential for progress.

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