Saturday, July 09, 2011

Understanding Communication Process: Continuation of a Series

This is the last part of a lecture on the communication process.  See the archive to the right to see the preceeding sections.

  1. noise that may naturally or unnaturally obstruct the sharing.  Tucker’s Law states that if anyone can possibly find a way to misunderstand you, he or she will.  Recognizing the sources of noise, which is always going to exist to some degree, is one of the key skills a business communicator must learn.  Here is just a start:
(reference p. 14)
a.  Perceptual differences.  Think back to psychology course.  One of the first subjects you studied in that course was perception.  Perception is the process of selecting, organizing, and interpreting the patterns of stimuli around us. 
i.  First, we do not perceive every stimulus in our environment.  The selection process is controlled by the qualities of the stimulus (contrast such as BOLD print, or a different style of font; intensity, novelty, physical proximity, repetition of the stimulus, and familiarity to our experience are just a few characteristics that will make a stimulus stand out to us); it is also controlled by what we have been trained (by experiences) or educated formally to look for, consciously or unconsciously; conscious decision to notice or select a particular stimulus; or expectations.
ii.  Organizing.  This step puts our perceptions of stimuli into patterns we have learned.  When we see a figure like this  

(envision here a triangle with no angles--the lines do not connect at the angles)

            Our first response might be—“it’s a triangle” because it’s a familiar pattern, and only on second look do we realize it’s not a triangle.  Patterns obviously help our perceptions (or we’d be like Drew Barrymore’s character in “Fifty-First Dates”, having to learn everything over every day) but they hurt our perceptions as well by restricting what we see initially, and then we take that as the whole story.
iii.  Interpreting.  This step means putting it into a context and use for our lives.  Ironically, the selectivity that aids our perception also becomes a barrier to communication.  Since the human mind wants to protect itself, it is selective in what it exposes itself to (a conservative voter is much less likely to listen to Al Franken’s radio show or watch a Michael Moore film); even if exposed to contradictory or discomforting messages, it will only attend to the parts of the message that are consistent with its expectations or attitudes; even if forced to attend to the messages, it may perceive only parts of it, and then forget those parts (or even alter memories) that don’t agree with it.  These are called selective exposure, selective attention, selective perception, and selective recall or retention.
Before we go on to other noise factors in the communication system, let’s wrap this one up.  What’s the point here, the “take-home value?”  First of all, people are naturally resistant to persuasion (which is change).  Second, you can’t take perception—that everyone perceives just like you—for granted.  It’s best to check perceptions, especially in face-to-face settings or when directions are being given.  Of course, you don’t want to do it in a “do you know what I mean, Vern?” fashion; there are less insulting ways to check perception, and will get to that later in the course.  But since you know perception is flawed and complex, you can’t afford to assume that everyone perceives as you do.  Third, and this brings us to the next two sources of noise (barriers) in communication, clean, lean, uncluttered, undistracting message construction is best.  Bells and whistles might be fun, but the complicated business world needs messages that stand out but do not confuse or internally conflict with themselves.  A lot of the content of this class revolves around achieving that goal.
b.  A second type of noise in communication what the text refers to as distractions.  Although there are several types of distractions in verbal  and/or written communication, such as bad grammar, most distractions in the business communication setting are of the nonverbal variety (discussed below).  Distractions can also be environmental.  A communicator in a place of influence should do her or his best to minimize these kinds of distractions, such as the heating or lighting of a room or external noise.
c.  A third type of noise is information overload.  As the text points out, the sheer volume of messages we get makes it difficult to select or discriminate between useful and nonessential material.
d.  The next type of noise is Semantic differences.  Semantics refers to the aspect of language called meaning (as opposed to syntax, the order of words, and grammar, the correctness of words).  Although we like to think that meaning of words as stable, relatively fixed, and limited, meaning is static (open to change and negotiation) and culturally, contextually and personally determined.  As general semanticists say, “Meaning is in the person, not the word.”  (I don’t take that absolutely, of course, but it’s an idea we will do well to recognize.)  These linguistic philosophers also have another saying, “The map is not the territory.”  By this they mean:
The world is what it is. We can make all kinds of maps and models of how the world works, and some of them can be very useful, and we can talk about them with great benefit. But the models and maps and any words one can put together can never do more than approximate the actual world or the actual phenomena being examined. The actual territory is beyond verbal description. . . .  As humans we make abstractions all the time. An "abstraction", as used here, is that one simplifies, condenses, or symbolizes what is going on in order to better talk about it or think about it.   Whatever one can say about something isn't it. Whatever you can say about a pencil is NOT a pencil. The pencil is what it is, something fundamentally unspeakable. If that is recognized then language and models are of course very useful in daily life.

