How to Improve Communication Skills—3 Steps to Better Communication

As discussed in a previous post about mangled communication, conversations often go wrong because the speaker omits key facts or unknowingly provides biased information. The reason is the signal amplification bias; we often communicate less information than we think we have.

These “sender” problems are exacerbated when the listener makes assumptions about the meanings of particular words and ideas, often jumping to the conclusion that he and the speaker are using the same language.

Sending and receiving errors cause an illusion of transparency, the mistaken belief that others can easily grasp our ideas, thoughts, and emotions. Speakers think others understand their message and intentions while listeners believe that speakers share their contextual references and point-of-view.

3 Steps To Better Communication

Step 1:  Illustrate the Illusion of Transparency

Chris Argyris of the Harvard Business School has developed an intriguing technique for helping people understand the kinds of implicit assumptions that they make in interpersonal interaction. The essence of Argyris’s technique consists of analyzing dialogues and examining the differences between what was said and what was really meant. To achieve this goal he has two parties engage in a dialogue that is recorded and transcribed. Subsequently, each person examines the transcription. Argyris instructs each individual to write next to the written record what he or she was really thinking when speaking and listening to the other person as well as what he or she thought the other meant but did not say. After both parties have examined their own record of the conversation, they are asked to exchange records (and observations).* The point is to remove assumptions in favor of a literal comparison between what one person said and the other heard. Argyris offers a useful tool for uncovering misunderstanding and poor communication.

Step 2: Engage in Reverse Storytelling

To resolve existing communication problems on your team, engage in reverse storytelling. For example, ask an employee to tell the manager’s story from the manager’s point of view and then ask the manager to do the same. This technique proves most effective when telling a story about a specific manager or a specific employee. In contrast, recounting the tale of a generic manager or employee is less likely to drive the point home because it seems contrived or somehow unreal.

Step 3: Use Multiple Channels

As a meeting ends, clearly state the action items such as, “I will confirm that the project is slated to start on June 1 and let the team know right away.” After confirming the project start date, promptly send an email to the team. By using multiple channels, you reinforce the message; the project will start on June 1. By following up promptly, you demonstrate your respect for the team. Delayed replies leave the impression that you don’t care about the quality of your professional relationships.

By acknowledging the pervasive illusion of transparency, revealing its impact on internal communication, and practicing exercises like reverse storytelling, we can decrease misunderstandings, avoid hurt feelings, and build stronger teams.


*Cited in Educating Intuition by Robin Hogarth page 224.

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