Communication Currents

What are the three most important things people need to know about communicating in a particular setting?

August 1, 2007
General Communication Studies

Communication is a topic that people assume they know a great deal about, particularly because they interact with many individuals on a daily basis via multiple channels—face-to-face conversations, phone, and email, for example. Yet there is much more to the discipline of Communication than many realize. Communication Currents invited five Communication scholars—Kevin Barge, Brant Burleson, Dennis Gouran, Lynn Harter, and John Heineman—to respond to questions people typically have about the discipline of Communication as well as how the issues studied in the discipline relate to everyday life. See the full column in Communication Currents (Volume 2, Issue 4) for answers to all of the questions posed to our expert panel.

What are the most important things people need to know about communicating in a particular setting? 

>Kevin Barge (about communicating in organizations): There are three things that I believe are very important to communicating in organizations. The first thing I would say is be aware of the context. If you don’t understand the context, you don’t know what something means. So what does it mean, for example, if a CEO is earning a thousand times more money than the lowest paid employee in an organization? Well, to an outside watchdog group, that could be corporate greed. To financial analysts on Wall Street, that could be good management. So you have to understand the context if you’re going to understand the meaning of communication.

The second thing I would suggest that people think about in terms of communicating in organizations is that communication creates relationships. A lot of people think all communication is about getting your point across, making sure that you’re clear in your communication. I take a bit of a different view. Communication creates the relationships that you have with people. There’s that old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” It is a terrible, terrible axiom because the words we do use can harm people because they create different relationships. So how you talk does matter.

The third thing I would simply say is that people need to be curious about communication. I think one of the biggest problems people run into in organizations when they communicate is they think they know what the other person means. Many times we act on false assumptions. You need to get curious about what people are saying and ask questions like, “well, what do you mean by that?” and “where do you think this is going to take us?” and just a number of different questions to sort out what it is that people are meaning because we come from different kinds of experiences, different backgrounds and we need to really understand what a person means by the words that they use.

Dennis Gouran (about communicating in teams and groups): One thing I think is very important for anyone to know is that exchanging views is insufficient to make sound collective choices. There is this presumption that by getting together and talking somehow out of that exchange emerges something that would approximate the truth or the best possible choice, which is a gross oversimplification of what it takes, communicatively speaking, to perform tasks in ways that lead to successful and desirable outcomes. An almost knee-jerk response to a problematic situation is “well, let’s appoint a committee” or “let’s get a group together” on the assumption that somehow that works magic. While I think groups are capable of spectacular kinds of achievements, it’s not by virtue of the fact that just getting together and exchanging their views.

Secondly, I think everyone should know that everyone plays a role in determining the quality of leadership, whether that is good or bad. It’s a convenience to a lot of individuals to operate from an assumption that leaders are special people and put into those positions because they are expected to bring out the best in others. A lot of the bringing out of the best is self-motivated, not something that others are capable of achieving. I think too many people in group situations suffer from the delusion that they are less able than they might actually be to have an impact on how well a group performs, and as a result, withhold input and the expectation that somebody has the responsibility for moving the group forward toward the achievement of its goals.

Finally, I think it’s very important to understand that consensus and appropriateness of choices are not one in the same thing. Ideally, when a group makes an appropriate choice in a problem solving or decision making situation, there would be consensus and in the long run the group will make the right decision. But in short, that’s a naïve point of view. I don’t know how many group situations I’ve been part of or have been witness to in which agreement is forged early on in the process and people are ready to end the discussion. That’s the sort of thing that I think gives rise to groupthink and other forms of undesirable communicative behavior in group situations.

Brant Burleson (about communicating social support): One of the most challenging things people face in their everyday lives is to answer the question, “What makes for a good comforting message?” The reason that’s challenging is that it is pretty darn difficult to provide emotional support effectively. In fact, probably most people do a bad job; more people do a bad job of providing emotional support than there are people who do a good job. A lot of people have misconceptions about comforting. [They assume that] another person has an emotional rheostat inside and all they have to do if find the right words, the magic words to make somebody feel better. But in fact, I can’t make you feel better by finding the right words. What I really need to do is to help you talk about the problem that is upsetting you. What really works to improve people’s feelings is to get them to work through the problem, to get them to make sense out of the situation, to help them understand why they are feeling the way they are about the problem. So the best tip I can give about how to be a good comforter is first and foremost, be a good listener. That means to be a good, active listener and ask people about what’s going on and then shut up and listen to them! Don’t talk about how you felt in a similar situation, don’t talk about what your Aunt Gertrude did, don’t give people advice, especially early on in the process. Instead, get them to tell you their story. That’s the key to good, effective comforting: help the person who is upset tell a story about the situation, about the event, about what happened, and then be prepared to listen to that again and again and again as they try to make sense of what happened.

Communication Currents is a publication of the National Communication Association.