27 Nov 2019

By Marc Wilson
Marc is a partner at Global Advisors and based in Johannesburg, South Africa

This article is part of a series of Global Advisors thoughts: http://goo.gl/4vD6aM

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    Articulate. Clever. Multi-lingual. Great presenter. Lousy communicator. What?

    What is communication? Perhaps we might think it is the articulation of a message. Perhaps a cleverly designed illustration. Yet if that is how we think of communication, then for much of the time we might as well be shouting into the void. And it seems many of us, most of the time, do.

    What if communication was:

    'The transmission of an idea, thought or message in a manner that results in the recipient understanding and responding in a constructive way.'

    That second part. How much of the time do we 'communicate' just to vent? How much of the time do we 'put something out there' for our own benefit? How much of the time do we blame someone for responding in a way we did not desire on the basis of a message we gave?

    So, if we were to be an effective communicator, we would be able to put a message across in a way that got the best response from the recipient – not merely make them understand. This would seem to be a massive escalation in the requirement of skill and art.

    If we recognise that communication is more than spoken or written words, but includes tone, body language, or even the lack of words, then we must consider every action and inaction for its communicative effect.

    Such a definition is not entirely abstract from the root of the word communication. From 16th century Latin, communicat – 'shared,' it is an etymological root shared with community, commune, communion and of course common.

    Shared – this also might imply that communication is two-sided. That the initiator is just that – the initiator. And that if it is two-sided, then, to be effective, how we hear, understand and respond is also key to its success. Not for nothing then is listening seen as the most critical part of communication.

    If communication were defined like this, then surely it would demand that we pause before the question, thought, idea or message and decide whether it be given vent at all?

    Equally, should we wish others to act and react in a certain way, surely this would then require communication rather than just a silent hope or expectation?

    How different most 'communication' is.

    How selfish we are when we say things so that we might feel better, yet savage someone else in that course. Or when we withhold, communicating whatever impression is created in the minds of those around us.

    How ineffective we are when we 'suck it up' rather than rock the boat.

    And how hopeless we are when we do not take accountability for how others around us perceive us and our actions.

    What a difficult place to find, that in-between, where we allow for a better outcome than the drift, the slow-motion train wreck, the unknowing caused by silence. That place where thoughtful words, motions, illustrations inspire a better state than now.

    If we accept that this is what communication means, then this might imply a whole new level of responsibility – one where we become accountable for the reaction of those we communicate with – or don't.

    It says we must understand the scope of communication: that it extends from the grunt in the morning, to the absence of a response, to a shrug, to absent acknowledgement, to a laugh, to a diagram in a presentation, to a question we pose and to the wave goodbye.

    Communication may be the most important thing you could work on according to the approaches in this paper or another. Humans are social creatures and your poor communication or lack of communication might be costing you the best parts of life.


    It must also imply that we must deliberate far more about:

    1. Understanding ourselves
    2. Understanding who we are communicating with
    3. Understanding our intention / our desired result
    4. Whether to communicate
    5. How we communicate
    6. What we communicate
    7. The balance of communication
    8. How we listen
    9. How we respond

    1. Understanding ourselves

    Everything we see and say, every action we take is coloured by our view of the world and how it works. We project. We prejudge. We interpret. We are biased. We have patterns. We have agendas.

    It follows that to communicate effectively, we should be aware of how we have inserted our views and thoughts into what we are communicating. With greater self-awareness, we might identify ourselves and our patterns in our communications.

    Influence – the desire of many communications – is reliant on our understanding and care for others. Self-interest and self-centredness can destroy any chance of this.

    Asking objective questions and listening actively to responses is often a good method of sharing – indeed of communicating.

    2. Who we are communicating with

    As a junior consultant, I once arranged for a content expert to fly in to provide support in an executive workshop. Nick-named the 'Devil Woman,' Jenny was known for her searing insights and limited care for her audience. So imagine my surprise when she arrived late in the day off an overseas flight and reversed me right up to profile each one of the audience. It seemed that Jenny had taken on board some of the feedback – a great insight is worthless if it fails to land with an audience member. My delayed preparation then resulted in a late night of work, but the lesson Jenny had learnt would stay with me.

    Who is in the room might be important for a workshop or conference. Who is standing in front of you is just as critical for a one-on-one discussion. Many a gaffe has been made as someone has shared an opinion with someone they have just met – with no understanding of who that person is and what opinions or views they might hold.

