The 6 Streamlined Stages of the Communication Process
A lot of our time at the office is spent communicating with colleagues. The how of your communication process can have a big impact on your effectiveness.
The guys at 37signals have turned the phrase "meetings are toxic" into a maxim of the tech-industry. Some of their criticisms on group-style meetings:
- They break your working day into small, incoherent parts
- They are mostly just about words and abstract concepts, not about real things (e.g. a piece of code)
- They tend to contain a low amount of information conveyed per minute
- They often contain at least one person who inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense
- They easily drift off subject
- They often have vague agendas
- They require thorough preparation that people rarely do
The thing about communication is that, although it's not actual work, it's crucial to get everyone to work on the right things – to pull in the same direction. As your team grows in size, this gets both more difficult and more important. When your team grows linearly, the number of connections between your team members grows exponentially. More connections, more things going on, more workflow disruptions.
To manage this increased complexity, you need to streamline your communication processes.
To give a definition, a communication process is "a two-way process wherein the message in the form of ideas, thoughts, feelings, opinions, or a combination thereof, is transmitted between two or more persons with the intent of creating a shared understanding."
The Communication Process Model
Any communication process consists out of the following parts:
- Sender comes up with an idea to communicate
- Sender transforms it into a message
- Sender transmits it
- Recipient decodes message
- Receiver attaches meaning to the message
- Receiver gives feedback to sender
At Userlike, we've grown from 8 to 28 people over the past two years. We've felt the strain of this tightened social network, and we've thought deeply about how to improve our internal communication processes in order to stay agile. These are the principles we've come up with, broken down per step in the communication model.
Before anything is communicated, there must be something to communicate. That's the idea stage. The biggest problem at this stage is that the ideas haven't properly crystallized yet. What helps here is to...
Keep a notebook. We all get ideas all the time. Most of them are silly (at least mine are). But once in a while, some pass by that could, potentially, be pretty good – at least worthy to be thrown in the open and tested by someone else's viewpoints. Sadly, most people don't have a system in place to note down these diamonds in the rough.
Scribbling down your ideas has two benefits: one, you can further build out your ideas. Second, you don't have to memorize them – freeing up mental capacity for more important matters.
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Maintain a shared meeting lists. At Userlike, we use Asana to manage most of our projects, and we have a dedicated project 'Minutes' in which we collect our recurring meetings as tasks, with our specific meeting points as sub-tasks. This system ensures that whatever idea pops up can be worked out and added to the correct meeting list. Another benefit is that your colleagues will go in the meeting with a general idea of the points on the agenda.
The next step is the structuring of the actual message to be transferred. Noting down ideas will already help to crystallize and communicate them more clearly. Two other tips for the messaging stage:
Promote candor and meritocracy. Cultures that promulgate honesty, transparency, and directness tend to outcompete those that are indirect and intransparent. Too often, it's not the rational coherence of the idea that's decisive, but its originator. Words from the CEO tend to carry more weight than those from a – perhaps more knowledgeable – support rep (the highest paid person's opinion (HiPPO) phenomenon). An effective communication process cuts through hierarchical lines. Promoting the values of candor and idea meritocracy makes it easier for the sender to speak her mind freely.
Be structured and brief. We retain structured information 40% more reliably and accurately than unstructured information. The phone number 0616131744 is easier to memorize when you split it in structured parts: 06 - 1613 - 1744. Structure improves processing fluency. So to make your message more easily understood, try conveying it in a straightforward structure, such as "problem — solution — benefit", "What? So what? Now what?", and "FAB". But even when we are highly structured, our audience will only retain the gist of our speech. The more brief, the more forceful your message.
Use steel-manning when discussing. This is the opposite of straw-manning, in which Side A makes an argument in a discussion, after which Side B summarizes that argument in a way that makes it look worse – and then tears it down. This leaves side A feeling misunderstood, misrepresented, and eager to retaliate. No one will change his mind. If you aim to actually convince the other side (as opposed to simply humiliate him in front of an audience), a better communication technique would be steel-manning. This is the practice of summarizing the other person's argument as favorable as possible – even more favorable than your conversation partner did – before continuing with pointing out the weaknesses in that argument as rationally and objectively as possible.
