In the field of communication, communicative efforts are broken down into 3 primary components: content, form, and use. Content refers to the underlying ideas or message that we are trying to convey. Form, meanwhile, describes the words and symbols that are used to describe that message. Lastly, use describes the occasions for which the message is shared.
Effective communicators, whether they know it or not, constantly reflect on these three communication concepts and adjust their communication accordingly. However, breakdowns can occur across any or all of these components, leading others to negatively regard the communication attempt itself, as well as the person who initiated it in the first place.
Let’s start with content. In most cases content is the easiest part of communication for us as individuals. We think of an idea and… that’s it! But let’s pause here and reflect on this stage of the process. As Proverbs 18:13 guides us, “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.” When we first have that idea, have we weighed our idea against other ideas that have been made known to us? Have we considered the feelings or experiences of others? If so, how can we include this consideration into our content?
Let us say, for example, that a committee is deciding whether to cut a newer racial justice program or a more established and highly attended women’s group and has asked you to give your recommendation. Your thoughts formulate as follows: The racial justice program is more deserving of our investment because injustice occurs at far greater degrees for minorities than it does for non-minority women and the church has done little to address this topic in recent years. This is, of course, a reasonable argument that could have all sorts of facts and figures attached to it.
But this sentiment fails to acknowledge a very basic truth: that women have distinct challenges and injustices of their own. Acknowledging the validity of an opposing issue in no way undermines our message and can, in fact, strengthen our communication. Doing so changes the content of this message to: The women’s group is an important program for women, who experience unique challenges within the church and society; but given the prevalence of racial injustice and the comparatively minor attention it has received from our church in recent years, directing resources to a racial justice program is a better investment at this time.
As a general rule, form tends to be responsible for the emotional response our communication elicits, so we should be mindful of what type of response we are trying to convey (i.e., “win them over” v “make clear an unnegotiable directive”). This seems intuitive, but it is not uncommon for directives to get unintentionally “softened” or for relationship-building, collaborative communications to be unnecessarily “hardened” here. Some key concepts to keep in mind are as follows:
- If your communication is directive in nature:
- Limit smiling (a smile at the end of a meeting may be appropriate but not while directives are being given)
- Consider clear, precise words. Meandering words and thoughts will make your meaning less understandable to others.
- Clearly identify the names of individuals to whom tasks are being assigned (do not assume that these individuals assume their roles or responsibilities from the conversation).
- Repeat or restate as needed.
- Check for understanding by asking individuals or the group to describe what they “heard”
- Try not to raise your pitch at the end of a statement, as this can give the impression that the statement is more of a question than a directive.
- If your communication is collaborative in nature:
- Smile or nod to indicate support and/or understanding, or while speaking about your ideas.
- Be comfortable with using personalizing phrases, such as “I think…” “I feel…” and “based on some of my experiences…” While the goal is not to make the communication “about you”, it can be helpful to acknowledge when your ideas are subjective in nature.
- Phrase challenges in a positive or solutions-oriented way. For example, “there won’t be enough time to get everything done,” can easily be rephrased to, “we can get everything done if you can give us more time.” This tells the listener the conditions under which you will be able to meet their expectations.
- While we do not want to be domineering, try to avoid common diminutive phrases that undervalue the importance of your thought (i.e. “I just…” “I guess…” “it’s kind of...”). Just as with directive language, it is important to be clear and to portray your ideas as valid and deserving of consideration.
Errors with regard to use occur across all industries and are common when an individual feels passionate about an idea but lacks the confidence to direct the idea to someone who they might perceive as being critical of it.
We have all, most certainly, experienced a time when a co-worker or colleague explained how their system would be a better solution for the organization than the current system. If we agree with them, we might shake our heads in solidarity or even – more constructively – encourage them to present the idea to someone in the organization who has the authority to act on the idea. But in most cases, these expressions are tragically discharged into an audience that can truly do nothing with them, and that, itself, is a sad end for an idea.
Our ideas are important, and if we regard them as so then we will direct them to people who have the power to uplift them. This is not to say that ideas can’t be explored among a more intimate group of acquaintances to get “fleshed out”; but with continued communication about an idea comes a responsibility to act on it; to give it wings and life.
Elisa Wilson, of the Center for Transformational Leadership, has worked in a variety of non-profit settings, including The Salvation Army, King's Chapel Early Care & Education Center, and the University of Connecticut. Throughout her career, Elisa ...