    Easier communication can result from a natural fit between people. Shared history, values, language and culture can ease communication. Even a 'chemistry' – some deep connection might result in almost telepathic understanding. Fundamentally, familiarity and intimacy underpin easier communication. I vividly remember a season of Western Province rugby when Christiaan Scholtz and Jaco Taute ignited the midfield as a center pairing. They had played rugby together from school days. They truly did seem to have a telepathic understanding of one another. Their understanding and positioning played havoc with opposition defences. Later, as they pursued separate careers, it seemed they were never able to regain that spark with future center partners.

    Knowing your audience is not merely something for a conference, a sales pitch or an interview. What higher stakes than communicating something with a friend, family member or partner? Communication failure might forever alter these relationships for better or worse. Complacency due to familiarity might blind us to lack of understanding in these situations – situations where we should understand better than anywhere else.

    The one main obstacle to communication: people's tendency to evaluate

    In his 1952 contribution to the Harvard Business Review, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, Carl R. Rogers identified what he found to be the main obstacle to effective communication – evaluation. If people learn to listen with understanding, they can greatly improve their communication.

    Barrier: The Tendency To Evaluate

    Rogers identifies that evaluation takes place continuously – but even more so where feelings and emotions are involved. He illustrates how in a heated discussion, people might not even be talking about the same thing – that each person was making a judgment, an evaluation, from a personal frame of reference.

    The impulse to evaluate any emotionally meaningful statement from our own viewpoint is what blocks interpersonal communication.

    Gateway: Listening with Understanding

    Rogers explains that listening with understanding means seeing the expressed idea and attitude from the other person's point of view, sensing how it feels to the person, achieving his or her frame of reference about the subject being discussed.

    This may sound absurdly simple, but it is not. In fact, it is an extremely potent approach in psychotherapy. It is the most effective way we've found to alter a person's basic personality structure and to improve the person's relationships and communications with others.

    Rogers then describes active listening as the means of listening with understanding – that is, restating the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately and to that speaker's satisfaction. Before presenting your own point of view, you would first have to achieve the other speaker's frame of reference. Rogers believes this is one of the most difficult things you could attempt to do.

    Barriers to the use of active listening

    Lack of courage – people are scared of seeing things another way, of changing their minds or even their personalities.

    Heightened emotions – it is the most difficult time to appreciate another person's point of view from their perspective in situations where emotions are heightened. It may be best to use a facilitator for this.

    Too large a group – Rogers indicates that achieving non-evaluative understanding in large groups is difficult and not yet well practiced – but can be accomplished. Active listening between large groups improves the possibility of effective communication.

    In his more recent evaluation of the 1952 article, John J. Gabarro highlights that it might be difficult to understand the stir that prescribing 'active listening' caused in its time – however, non-evaluative listening is even more necessary in today's diverse workplace.

    Source: Rogers, CR; Roethlisberger, FJ – 'Barriers and Gateways to Communication' – Harvard Business Review – Originally July–August 1952 – Reprinted November 1991

    3. Understanding our intention

    What do we want from a communication, from someone or for someone? Do we want them to feel better, run from impending danger, treat us better or perform better?

    Seldom are we 'just putting something out there.' If we intend for someone to realise we care, then how does our communication – or lack thereof – reflect this? If we wish someone to be on time for meetings, how best might we communicate to get this result? Our intent frames our communication.

    4. Whether to communicate

    I am sure we get this wrong a lot. We might be excited by a moment, enjoy care-free banter with friends in a bar or shout something during a moment of emotion. We might be blinded by the desperate need to vent, get something off our chest, or the desire for someone to care.

    But perhaps we are often more guilty of the reverse – not communicating when we should. Either we do not have the energy, we do not know how to be effective or we take the well-meaning attitude that saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing.

    We are communicating regardless. A careless word communicates exactly that. A lack of communication communicates whatever perception is allowed to form. At its worst, lack of communication can communicate passive aggressiveness.

    Deciding whether to communicate is therefore to take charge of perception. Communication might be one of many different forms – an appreciative note, corrective coaching or merely a hand on the shoulder and a smile to someone you care about.

    Time is always in short supply – due to the pressure of work or the arc of life. Ultimately we suffer through lack of communication – as a victim of a sub-optimal team relationship or when we lose someone we wish we had had more time with.

