Back to Basics in Communicating 2/24/2012

By: Stephen Sestina

Reliable communication is essential – not only in business, but in everyday life. To illustrate its importance, we need look no further than the Sago Mine Disaster in 2006. In January of that year, a blast led to a collapse in the Sago Mine in West Virginia. The explosion trapped 13 miners underground – they had been two miles into the mine and were now 280 feet below the surface.

Three days later, someone listening on a police scanner thought he heard a report saying that 12 of the miners were still alive. Excited to share this jubilant news, he ran into the church where family members were gathered praying and told them what he had heard. The friends and families of the workers began celebrating; several news sources reported that the miners were alive and that rescue efforts were on the way. The Governor, who had been in the church when the announcement was made, shared in the celebration. Congresswoman Capito made a public statement saying that the miners were alive.

Unfortunately, the true story wasn’t so joyous. The person listening to the police scanner had gotten the story wrong. In reality, 12 of the 13 workers were dead, and only one survivor remained. This revelation was, of course, tragic to everyone involved. How could something this important be communicated incorrectly on such a big level?

We all communicate daily, both at home and at work – with our boss, our co-workers, our spouse, and our children. Our communication can be done in countless different ways – through phone calls, e-mails, messages on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, or presentations in meetings. When we communicate, we use both verbal and non-verbal communication cues. But how do you know if you’re communicating effectively and efficiently? How do you know that your message is being well-received? How can you be sure that the receiver is getting your message’s true meaning and intent, and not simply hearing words? Are they truly listening, or is their attention diverted elsewhere?

We often think that because we say or write words to another person, our message is received and understood clearly. We usually don’t even give it a second thought. We get up from the computer or walk away from the individual with whom we just “communicated”, confident that the message was properly received. In reality, sometimes this couldn’t be further from the truth.

We all have stories about miscommunication and the lessons learned through personal experiences in our careers. The following example conversation probably seems familiar to you:

Director of Operations: “I need two new employees trained today and tomorrow.”
HR Manager: “Okay, not a problem.”

The next day

Director of Operations: “Why are there four new employees? We only needed two!”
HR Manager: “You said you needed four. I trained two yesterday and two today, just like you asked for!”

Looking back, we can see where communication broke down. The Director of Operations wasn’t entirely clear with what he wanted, and the HR Manager didn’t verify the Director’s intentions. Things would have gone better had the conversation went more like this:

Director of Operations: “I need two new employees. Train them both today and tomorrow.”
HR Manager: “Okay. I’ll get two new employees trained; I’ll start them today and finish the training tomorrow.”

3 Basic Elements of Communication

There are three basic elements of communication:

  • The sender – the one delivering the message
  • The message – the point the sender wishes to convey
  • The recipient (audience) – the one receiving the message

We can look at each of these elements more in-depth to see how we can make better communicate.

First, as the sender of the message, you should make sure that:

  • Your message is clear. If you’re not sure, then in all probability, your audience won’t be, either.
  • Your message is concise. Stick to the point and don’t ramble.
  • You deliver your message in a courteous way. Being polite and genuine makes it more likely that the recipient understands your intentions.

Second, the message itself should be:

  • Concrete. It should be solid and not leave any room for misinterpretation.
  • Correct. It needs to be an accurate message, especially if it’s technical, so that the audience will not be misled and so that you won’t lose any credibility.
  • Coherent. It should be logical and stay on point.
  • Complete. Make sure you say everything you want and need to say, and that the audience receives the true meaning of the message.

Third, you need to make sure that the recipient is actively listening. Make sure that they:

  • Were giving you their full physical attention, and not involved in any other tasks as you spoke with them.
  • Were concentrating on your words and emotion, so that they took in the full meaning of what you said.
  • Used techniques that helped them remember what you were saying – things such as paraphrasing, repeating what you said, and asking you questions for clarification.
  • Established an open posture to receive your message.

Roadblocks to Communication

The three basic elements of communication are important when delivering a message to an individual or a group of individuals. However, the sender must be aware of common communication roadblocks and keep them in mind when sending their message.

Common roadblocks to effective communication include:

  • Poor choice of communication channel (verbal vs. written, email vs. direct or one-on-one, etc.)
  • Language
  • Physical distractions
  • Difference in status
  • Emotions
  • Perception
  • Information overload
  • Ineffective listening
  • Filtering negative information
  • Aggression (criticizing, interrogating, blaming)
  • Abuse of authority (ordering, intimidating, commanding)

By being aware of these roadblocks and how to navigate your message around them, you are ensuring that your message is received as it was intended.

Following Up with Review of Your Message

To be sure that your message is received properly, you may want to review the message with the recipient. This could be as simple as repeating your message to the recipient and having them relay it back to you so that you know they understand. You may feel as though repeating yourself is unnecessary or annoying, but it never hurts to clarify that you and the recipient understand each other.


Being a good communicator – whether you’re the sender or the recipient – requires continuous practice. By adhering to these principles of clear communication, you can be sure that your messages are being properly received. While it is possible to over-communicate, it’s far worse to communicate too little, especially when the message is important. A poorly-communicated message can negatively affect your ability to do business, maintain production levels, and impact your company or organization financially. Sometimes we all need a reminder of communication basics, in order to make sure that our message is being well-received by our audience.

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