On Communication’s “Effectiveness”

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Effective communication. Everyone talks about and seems to be after it.

But what is it?

What is effective communication? What does it mean to communicate effectively?

Do we really know?

Ask 100 people what “effective communication” is, and you’ll get many different answers.

It’s difficult-to-impossible to know what effective communication is because effective communication can be many things. It varies and it’s subjective. It is that tingly spider-sense feeling we get when communication is going well or we feel understood. It’s when we articulate something clearly and someone sees a point of view better. It’s when we authentically express emotions and sense that connection we have with another person.

All of these are effective communication. All of them are different.

Typically, we think about effective communication as some form of “getting a message across” to another person and often think in terms of a message’s precision, conciseness, and fidelity.

But communicating effectively isn’t just about saying what you think and transmitting your worldview into the brains of other people. This is far too ambitious a goal for communication.

Human communication does not work based on direct transfer, It’s not just “effective” when you think what you’ve said has made it across the chasm between you and someone else. Effectiveness is not achieved only when some imagined degree of message fidelity is reached.

Communication is contextual, which means that what “effective communication” is depends on context. It depends on the circumstances we find ourselves in and the goals we are working toward. Communication can be about creativity and generating wild ideas, tactfully navigating sensitive subjects, enjoying the company of others, or distributing information in a streamlined way.

What is successful and effective in one communication situation does not equate to success in others.

Perfectly Effective Communication Doesn’t Exist

Is effective communication a goal, a state, or an ideal? Is effective communication just that which is “good enough”? And what is good enough?

The very idea of effective communication is rooted in the notion that perfect communication exists. It does not. Few people ever get your point exactly as you expressed it. Communication is more than just stating your point of view. It is more that conversations and communication unfold before us and things happen — for better or worse — as we go on communicating. We never reach this ideal state. This is the cyclical, not linear, nature of communication.

Our obsession with effectiveness says much about how we think about communication. When we think about whether communication was effective or not, we’re trying to discern if what we intended was received. But this is unknowable. We must face the reality of communication as an interactive, ongoing, always imperfect human process. Communication isn’t just about achieving some ideal ending. It’s the good, the bad, and everything in between.

People’s goals in communication are likely to differ. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What actually happens when people communicate is that multiple outcomes are reached. Such is the nature of the beast!

That’s precisely why we must think about communication as a process that we’re always engaged in and try to create healthy interactions wherein people have their needs met.

Being 100% successful in getting your message across is nothing more than a figment of your imagination. Traditional effectiveness-thinking is the wrong way to approach communicating.

It makes us long for an ideal state of communication that simply isn’t possible.

Effective Communication and Information Transmission

You might think that communication involves effective transmitting information — and it does. Humans need and desire information to make decisions. But communication isn’t just information transmission. Communication starts with information, but doesn’t end with it.

Information transfer is not the whole of communication. We can’t see information or communication, for that matter just as having moved from here to there. Both are ongoing and we can’t possibly think effective communication is the simple fact a message was sent or that a message arrived where intended. For example, “I sent that email so I communicated with them,” or “I can see they read my text! I sent them the message!” isn’t enough.

We cannot measure whether communication was effective or not based on the simple fact that information moved from A to B.

Effective Communication and The Question of Volume

Along with communication’s effectiveness usually come questions of volume, as in, the amount. “How much?,” not “How loud?”

What is the right amount of communication?

Have you ever texted a friend and then wondered, after they didn’t reply, what went wrong? Did you come on too strong, at the wrong time, or in the wrong way? If you text them a second time after no reply, is that too much? Have you ever wondered, “Do I talk too much?” or “Have I reached out to them recently enough?” You’re not alone.

These are all questions of volume.

The truth is there isn’t an ideal amount of communication. The best amount depends entirely on the relationship, context, you, and the other person. Depending on these factors, there’s a range of what’s acceptable. Every relationship has its own acceptable range with respect to frequency and amount of communication.

This range is co-negotiated by both participants in a relationship. In fact, it’s **through** communication itself that we negotiate this range and set expectations.

For example, in a work context, you have a given number of relationships. With a supervisor, you might only talk once each week or every day. A project manager or site supervisor might contact workers multiple times in a given day. Individual team members on the same level might talk at the start and end of each workday. Or perhaps, they don’t talk at all. What’s the right amount? Who’s to say? How much is too much?

In personal relationships — a friendship, for example — the rhythms and amounts of communication are completely different. I have friends who I talk to only a few times a year. Others, I speak more regularly, but it is more superficial. The volume-amount, the frequencies, and conversation trajectories are completely different depending on the context.

There is no “correct amount” of communication that exists beyond the relational level. Each relationship has different needs, goals, and circumstances with respect to how much communication is needed.

Proper depth, authenticity, and appropriateness of communication are far better measures than amount. You can have lots of interaction and a large amount of communication and not say much of anything at all. Likewise, you can have powerful impacts from very short utterances.

Communication involves more than finding the appropriate number of messages to send. There’s no prescriptive magic amount of communicating you can do to guarantee a positive outcome or meet your goals.

Appreciating The Messiness

All this aside, each relationship has its sweet spot and for communication to be optimal. People can certainly communicate too often, too much, or too intensely; if you don’t communicate at all, well, you don’t really have much of a relationship then do you?

A better question to ask yourself than “Was that communication effective?” is “Did this communication seem to work well for everyone involved?” Addressing that will help you identify ways to possibly communicate better.

You can’t not communicate. In one sense, when we’re engaged in communication, it’s always working (that is, it’s always doing something). Communication always has an outcome. It always has multiple outcomes. In that sense, it’s always effective. Beyond that, it’s more a question of optimal. If communication is non-optimal, which it often is, how to improve communication is a far better question than effectiveness.

Chasing ideals is the wrong pursuit.

Depth. Authenticity. Connection. That’s what you should really be after. Amounts are secondary. Ideals are serendipitous.

When communication has worked well — when it’s been effective — it is potentially many things: a feeling of general satisfaction from a conversation, a mutually beneficial optimization (to figure out calm ways to discuss topics where there used to be agitation, for example), or how many people left your speech with new information because you were able to explain things simply and clearly.

Communication does all these things. Each is it’s own “effective.” We need more appreciation of the nuances of this messiness, rather than a striving for ideals that are unattainable.

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