Communication – the key to success

Communication is a vital tool both for managers and for all other staff, too. It is possible to exert accurately targeted influence by using verbal and non-verbal means. According to the communication expert Schulz von Thun, communication describes the way in which people get their messages across to and interact with each other.

So far, so good – nothing really new here! We’re all familiar with that from our professional and private lives. In my Open University course, I am at present looking a bit more closely at communication. And since I think this is a thoroughly fascinating topic that concerns every one of us, I would like to share some of my newly acquired insights with you.

Over the course of time, certain communication rules and models have evolved that help to render our own communication more professional, and enable us to better comprehend what other people are communicating to us. For example, they can also explain to us why communication sometimes goes utterly wrong and results in misunderstandings.

With his five axioms (basic postulates) of communication theory, the communication expert Paul Watzlawick explains certain human laws which we frequently fail to notice. However, we have to be aware of these human laws in order to be able to act preventively – meaning: in order to nip in the bud any misunderstandings occurring while communicating, and thus avoid the concomitant conflicts. In my article, I should like to present three of these laws in more detail.

You cannot communicate

The sheer impossibility of communicating is expressed by this axiom. We are frequently not aware of our passive mode of communicating but the person we’re dealing with nonetheless receives certain signals from us, which in turn trigger certain behaviours in him/her, making us look up in surprise because our original intention was quite a different one.

It is this axiom that is often at the root of conflicts where in actual fact there shouldn’t be any.

Communication utilises digital and analog modalities

When Paul Watzlawick talks about digital and analog, he does not mean the difference between Facebook and a letter sent by snail mail; what he means is verbal and non-verbal communication.

Digital communication consists of unambiguous symbols, also referred to as syntax. The precise sequence of the letters K–R–O–N–E–S thus produces the word KRONES. So we’re very good at describing things digitally but often the requisite meaning, also referred to as semantics, is missing. Analog communication, by contrast, is based on the exchange of pictures and visible behaviours.

Analog communication is often preferred over digital communication. This is firstly rooted in the fact that it evolved in much earlier phases and secondly in its ability to express relationships to better effect.

When formulating a business email, information is communicated digitally. By which I mean not only digitally in the classical sense of the word, but also digitally as defined by Paul Watzlawick – i.e. verbally. The focus here is quite unequivocally on the substantive aspect, since relationships and meanings cannot be expressed. But if the sender of the email later on gets in touch with the recipient personally, then the missing relational aspect can be supplemented through his/her behaviours. This is why the following is recommended when formulating mails for dispatch within an organisation: first send the information by mail, and then raise it to the relationship level by a brief personal consultation. That will help prevent misunderstandings and conflicts. This makes us realise one thing: only when digital and analog communication supplement each other and have the same content will the recipient be able to interpret it correctly.

Communication sequences are either symmetrical or complementary

A process of communication is symmetrical when it is based on equality. This means that nobody is elevated to the status of an authoritarian figure, and that everybody possesses the same communicative rights. A process of communication is called complementary when the conversation concerned is based on inequality.

In our professional dealings, we have to make sure we choose the correct type of communication process, depending on the situation involved in each case. The relationship between employees and managers should be at a symmetrical level – meaning the manager should not act as the “commanding officer”, who talks to the employee only to enforce certain matters. A symmetrical management behaviour where employees exert significant influence has demonstrably produced the best results. If on the other hand what’s involved is communicating clear instructions for action, then complementary communication is the best choice. This is the case, for example, when agreements and targets are being finalised with vendors and service providers. If you were to act and communicate with too much symmetry here, it might be possible that the quality delivered is perhaps not up to the company’s benchmark.

Overall, it can be said that communication occupies a position in our professional lives that should not be underestimated. What’s more, it’s getting progressively more complex, since the exchange of information, in view of megatrends like globalisation and internationalisation, is with increasing frequency transcending national borders and languages. But as communication is a fundamental precondition for the success of any kind of project, we should not be deterred by this complexity – I personally rather perceive it as important to deal conscientiously with the basics of communication, and to always keep them firmly in mind.