March 23, 2013

Effective Communication Is Not Talking

effective communicationTalking is not effective communication.  Neither is sending an email.

Effective communication is making sure you are understood.

I learned this when I took flying lessons.  If you don’t communicate well when you fly a plane you might kill others or kill yourself.

Pilots use a special system to make sure their messages are understood by other pilots and the airport tower.  They always repeat the message back so the other party is 100% certain they understand the message.

If you are in two-seat Cessna plane with the tail number 352 and the tower tells you to descend to 1,000 meters and turn to 210 degrees heading you will answer like this: “Airport Tower this is Cessna 352, descend to 1,000 meters and turn to heading 210 degrees, roger.”  That way the Tower KNOWS you have received and understood their instructions.

This is a great habit to follow in business.

Never assume that someone understands what you say.  Ask him to repeat the message back to you.

For example, after reviewing an assignment with someone on your team you should ask them to restate the assignment.  When you start doing this you’ll be surprised at how often your people didn’t understand your meaning even if they said they did.

Another great use of this technique is to ask job candidates what their understanding of the job is when you begin the interview.  That way you can check if they read the job description carefully.  If they didn’t read the job description carefully you shouldn’t even consider hiring them.

On the flip side, get into the habit of repeating your understanding of what was said.  This is especially effective in sales — it will show your customer that you understand them and care about them.  I usually put it like this, “Let me make sure I understand…”  Then I restate the problem or summarize the actions we’ve agreed on.

When someone sends you an email always respond so they know you received the email.  A simple response is “Received and understood.”  If it’s a meeting, repeat back the meeting details: “Great.  See you at 12pm next Wedesday 27 March at Highlands Coffee at the intersection of Dinh Tien Hoang and Nguyen Dinh Chieu.”  That way the other person KNOWS you are both on the same page.

Try it today!

    • Yes, I have had people tell me they get it when in fact they don’t. This is *exactly* why asking them to repeat back is so effective. There’s no way for them to fake it.

      If you want people to tell you they don’t understand then you have to “make it safe” for them to do so. If someone says they don’t get it, for Pete’s sake don’t punish them or treat them like an idiot. That guarantees they won’t tell you next time. Instead, reward them — e.g. “I’m glad you asked that question, it shows me you really care about getting it right…”

      • Giang Gina

        I like this post a lot and maybe more writing from you. I really agree on the issue you raised. We have to find some way to ask the employee in order not to make them feel like an idiot because of their weak English. But the very fact that they are weak in listening. So mostly, foreign boss chooses to work with them by email. But in some cases, communication in speaking is much better and of course we need to communicate with each other face to face, not face to computer or phone all the time. Teaching your staff English and make them improve their listening skill is also one of your task. The more we give out, the more we receive back in return.

  • Mike Dorman

    Right on! And still, I view the full responsibility for being understood as the speaker intends to be understood as belonging to the speaker. If speaking and providing directions or an explanation I am the one who has to deliver what I intend to convey with clarity and speakers aren’t always successful at doing that. Thus asking
    for the listener to repeat what they’ve understood as you suggest is the key to
    moving forward as desired and expected. Certainly avoids lots of rework and
    frustration. Your post is the basis for my blog article this week at

  • “making sure you are understood”, great point Chis. Read and understood. :)