Communications: A Two Way Street

In a revealing communications experiment, a large group of trainees received elaborate instructions on how to arrange five dominoes in a certain pattern. The trainees were not allowed to ask the instructor any questions.

In a revealing communications experiment, a large group of trainees received elaborate instructions on how to arrange five dominoes in a certain pattern. The trainees were not allowed to ask the instructor any questions.

In another room, the same instructions were given to an equally large group, but these trainees were allowed to ask as many questions as they pleased.

The results were startlingly different. In the first room only three trainees were able to arrange the dominoes correctly. In the second room, only four trainees did not arrange them correctly.

This experiment points up what is perhaps the single most important technique in achieving better communications: feedback. There are other weapons in the communications arsenal, but feedback probably is packed with the most potential.

That's because it can tell you if you are communicating as well as what you are communicating to your listener. It transforms communications from a shot-in-the-dark into a two-way process that leaves both speaker and listener to ask questions.

The first essential for maximum feedback is face-to-face communications. Only then can the communicator determine if the receiver understands, if he or she agrees, is sympathetic, indifferent, or confused. Feedback comes only through words, but through behavior. For example, we can watch for facial expressions and gestures that reveal impatience, animosity, and lack of enthusiasm or agreement.

Vital as it is, feedback is only one of several aids to effective communications. Here are some others:

Projection. Before you communicate, put yourself in your listener's shoes. How is the person likely to react to your message, and what should you do to make sure the message is understood in the way you intend it? For example, you tell someone that he or she is wanted in the front office. A silent reaction may say that the listener believes, "I'm in for a chewing out from the boss." If this isn't the case, make this fact clear.

Timing. Once an erroneous belief is set in someone's mind through rumor and misunderstanding, it is very difficult to dislodge—even with the facts. The answer is to get the facts across before misconceptions have a chance to take root.

Believability. Your words won't mean anything if your listeners doubt your sincerity. Anything you tell them must be supported by your actions. And if something happens that contradicts what you've told them, you should provide them with a full explanation.

Simplicity. This is an especially important ingredient in written communications. Bulletin board announcements, policy statements and directives should be put into simple, direct language.

Repetition. Saying something more than once often helps to make it stick. This is particularly true when you're giving complicated information or instructions. If your message is misunderstood the first time, your listener will have a chance to catch it the next time around.


Saying Yes, Saying No

Among the many reasons for writing letters are communicating good news and, alas, bad news. Each in its own way can be tough to write. Bad news, obviously, is never welcome. But even in the case of good news there is a best way to convey it. Some tips:

Good news. "You're hired." "You've made the sale." "We think your idea has merit." These are only a few of the occasions that may deserve a letter. The easiest way to impart welcome information is:

1. Give the good news immediately and make your reader happy right away.

2. Go into detail. Clear up any questions your reader may have about good news—when it becomes effective, what it means, who else may be involved.

3. End with a message of good will. Congratulate him or her. Let him know you endorse the good news and share his pleasure.

Bad news. This is something the reader doesn't want to hear. It may be a denial of a request . . . a negative reaction to an idea . . . anything contrary to what the reader had hoped for. One effective way to reduce the sting is to build your letter on the following principles:

1. Open with a neutral statement. "I've read your proposal for a new machine to replace the 5780 and have discussed it with several of my colleagues." "I appreciate your kind invitation to address the Junior Chamber of Commerce."

2. Explain the reasons for the bad news as positively and tactfully as possible. "As you may know, our budget for capital investment is under study." "My visit to Toledo will be rather short. I arrive Wednesday evening and will be attending meetings all day Thursday."

3. Tell the bad news. "Consequently, we cannot commit any new funds at this time." Unfortunately, therefore, it will not be possible to participate in your Thursday luncheon."

4. If possible, suggest alternatives. "If you have any ideas on how we might maximize our use of present equipment, we will be delighted to hear from you." "I will be visiting Toledo again next month and would welcome another invitation at that time."

5. Close with a statement of good will. "Thank you very much for your suggestions. Please keep them coming." "Meanwhile, please accept my warmest wishes for the success of your meeting."