 These scholars of language often use this diagram.

                                        direct relationship

My reason for including this information about general semantics is simply to point out that we choose and use our words, phrases, and sentences as if they represent a stable, unchanging, absolute reality for everyone, and they don’t.  We can’t be too egocentric about our language; in other words, we can’t say, “It means this for me and that’s all that matters.”  Being sensitive to the fact that the people with whom you work don’t attach the same meanings to words that you do will help you a great deal, especially as you deal with persons from backgrounds dissimilar to yours.  If you find yourself “by-passing”—assuming co-meanings—with coworkers, it’s best to be audience-centered and use the words they use or use a stipulated definition—stating clearly that you mean X when you use word Y.
A business communicator has to submit himself or herself to the codes of the business world.   This is most evident in what is often termed “politically correct” speech, which is an unfortunate name and its very use shows the problem with meaning.  Is a person who uses a wheelchair “handicapped,” “disabled,” “a person with a disability,” or is some other “label” appropriate.  Is the whole issue of the person’s use of a wheelchair even relevant? Why do we feel the need to use any term? And why is the terminology that was used ten years ago no longer usable?  Who changed?  Scholars of language today are often conscious of the power of language to change our perceptions and thinking, and how language is used by the powerful for their own ends.
Again, let’s get to the point.  Since meaning is not stable or fixed, and since so much of meaning is personal or contextual, a business communicator does not want to draw attention or lose credibility by not using combinations of symbols that (1) fit the current usage and (2) evoke an image that distracts.  For example, to say, “The conference will be attended by the Chief Executive Officers and their wives” draws attention to itself in today’s climate. 
            e.  Enforced Restrictions. 
                        i.  This could be, as the text points out, the communication network or structure of an organization, where downward flow is not balanced by upward flow of information, or where horizontal flow is constrained.
                        ii.  Choice.  Humans can just choose to “turn a message off.”  We all have received email messages that say, essentially,  “The sender wants to know if you opened this message.”  I can open it and still choose not to read it.  I can read it and choose not to respond (do you know any of those people?).  Attitude can become a barrier, a psychological one.  Communication methods can overcome some of those, but if a person in a work environment continues this type of behavior (blocking, choosing to not receive important messages), an alternate form of communication may be necessary (as may be an alternate place of employment!)
            f.  Uncontrollable types of barriers
                        i.  Emotional state or levels of stress in communication partners
ii.  Audience prejudices
iii.  Sensory deficiencies.
 Remember, no one’s perception is a completely trustworthy representation of reality.  Even yours.

Now, back to the last two aspects of the system.
  1. feedback (which will be constant to the point of being hard to distinguish in most situations)
  1. results (which in a system can mean return to homeostasis—return to balance or a change or progression in the environment)

This completes this lecture on communication basics, except for the most important point:  What makes business communication unique?
Context: An organization with many layers and parts, a system whose balance state is to be in a state of making profits, going forward, not going backward.  
Results.  While some of our communication is natural, and seems almost unintentional, business communication is purposeful and its purpose is to create results, especially to solve problems, to maximize profits, to satisfy customers and other stakeholders (p. 4), and to keep the organizational system in balance by supplying information upward, downward, and horizontally.  Personal satisfaction of employees may be a result but it is not usually the main target of results.
Interactants:  People with whom you have primarily a working relationship and share little or no personal connection.  People with whom you may or may not have any historical context.  People whom you may personally like or dislike, and in the workplace, your personal dislike should not become an issue.  Business communication is particularly audience-centered because of its purposes. 
Messages:  The purposes are to inform and to persuade.
Channels:  Business communication uses all forms of media to send its messages.  But “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”  Not all media/channels are created equal. 
Noise:  Business communication has its unique noise factors, brought on by globalization (we are expected to communicate with cultural groups whom we would normally not), dealing with informational and media overload that has been euphemistically called multitasking, and stressors from economic factors.  

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