Communication – did I say that right?

An effective Communication is one of those things that should be easier than it is (although many people mistakenly think it is easy!).

Unfortunately it can be fraught with danger, misunderstanding and confusion as a result of unclear or mixed messages.

Fundamentally, we communicate for one of two reasons – to tell someone something or to get them to do something, it is about sending and receiving information.

So, whatever the underlying reason for our communication, we are needing to facilitate a change in the receivers worldview.  As a result, any communication should always be a two-way process.

Effective communication, however, only happens when the message is sent, received and (most importantly) understood!  Communication is not what you say – it is what they hear!

The meaning of the message is not necessarily what you meant rather it is the interpretation the receiver puts on the message!

We are constantly communicating; either vocally (the actual words you use as well as the tone of voice, etc.) or by our body language (e.g. how we are standing, sitting, moving, looking, etc.).  Even when saying nothing you are still communicating something.  You cannot not communicate!


According to Ted Nicholas the following elements are fundamental for communicating effectively.

  1. Get their attention in a very bold way.
  2. Arouse their emotions and their interest.
  3. Tell them an interested story in a believable way.
  4. Offer them an incentive to take action – right NOW.
  5. Ask them to take action immediately and make it easy to do so without too many choices.

Personally, I would add a sixth step –

  1. Always check that your message had been understood – otherwise you will be leaving yourself wide open to not getting what you want!

Ted appears to have adapted the AIDA (Attention Interest Desire Action) principle and expanded on it.  This is a structured way to compose a message to elicit the appropriate response.  Here, Attention represents headline, which should capture the receiver’s attention and make them want to engage with the rest of the message.  Capturing their Interest then builds on the headline in an informative or interesting way.

Then, if you need the receiver to do something, you must move then to create a Desire, think here WIIFM (What’s In It for me?) and identify why they should respond as you want them to). Finally, you must prompt an Action, which must specify what you want them to do, how, where, when, etc. If your communication does not follow this step by step format it will not be as effective as it could be.

Procter’s Bowtie

Harry Procter (1993) suggests a “Bowtie” model to help understand how people engage in communicating with each other in a way that causes either virtuous or vicious cycles of behaviour in their interactions with each other.

Here we interpret (understand) the other person’s actions, decide on the best course of action and behave accordingly.  The other person then interprets our actions and reacts accordingly.  We then interpret and (re)act and we continue through the cycle.

For me, one important element of this interaction is it’s sense of personal ownership and control.  It is only me who can change the cycle from a negative one to a positive (or vice versa – although why anyone would want to do that is an interesting question).

I can do this by changing what I do – I can’t expect the other person to change their opinion and/or behaviour in response to my repeated actions without me first doing something different (I’ve seen claims that Einstein’s theory of Insanity is doing what you’ve always done and expecting a different result!).

A Bowtie in action

Palazzoli (1986) gives a good explanation of the bowtie in operation.  She describes how the President of a company hired a chemist to reform the Purchasing department without telling the Purchasing department head what he had done!

She goes on to say :-

“… the manager of the purchasing department was absolutely indignant..  He had been told nothing about the new appointment.  Not surprisingly, his relationship with the chemist was ruined from the outset …  The manager completely ignoring the [chemist] about whose appointment he had not even been consulted.

The chemist, for his part, felt his qualifications entitled him to by-pass his direct superior, and began to devise a purchasing plan of his own.  This elicited symmetrical reaction from the Purchasing manager who began to treat the chemist with even greater disdain. …. The result was a negative spiral of symmetrical interactions”

It is up to the sender of the message to check for understanding by asking clarification questions to ensure the message has been received as intended.  Be careful as a “yes” answer to “do you understand?” can be a meaningless response.  It does not give you confirmation that they have understood or even agree with the proposed course of action.  It could signify compliance rather than commitment.  You need to get them to confirm back to you their understanding.


Some of the, many, barriers are :-

  1. Format of communication (i.e. medium of message – face to face, written, email, telephone, formal/informal, etc.) all have advantages and disadvantages. So are you using the right medium? As Marshall McLuhan said “The medium is the message”!  Make sure the medium is correct.
  2. Attitude of sender and receiver e.g. lack of trust, credibility of communicator, disinterest, perception of powerlessness. The existing relationship (real or perceived) between the parties impacts on the message and its credibility (or lack of).
  3. Perception (why me? or even “what right do you have to tell me?”)
  4. The attitude of both parties towards the subject matter will also impact on how the message is received and acted on.
  5. The language we use will also have an impact.  Is there too much, too little jargon, Is there confusing, long, complicated words that lead to a confusing message or even worse a sense of “one-upmanship” or arrogance.
  6. The level of commitment or engagement and general level of interest by either party will reflect in the amount of effort put into either listening initially or doing what is required. Some research by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2004 showed that (and these figures haven’t improved over the years since!) approximately:
    • – 13% of the workforce is “highly uncommitted”
    • – 76% are ambivalent – i.e. they are neither committed nor uncommitted, and
    • – 11% are highly committed!

These have a knock on impact on the outcome of any communication and is seen in the “impact v intent” model.  This is when the original intention is drowned out when the receiver believes there to be a negative impact.


Thomas Gordon, in his ground breaking Parent Effectiveness Training, devised a comprehensive list of what he called communication spoilers.  These include:

  1. Criticising: Making a negative evaluation of the other person, their actions, or attitudes.
  2. Name-calling: “Putting down” or stereotyping the other person,
  3. Judgment: Making a Judgment of the other person’s actions or attitudes.
  4. Ordering: Commanding the other person to do what you want to have done.
  5. Threatening: Trying to control the others action by warning of negative consequences if they don’t do what you want them to.
  6. Moralising: Telling another person what to do – preaching or patronising.
  7. Diverting: Pushing the other’s problems aside through distraction.
  8. Logical argument: Attempting to convince the other with an appeal to facts and to logic usually without consideration of the emotional factors involved.
  9. Reassuring: Trying to stop the other person from feeling the negative emotions he or she is experiencing.

Responsive Listening

However, to be effective we need to use “Responsive listening” as much as possible.

  1. At the first sign of an argument check the impulse to argue back and concentrate on listening to the other person’s side of the story
  2. Invite the other person’s thoughts, feelings and wishes – without disagreeing or defending
  3. Repeat the other person’s position in your own words to reflect back what you thing they are thinking and feeling
  4. Ask the other person to correct your impression or elaborate on their point of view
  5. Reserve your own response until later. For important or contentious issues wait a day or two before responding and giving your side of the issue.  On minor matters pause, reflect and ask if the other person would be willing to hear what you think.

NB The picture is from an excellent workshop Susan Birdi (top right) and Claudi Ghitti (top left) ran at a PCT conference in Brno in 2014.  The workshop was on using Dixit cards as a means of storytelling.