The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” wrote the playwright, George Bernard Shaw. How often are we certain of the clarity of our communication, but find ourselves befuddled when the message has not been understood? However, do we take the time to set the context and understand the context we are speaking in? Consider this exchange:
Which mountain is that?” she asked sweetly.
“Longonot.” I replied with a smile.
“Which mountain is that?” she asked fierily.
“Longonot.” I replied perplexed.
“Which mountain is that?” she screamed in frustration.
“Longonot!” I yelled back.
Fortunately, my four- year- old niece had the presence of mind to take a deep breath and pointing to Mount Longonot as we drove past it on a road trip in the Kenyan Rift Valley, re-phrased her question to, “Is this Mount Kenya or Mount Kilimanjaro?”
Finally, I understood. She had been learning about mountains but only knew of two, probably in the whole world. My responding with “Longonot” meant nothing to her and frankly, was downright obtuse! In this briefest of miscommunications that had quickly ignited frustration, I was reminded of how much is misunderstood in what is perceived to be simple communication by both sides.
How much is lost when we assume context, knowledge and expect to be understood from our level of awareness. How does this play out in the work environment?
An assumption of context is particularly prevalent in upper management and at executive levels. Individuals in these positions have the privilege of seeing an abundance of information and have a wider perspective from their peers in other functions, all of which drive business decisions.
When communicating with those outside of this group, they assume others have the same context instead of explaining the nature of the circumstances. As a result, a poor delivery of actioned items follows. “But I told you exactly what needed to be done!”
Clear instructions were probably provided but without the backdrop of the individual’s understanding of the context, the smallest of decisions required to action the item, become skewed to the listener’s understanding of it.
Any time we allow a listener or an audience to create the context, we lose control of our message. It is only within the setting of a context that a message is best understood and meaningful dialogue can be pursued.
An assumption of knowledge is most easily made when we have expertise. This is most relevant to technical experts and results in sizable strains on relationships.
I have torn my hair out when communicating with IT folks who respond with jargon and worse still, judge me for not knowing what is deemed common knowledge. This lament is also heard of lawyers and finance professionals.
Experts who can communicate technicalities with simplicity stand out. We know that. However, those who offer choices are even better and the best provide insights that drive decision-making in the given circumstances.
The ability to listen and observe are some of the defining traits of emotionally intelligent leaders. Yet, they too struggle with communicating context because of an expectation to be understood from their level of awareness.
This blind spot leads to frustration in that, others are unable to see what is blindingly obvious to them. It becomes difficult to communicate the context because their perceptions are rooted in intuition or slivers of data that can be easily dismissed as unsupportive of a rational view.
This is particularly relevant to those leaders who are in politically charged environments and are sensitive to others’ motivations and agendas.
How leaders should respond in these situations is a matter of judgement but the learning is to recognise that emotional intelligence develops at different rates and also stagnates.
This means finding creative ways to communicate with others at different stages of emotional intelligence, forcing a perspective where necessary but letting go, too. Often, the last two are used as a communication default instead of engaging creatively.
If a primary goal of communication is to be understood, then context is its bedrock.