    5. How we communicate

    It seems that every day we have some new means of 'communicating' – a new social medium, a new messaging service. We may communicate via written words, a voice note, a photo, a video, an illustration. A whole generation has been brought up with smart-phones and social media as the preferred default communication mechanism. The impact of this is profound. Communication is easier in some senses – more accessible, immediate and less time and distance dependent. However, many young people emerging into the adult world ill-equipped to cope with physical inter-personal interaction – but equipped for a different world where communication has become an end unto itself. How this will play out is uncertain. It seems, however, that fewer messages might land, more might be misconstrued and most will be ignored. Some might exist in some vast digital space forever and others will expire in a Snapchat or a Facebook story.

    Younger people are consumers, employees, suppliers, etc. This demands digital communication savvy from older generations. But older generations will be employers, bosses – and consumers for a while to come. Crossing the digital divide is a requirement for both sides.

    Selection of the medium, content, tone, length of a communication have become almost all important. But still never more important than any other of the 9 points in this list.

    6. What we communicate

    'That's a nice car.'

    An observation / compliment. Feedback. A question. A lack of a response. Are they good communications? It depends. What did you wish to achieve?

    Being so deliberate as to consider your small talk this carefully is inappropriate. It might spark dysfunction in someone struggling with shyness or social anxiety.

    So it depends. How much do we care about the other person? How do you want someone to feel? How do you wish to influence them? What type of person do you wish to be?

    In the context of the last question – the person you wish to be, you might choose to be very deliberate about giving compliments, building people up or to be encouraging. You might care about the person and want them to feel good or to feel closer to you.

    'Please be on time.'

    Feedback – asking a person to be on time. How likely is the person to change their behaviour? What is our relative authority? Have we made the request before? Do we understand what might have caused their tardiness? Each of the answers to these questions might change the communication.


    An emoji – is the person a friend? A client we do not know very well? Are we avoiding a more complete response?

    'What do you want to achieve this year?'

    A question about someone's goals – is this preceding a communication of our priorities for a subordinate? What might have been a motivating discussion might become insincere and disempowering.


    Lack of a response – you just communicated a whole lot.

    7. The balance of communication

    We all have people in our lives who communicate less out of their own than in response to someone else initiating communication. Or perhaps we are one of them.

    Some people are happy be the instigator. Some people are happy to communicate less. The question is how your communication style fits with the

    people you wish to communicate with. If there is an ongoing imbalance and it results in tension or if the communication is suboptimal based on the criteria mentioned in this article, then you need to re-evaluate your role and sometimes even the relationship with the other person. If the balance of your communication is not suited to others, they will likely reconsider their relationship with you.

    8. How we listen

    Listening is critical to communication. It can be for acknowledgement in response to an instruction. It can be how we receive and consider replies to a tweet. It can be how open we are to a counter-argument.

    Active listening is acknowledged as a powerful tool to improving communication. Mirroring what has been said shows attentiveness and can show acknowledgement of a point of view. It provides a middle ground – acknowledgement without necessarily agreement. It allows the person you are conversing with to process their thoughts in the conversation and perhaps form or change their view.

    But if we wish someone to consider our view, it is likely that we will only be successful if we are truly open to considering theirs. If we are not able to show sincerity in doing this, we may not be able to communicate successfully at all.

    9. How we respond

    Whether we initiated a communication or not, our response to others can make or break the result. Acknowledging a compliment may result in more. Showing we have changed our mind through aligned action can show we have heard someone's response and that we value their input. Showing this will make that person consider our input and view.

    If we do not respond. If we bat away compliments. If we ignore feedback. If we speak and do not listen. Then we cannot be surprised when our own communication is ineffective. Why should others consider our communication when they see their own ignored?


    It is impossible to consider every interaction in line with the principles outlined above. To do so would make us stilted and unnatural.

    However, some people are truly great communicators – by the above measures. How do they achieve this?

    Practiced effort looks effortless. Sometimes a person's upbringing might result in this. For years of childhood, they are conditioned into how to communicate effectively. Sometimes their line of work can demand that they learn the techniques above.

    Does anybody follow through the nine principles in a checklist manner? Perhaps this is appropriate as you consider a quarterly communication with your team at work. But it would be impossible as you are introduced to someone at a work function. More impossible still as you communicate with a friend or family member on a day-to-day basis.

    Communicating effectively in the latter cases can still be made more effective by practicing the 9 steps so that they become default behaviours. So that practiced active listening and mirroring emerges naturally. Considering someone else's view becomes polite and valuable. Acknowledging someone becomes important for a relationship's health.

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