(The Two Crucial Ingredients for effective Communication)

By Mr. S. Srikanth, Management Consultant

We inhabit this globe with millions of other species. All of them, from amoeba to elephant, have been given sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. These senses help them to eat, drink, reproduce and save themselves from danger. Thus, they are capable of maintenance only. Human beings, alone, are capable of improving! Human beings are meant to excel. One of the important skills with which we have been bestowed is the power to understand and respond to the feelings of others. This skill of understanding and making ourselves understood is also termed Communication.  It is the possession of this faculty that entitles us as Human Beings to claim that we are the most highly evolved species on earth. Bereft of this, we would be no more than the other brutish creatures that occupy this planet. It is, therefore, vital that we should hone and perfect this skill so as to become Effective Communicators.

What is Effective Communication?

Communication is effective when the desired result is achieved. Be it oratory or one-to-one communication, effectiveness is judged mainly by the attainment of the Goal or purpose. Effective people choose words in the same way that a master sculptor chooses his tools. Where a fine chisel is needed, they do not employ a gavel! In this sense, silence can be the best form of communication in certain situations. Indeed highly cohesive teams communicate quite effectively with the minimum of words.

Much has been written about the art of communication. Volumes of research have piled up to promote the nuances of predicting body language. Yet, two of the most fundamental aspects of effective communication are oft neglected. This is not because they are not well known, but because they are the most difficult to practice.

Active Listening

The first of these, listening, is rightly denominated the mother-skill or root-skill in communication. Most of us are aware of the need to listen. But, when it actually boils down to practicing the virtue that we profess to admire, we are too busy interrupting the other person. Of course, we do a lot of hearing! The pre-requisite for hearing is, merely, the possession of two ears, in good working condition!

On the distinction between “Hearing” and “Listening”, Thiruvalluvar, the great Tamil scholar has this to say:

“Though the ear appears to be working, it is still deaf, where the true meanings of the words have not been drilled into the mind by active listening. (Kural 42:8)”

(As usual, I am taking extraordinary liberties with the word meanings of the Kural. I am sure the Divine Poet, who was himself a revolutionary, more than two thousand years ago, would permit this minor tweaking!)

After hearing we assume that we have understood. Remember, ASSUME makes an ASS of yo(U) and ME!

The best definition of Effective Communication is found in Thirukkural under the 43rd chapter titled Wisdom:

To speak so that the meanings may easily enter (the mind of the hearer), and to discern the subtlest thought (which may lie) hidden in the words of others this is Wisdom. (43:4)”

In order to capture the least nuance of meaning in the words of others it is essential to practice the art of Active Listening. Given below are the characteristics of active listening:

Active Listening is the art of listening with full concentration so as to completely understand what the speaker is saying. It enables effectiveness and Stephen Covey advocates Active Listening as an important ingredient for practicing the 5th Habit – Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood.

Here are FIVE Simple Tips for becoming an Active Listener:

  1. Allow the other person to complete his entire message.
  2. Don’t Interrupt. But provide Verbal and Non-Verbal Support.
    Example: Nodding, Smile, prompting, Open body position, Forward movement of the Head and Trunk
  3. Take Notes continuously.
  4. After the other person has spoken fully ask Clarificatory and Open Ended Questions
  5. Summarize the understanding clearly.


Pleasing Words

Another crucial skill that we miss out on is the need to use Pleasing words! This is especially so when we give feedback to our colleagues, spouse, children and others. While giving negative feedback or describing shortcomings, we prefer to use blunt and sometimes harsh words which could be counterproductive! Our immediate justification is that by being blunt, we are actually benefitting the other person. Yes, flattery and euphemism would definitely get us nowhere. But, should we  choose harsh words when pleasing words are available? Thiruvalluvar gives the analogy of a fruit tree. You behold a fruit tree with both luscious ripe fruit as well as bitter unripe ones. Tell me, which one would you choose? What an idiotic question, right? The ripe ones, obviously! Then why is it not equally obvious that when we have a choice of using harsh words or pleasing words, we invariably choose the former?

Here is the relevant Kural:

Behold the man who uses harsh words when sweet ones are at hand; he prefers the unripe fruit to the ripe! (10:10)”

 Most of us see the use of Pleasing words as a weakness. It is not necessarily so. Loud voices need not be strong. A soft voice may hide extraordinary strength of purpose.

Think of a material that is both soft and tough. Yes! The answer is silk! Silk is arguably the softest material to touch! But, try to break a single strand of silk with your bare hands; the chances are that you will cut your fingers! Polite yet firm is the secret of effective communication. Shouting and abusing will instill fear, no doubt, but only in the way a donkey is afraid of its master. But a soft yet firm voice is the mark of leadership and the measure of Teamwork!

In conclusion, Effective Communication is a tool for Collaboration and is one of the key ingredients of great managerial performance! Let’s be like Silk, soft yet strong!

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