The art and science of communication

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How clear is the message? It is important to get your point across in different settings.
How clear is the message? It is important to get your point across in different settings.


Our communication skills, or the lack of them, could spell the difference between success and failure in many of the things we do. In this new series, we start by looking at communication basics.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.– George Bernard Shaw One of the significant elements of success in the modern world is skill in effective communication. Those with remarkable academic achievement often fail to reach positions they otherwise deserve for want of adequate flair for communication. Some may be carried away by the notion that a rich vocabulary, correct grammar, and right pronunciation can make you a great communicator. But there is much more to it than what meets our casual eye. Let us look at the basics.

We would say that communication is the activity of conveying information. In more precise terms, it is the process of transmitting and receiving information through a common system of symbols, signs, behaviour, speech, writing, or signals. Remember the humorous quote, “When all other means of communication fail, try words.”

Exchanging info

A process of exchanging information and ideas is involved in any communication. The vital point is that the recipient should understand what the sender intends. In a wider perspective, it is a generic process of translating information from one domain to one or more other domains through a medium. A domain can be the mental world of a person, the statistical domain of an analyst, the computational domain of a software program or the economic domain of a market. As a part of the usual language learning in schools and colleges, you are exposed to fine points of reading, writing and speaking.

How many of you have thought that listening is an integral ingredient of good communication? For this central aspect, you hardly got any special hints from your schoolmasters. What is the quality of training you received in non-verbal communication, including body language? Skill in selecting the most appropriate words or expressions to convey your thoughts need not result in effective communication. It would be to your advantage if you apply your mind to the diverse features of communication, and try to develop better skills in each one of them.

Important aspects

There are three aspects in any communication – content, form, and destination. A good communicator should apply his/her mind carefully to all the three, if the process of communication has to be effective.

In any form of communication, there is always a gap between what the sender wanted to convey and what the receiver actually gathers. You have a certain idea in your mind. You couch it in certain words based on your definition to represent it accurately. Your process of forming the words to express your idea may be called encoding. Your ideas take shape in a specific form.

Sometimes instead of words, the form may be that of a picture, chart, sound, or some other medium. The idea carried in the medium is looked at by the receiver. He understands the idea based on the meaning he attaches to the words or other elements of the medium. This is the process of decoding.

There may be a gap between your idea and what is represented in the medium, and again, another gap between the content of the medium and the idea grasped by the receiver. This precisely is the reason why people often have to say that they did not mean what has been reported.

Effective communication

Effective communication can be achieved if a deliberate attempt is made to reduce the gap, by careful use of the medium, with special care of the type and background of the receiver of our message.

The meaning as given in the dictionary may not hold good in all contexts. For example, when a grandfather addresses his three-year old child “You silly thief!” the usual meaning of the words has little relevance. Before entering into important discussions, we may have to define the terms we intend to use. As an instance, after an hour of heated debate on the existence of God, one of the participants said that by ‘God’ he meant ‘Truth’.

Had the definition been made beforehand, no debate would have taken place. A person attaches a particular meaning for a word, depending on his/her background and experience. You know that in the world of politics, words such as democracy, secularism, socialism, and freedom mean different things to different people. Your own perceptions or obsession should not turn out to be a barrier in communication. What is beautiful to me may be ugly to you and vice-versa.

So if I start with the presumption that what appears to be beautiful to me is beautiful to you as well, it may end up in breakdown of communication. Building fine rapport with the listener is the essence of good communication.

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