It hardly seems necessary to say out loud that effective communication is important to preventing, managing and resolving disputes.
Communication is an indispensable ingredient in all forms of personal and professional engagement and is a major discipline in its own right. Effective communication skills can help to ensure that our interactions with others are clear, positive and balanced. We can use communication strategies to reassure the people we are communicating with, to form alliances with them, and to create a positive communication environment. When we’re communicating with others, we need to ensure that we connect with them. We need to choose approaches specific to their communication needs so that they feel understood, listened to, and heard.
In harnessing our dispute resolution agency (see yesterday’s Blog) we have four broad responsibilities in our communications with others:
- We need to be effective communicators and adopt appropriate communication practices. Words are our main, but not only, tool.
- We need to work hard to ensure our communications with others are as accurate, explicit, comprehensible, constructive and appropriate as possible.
- We need to keep learning and improving our effective communication techniques.
- We need to foster environments which encourage effective communication.
The beginners’ guide to communication would say simply that human communication involves (at least) two parties: a ‘sender’ and a ‘receiver’. The sender wishes to transmit a message to the receiver and sends it by way of verbal, vocal and visual messages. The receiver takes delivery of the message and the communication is complete. Unfortunately, it is not quite as simple as beginners’ guides are prone to suggest.
The passing of a message from one person to another is not as mechanical as the passing of a baton from one relay runner to the next. This is because both the sender and receiver are affected in the communication process by a range of factors: the social context of the communication, the respective emotions, cultural expectations, past experiences and assumptions, biases and prejudices. These are all subjective and highly variable factors which can differ significantly from one person to another — even when people are from the same cultural background.
This means that the sender ‘encodes’ his or her message; that is, the words, the vocal effects and the body language used are based on their perceptions of the world. Likewise, the receiver ‘decodes’ the message in terms of their perceptions, biases and frames of reference. Because of the subjective nature of both the encoding and decoding functions, there may be substantial differences between what the sender thought they were communicating and what the receiver thought was being communicated. In other words, the intention of the message being communicated does not always match its impact on the receiver. Hence the need to move beyond basic assumptions about the simplicity of communication to more sophisticated understandings.
In reality, communication seldom consists of a single message from one person to another. In families, workplaces and communities it often involves a series of ongoing messages among three or more people. This makes things both easier and more complex at the same time. It is easier because the receiver of a message usually responds to it and this can help to clarify perceptions. Receivers can give feedback to the sender through verbal, vocal or visual means. Thus, the receiver may ask a clarifying question which gives the sender the opportunity to resend the message more clearly, more emphatically or more accurately than before. Moreover, the sender may detect from the receiver’s body language that the message has not been understood, or has been misunderstood, and instantly clarify it. In larger communicating groups – such as workplace meetings or family conversations – one receiver can give feedback that benefits the effectiveness of the communication for all.
In situations of stress, if the communication environment is tense and the communication approach is fast and furious, then the encoding of each person may be clumsy and the decoding may be defective. In such circumstances, if a receiver is intently focused on the words being used by the sender, they might pick up on the factual information in the message but overlook the attitudes and feelings accompanying it. Likewise, where a sender uses aggressive language or body language this may cause the receiver to overlook important factual information being conveyed.
- The factual meaning: what do the words in the message convey in terms of their factual, objective and rational meaning?
- The self-disclosure meaning: what does the message reveal about the sender himself or herself?
- The relationship meaning: what does the message say about how the sender views the receiver and the relationship between them?
- The appeal or request: what does the sender want the receiver to do?
In conflict and dispute situations it is common for receivers of a communication to hear only one aspect of the message (generally one that fuels the conflict) and partially or completely miss the other meanings. An awareness of the four-message model can help us to remember to look for the meanings that may have gone unnoticed by a receiver. Yet another layer of complexity is added to communication dynamics by the fact that senders are not always explicit about all four meanings in their messages.
If as receivers and senders of communication we can aim for as much clarity in the transmission of our meanings and understandings as possible, we will be communicating more effectively. And this in turn will ensure that we are doing what we can to positively prevent, manage and resolve disputes as we navigate lockdown in our families, workplaces and communities.
In the Blogs ahead we’ll be focussing on some of the more detailed elements of effective communication: for example, the importance of the words we choose, body language and ways to harness it as an effective non-verbal form of communication, helpful approaches to vocal communication, the critical nature of effective listening and how to listen actively and effectively, the importance of acknowledgement, how to ask questions appropriately, and the communication tools of summarising and reframing and how to do them well.
Tomorrow’s Blog: Choosing our words wisely
Parts of this post were adapted or reproduced from Laurence Boulle and Nadja Alexander, Mediation Skills and Techniques (LexisNexis, 3rd ed, 2020) paras 6.15-6.22 with the authors’ kind permission. Both Laurence and Nadja are esteemed members of the ADR Research Network, and have long been leaders in the Australian and international dispute resolution communities.
F Schulz von Thun, Miteinander Reden 1 (Rowohlt, 2010)
5 tips for effective communication image: The Centre for Creative Leadership
The von Thun example from daily life: Madame Marinita Schumacher
Sender/receiver image: Health Service Management