What is Effective Communication, and Why is it Important? 

“When you have that feeling that the other team doesn’t understand, or that other leader doesn’t understand, the reason that they don’t understand is because of how you have communicated.”  

 -Dave Berke, Muster 006 

Introduction 

The door between the garage and the mudroom of our house clicked open. I hurriedly lugged two armloads of groceries through on my way to the kitchen. When I heard the patter of Harry’s running footsteps behind me, I yelled back to him, “boots and coat in the closet please, Harry, so we keep the house nice and tidy!” With my clear directive given, I turned my attention to putting away the groceries. A few moments later, I heard Harry’s stomps run through the kitchen. I thought nothing of it, as I knew he had understood what I told him to do, and I continued what I was doing. After I finished, I collected up our grocery bags and headed for the garage to return them to the trunk of the car. Upon entering the mudroom, I was met with an unexpected scene: Harry’s coat lying in the middle of the floor. I put the bags down on the washing machine and walked back through the kitchen. 

“Harry!” I bellowed. “I thought I told you to-“ I cut myself off mid-sentence when I saw Harry playing with his Legos on the coffee table in the living room, his dirty boots still on his feet, and tracking mud on the rug. I put my hands on my hips. I furrowed my brow. I took a deep breath as I tried to figure out what the heck had just happened. 

The ability to communicate effectively is a vital component of leadership. In order for a team to work toward a common mission, the entire team must understand the mission, their role in the mission, and their teammates’ roles. They must have the ability to discern how they can provide support, and to ask for the support they need. They have to be able to share and receive updated priorities as the situation changes. 

One would think that such a vital component for human interaction would be easy and come naturally. On the contrary, however, while this skill is in fact incredibly important, it is also incredibly difficult. Learning this skill is made much easier by first answering the question, “What is effective communication?” 

Considering that Leadership is the ability to influence groups of people to work in relation to a common goal, and that communication is vital to influencing those people to work toward that goal, effective communication can be defined as, “communication which creates alignment between two people.” 

What Does Effective Communication Mean? 

Unfortunately, the ability to effectively communicate is once again one that must be developed in opposition to our natural human tendencies. It is our natural human tendency that, when we speak words, send a text, or send an email to someone, we assume a transfer of understanding that may not necessarily occur. We do this because human beings are also naturally self-interested. We know our intent, so we assume the other person does as well. We assume they need all the information we have in our brains. We assume that they already have the knowledge and experiences that will add the necessary context. We assume that people see things the same way as we do.  

Because of all this, we assume that because we told someone something, they are sure to have understood it, and will be able to put it to use in the way we intended. However, speaking does not guarantee hearing, and hearing does not guarantee understanding. 

When I clearly instructed Harry to put his boots and coat away so that the house would stay tidy, I assumed that, because the words left my mouth and traveled through the air, they must have found their way into his ears, and generated alignment between the two of us. However, the proof was not in the pudding. My instructions were not even remotely followed. My communication was most certainly not effective.  

To correct this, I proceeded to the edge of the kitchen, and said more forcefully, “Harry, I need you to put your boots and your coat away. You’re tracking mud all over the place, and your coat is going to trip someone.” Harry, instead of instantly jumping up and correcting the situation, continued to play with his Lego Batman, using him to destroy the Lego bad guys that had invaded the coffee table. 

It is also our natural human tendency, that when a person doesn’t do what we so clearly asked them to do, we simply say the exact same thing to them, but louder or more sternly. The assumption here is that the increased volume and sternness will, this time, ensure alignment.  

However, it hardly ever works out that way. Because the issue at hand isn’t that they are hard of hearing, or don’t want to listen to you. The issue is with us. It is a fact that our communication continues to be ineffective. 

Effective Communication is On You 

If we cannot change this tendency, then all of the leadership skills that we try to implement will suffer, because alignment will not exist. If we can’t communicate the mission effectively, then teams will not understand the mission, and move toward different objectives, to the point that they are so far away from each other, that they cannot provide support to one another. If we can’t communicate effectively, then relationship-building will not occur. Additionally, our team won’t understand our priorities. Nor will they understand why they are doing what they’re doing, which will prevent them from being able to lead and make decisions on their own. 

Put simply, the team will suffer. The mission will suffer. Morale will drop. Frustration will increase. Misunderstandings will increase. Teams will work on the wrong tasks. Time will be wasted. Ultimately, the team will fail. 

What Makes Communication Effective? 

To defeat this tendency, as in almost all of the skills of leadership, we must first detach from our ego. Because it is our ego that is generating the self-interested assumptions that lead to ineffective communication. Additionally, it is what is preventing us from recognizing that it’s not the other person who is disregarding us, but us who is not communicating in the way that they need us to.  

After we detach from our ego, we can work to determine how we need to change the way we communicate to create alignment with the other person. We can earnestly ask ourselves: 

  • What is my relationship like with this person? Do I understand how they best receive information? 
  • Am I being a good receiver of information? Am I listening enough? 
  • Did I communicate in a simple, clear, and concise manner? 
  • Was the information I gave organized appropriately? 
  • Was it presented through the correct medium? 
  • How was my tact, tone, delivery, and timing? 
  • Did I link together why this information is important to the team and the person with whom I am communicating? 

Through answering these questions, and making the appropriate adjustments, we can determine how to communicate with any individual effectively. However, part of what makes this so difficult is that the answers to these questions are different for each individual. Therefore, we need to take the time before and after to improve. Prior to communicating, we need to be preparing. Not only by thinking about how to communicate most effectively with this person but by rehearsing via roleplay techniques. Also, after we share the information, we need to be sure to solicit a readback to determine whether we communicated effectively. 

After watching Harry play with his Legos while I pondered my next move, I walked into the living room and sat down on the couch. I reached out and grabbed Harry’s shoulder, and said, “Harry, I need you to look at me.” When he made eye contact, I said, “If you put your boots and your coat away, I will give you a green sticker on your chart. Can you go do that for me?” 

“Oh, sure!” He yelled, as he stood up, sprinted into the mudroom, put his boots in the shoe basket, and hung his coat in the closet, then sprinted back. He said, “Can I get my green, now?” 

It turned out that simply yelling over my shoulder, or into the same room as Harry wasn’t the best way for him to hear what I had to say. My reason for why he should do what I wanted him to do was equally ineffective. It turned out that he needed me to get his full attention, speak to him squarely in the face, and give him a reason he actually cared about getting a green sticker. As soon as I did that, we had alignment, and he executed. 

Conclusion: Why is Effective Communication Important? 

So, why is effective communication important in the workplace? As a leader, it’s your job to create alignment up and down the chain of command. Being able to communicate this effectively will reduce mistakes, increase efficiency, increase effectiveness, and maximize your ability to utilize the Laws of Combat to influence your team to work toward a common goal. How you communicate can be the difference between success and failure. So, always be asking yourself: is my communication effective? If not, then you need to change it. 

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