Effective Communication

Communication has been described as the leader’s medium of influence.  If a leader is unable to effectively communicate purpose, direction and motivation they are unable to function in their leadership role.  On the surface communication seems a simple thing, but left to interpretation even the seemingly simplest communication can go terribly awry.

The Story

It was one of those frigid northeast winter nights and a number of us were on-scene at a homicide where a man had been discovered attempting to bury his wife in the backyard of the family home.  There was no way this was ever going to be turned into a happy situation. One thing we could do as command folks was to do our best to care for our people who were maintaining a crime scene in less than ideal conditions.  I dug into my wallet and gave one of the sergeants some money to buy a couple of ‘boxes of joe’ for the troops.  The sergeant dutifully dispatched one of the new officers who returned with 2 bags of whole coffee beans.  Not the result I was hoping for…

Bottom line is that the officer asked to retrieve the coffee wasn’t a coffee drinker and apparently the troops had some incorrectly grandiose assumptions about the amenities in the command post vehicle.  So who was responsible for the communication glitch?  No question, I was.

Responsibility for Communication

The responsibility for communication lies with the sender.  Communication success occurs when the sender’s message is correctly received and understood.  Beginning with this end in mind, it is the sender’s responsibility to effectively design and deliver their communication and check understanding to ensure success.

The sender must survey the communication environment to identify potential interference.  Are you communicating face-to-face, through email, etc and what are the limitations of the medium?   Are you speaking the same ‘language’, literally or in the use of special terms (‘box of joe’)?  Do your non-verbals match the rest of your communication?  How many levels of the organization are you communicating through?

In addition to the environment, you must take into account the cognitive processes of both the receiver and yourself, as well as anyone you are counting on in-between you and the receiver to act as a bridge in the process.  Are there any assumptions that either the sender or receiver are likely to make that would hinder understanding?  Do they drink coffee themselves :)?

What to Do

At all levels of the organization communication is vital.  Begin with the end in mind.  If you aren’t sure what you are trying to communicate it hinders the ability of others to understand you.  Once you understand what you are trying to communicate you need to design an effective implementation, taking environmental and cognitive interference into account.  Lastly, we need to verify understanding.   This becomes more complex at higher levels of the organization.

At the direct level, verifying understanding can be as easy as having a direction repeated back to you, or better yet, having the receiver tell you in their own words what they are taking away from the conversation.  As a leader of leaders or an organizational leader you need to be innovative in checking understanding.  You don’t want to create unintended consequences by operating outside the chain of command but you do need to know that both the content and spirit of your communications have been received correctly.  One of the best ways to accomplish this is by regularly leading by walking around.  Make yourself visible and approachable and you will soon discover any communication failures you have been suffering.

In communication, we find one of those things that appears simple but is actually very complex.  Great leaders are great communicators.  Don’t neglect the communication process.

As always, THANK YOU for your service and BE SAFE!

Please comment on ways to communicate that you have found to be particularly effective.



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