The next part of the communication process concerns the way through which the message ends up at the receiver(s). Our tips for a better transmission of your message:
Tailor your channel. Before sending out your message, it pays to consider the optimal channel. A one-on-one, group meeting, central announcement, Slack message, phone call, email, or chat, all have their unique pro's and cons. At Userlike we have some management principles to guide us, such as our praise in public (e.g. central announcement), and criticize in private (e.g. a one-on-one) rule.
Tailor your setting. Where you share your message has a big impact. Simple team updates are best done in a meeting room, problem discussions are best done at the place of the problem (e.g. the kitchen, if you're discussing its furniture), one-on-one's during a walk around the block or in a local coffee place (avoid eavesdroppers), brainstorms in a relaxed setting, e.g a park. As a rule, avoid communicating in a place where it'll disturb your colleagues.
Leash your time. If you don't control the timing of your communication, you'll end up with days in which a lot was said, but nothing was done. Compress your meetings. At Userlike, 9.30AM until 12.30PM are our 'beast mode' hours. This means no meetings, just work. It gives some time at the start of your day for quick coordination communication, some time for pure productivity, and post-lunch time for proper meetings. Those three hours are sacred to us. To manage our meetings for the rest of the day, we use a shared calendar. This way, everyone knows when the meeting room – and the people they'd like to talk to – are available.
What's more, we put a cap on the meetings that we do have. This keeps things focused. Combined with the meeting lists with points ordered in matter of importance, only the lesser-important points fall through. They are either pushed to the next meeting, or dropped entirely.
The next part of the communication process happens as the recipient decodes the message – through reading or listening.
Train your listening skills. Thanks to mobile devices keeping us in permanent contact with everything that's happening worldwide, we are living in the age of distraction. Julian Treasure argues that we are losing our listening skills, and offers five exercises to practice them.
Avoid distractions. When you're decoding someone's message, avoid distractions. Put your phone away, or put it in offline mode. Close down irrelevant browser tabs. Focus on the message only.
In the next stage, the recipient adds meaning to the message.
Promote detachment of ideas. People are easily triggered these days. Tristan Harris blames the algorithms of our social media platforms for constantly fueling our sense of outrage:
Whether or not this a new phenomenon, it's clear that our emotions can cloud our judgment when we're attaching meaning to a message. Practice detaching yourself from your ideas. We tend to identify ourselves with them, while if you pay close attention, you'll notice that you have little ground to justify that. As you let go of your identification, it'll become easier to rationally compare the soundness of each argument.
Be wary of your biases. Dive into the world of cognitive biases and you'll quickly see that rational decision making is not in our nature. Memorize this list of common logical flaws so you may prevent from falling into them.
The last part of communication is the feedback from the receiver to the sender. Without feedback, the sender has no idea whether they are getting closer to mutual understanding. Feedback is a two-way process. It helps for all team members to be familiar with the feedback mechanisms of effective communication.
Questions. You can ask different types of questions to guide the conversation. These can be clarifying, probing, leading, closed, open ended, etc. We've described them in more detail here. They indicate to the sender whether you've understood the message or whether it needs some adjusting.
Body language. If it concerns a physical encounter, the posture of your body and face says a lot about whether you're following the sender or not. Check out The Definitive Book of Body Language to learn how to recognize and control body motions.
Listening indicators. Minor utterances like "yes", "uhuh", and "right" indicate to the sender that you're still following.
Echoing. Similar to listening indicators, just that you repeat part of the last sentence of the sender. Only works in physical encounters.
Paraphrasing. With this you explain back to the speaker what you've just heard, in slightly different words. It can have a strong clarifying effect, and shows the speaker whether you’ve understood her points: “I see. So just by adding live chat in the checkout process, you've raised conversion by 30%.”
Summarizing. With this, you offer a core summary of what the speaker just said: “So live chat has been a great investment for you.” You break the information down to a digestible piece, making the speaker feel sure that you've got his main point.