Soft Skills

You Cannot Avoid Communicating

Michele Tesoro-Tess

Today it is obvious that human resources are the added value of all organizations. But it is not always obvious that “soft skills”—those skills related to interpersonal behavior rather than technical expertise—are crucial to organizations. But their importance has emerged along with new organizational models that give more responsibility to individuals. For instance: The organization used to discipline communication channels; now this must be achieved by individuals alone. Decision making used to lie with a few well-defined persons; today, decision making is widespread across the organization. Conflicts used to be managed solely by middle and top management; today, all employees negotiate with one another. It is increasingly important that all professionals become familiar with soft skills. The Way Ahead will analyze and explain a number of these skills in upcoming issues. No matter what kind of job a person has, he must be able to handle the complicated interactions among individuals and within groups. —Michele Tesoro-Tess

To communicate, you need a transmitter, or better, a message, a receptor, and a context in which the communication process occurs. You also need a code to enable the receptor to “read” and understand the message.

Body language.

The ingredients listed above are true for each and every type of communication, including communication between machines. Take, for instance, a fire-alarm system. The transmitter is represented by an outside element (i.e., smoke and/or increase of heat) that behaves in a specific context, which is the air in a room. The receptor is the sensor that “reads” the signal through a predefined code and reacts by expelling water or another liquid to extinguish the fire.

Between people, there is the advantage that the code is not given by an external entity but is sought by the two communicators while they establish a relationship.

For instance, it is easy to imagine how two people who speak two different languages, and use two different linguistic codes, try to use alternative ways to under- stand each other, such as the abundant use of body language and visual expressions.

At this point, we can pose a number of truisms:

  1. Human beings cannot pull themselves back from communication because they are social beings. You cannot avoid communicating.
  2. While communicating, you cannot elude context; communicating in your friend’s living room is not the same as communicating in an emergency situation. The context conditions the meaning of the message.
  3. All living species use a code to communicate. The code is not only a collection of shared logical meanings (words or signs) but is all the messages that the transmitter sends to the receptor (expressions, behaviors), and it comprehends all that is defined as body language. Communication between  living  species is the search for a common code.
  4. The last consideration concerns the check of the effects that we have obtained with our communication process: the feedback. The use of feedback makes the communication process a circular onethat does not distinguish between transmitter and receptor. The continuity of the process renders the two protagonists active parts within a communication relationship. Communication means relating to each other.

To find the true meaning of communication, let’s examine the word’s Latin origins. Some experts believe that communication means put in common—“communis agere” or “cum munera” (with gifts). Others insist that communication derives from “cum moenia” (with walls, defensive ones). Obviously, this latter meaning is opposite to the former one, but we must not exclude it because in some ways the concept of communication does contain some ambivalence.

It is true that we communicate to share or put together information, data, or numbers. But it is also true that communication is used to exclude someone or to defend our- selves from someone or something. Examples include the specific information technology languages that exclude “normal” human beings from understanding, secret codes used during war to keep operations and plans from the opponent, and the invented languages children create to avoid adults’ understanding. Therefore, to communicate “with con- science,” one needs:

  • The understanding of the context in which the communication occurs. In other words, the awareness of the environmental and psychological situation in which the communication takes place. For instance, when you make a phone call to someone, you are well aware of the context you are in, but you often ignore the physical and psychological situation of the other person, which sometimes causes unpleasant circumstances.
  • The will to understand each other and to try to find a common code. Often it is useful to disclose and explain the specific meaning of words or terms to avoid misunderstandings during the communication process.
  • The need for feedback—in other words, the need to establish a two-way communication path between the protagonists. The need for feedback is highlighted during emergency situations. When a pilot communicates with ground control, it is compulsory for him/her to repeat what the other has said.
  • We have just seen how communication between people is a “two-way” path (message and feedback) aimed at generating a change in the knowledge and in the behavior of another. The objectives of communication therefore are:
  • Being understood—put the other person in a position to receive in a clear way the message given and to be able to interpret the meaning of it with regard to a shared aim.
  • Being remembered—enables the other, after time, to “find” the message.

Being understood is a function that can be defined as “digital,” and it is positioned in the brain (left side) of the protagonist, enabling one to interpret in a logical way the meaning of the message. Being remembered is “analogical” and is normally positioned at “stomach level” or at the level of the heart (right side of the brain). This function permits allocating the specific message within a collection of other messages archived in the brain of the protagonist.

These concepts are much more complicated when one goes beyond the simple communication relationship “person-to-person” and considers the communication of a group with a group. Among a vast number of persons, one must consider that there are many potential “two-way” communication channels. Between two people we have only one open channel, and between three people we still have three “two-way” channels. But things get more complicated when the number of people is more than three. In fact, from four people on, in order to calculate the number of opened communication channels, one must use the Thelen formula. This formula may be synthesized in this way:

Number of channels=number of persons     (number of persons     1) / 2

For instance, if a group contains six people, there are 15 open communication channels. In a group of eight people, the channels opened would be 28. It is true that in a group, the members do not always use all the channels available at the same time, but the presence of all these potential channels creates a pressure on the group. This pressure may have a number of consequences:

  1. As the number of components of a group increases, so does the time to carry out the work, in a more than proportional manner.
  2. In a large group, more than 18 to 20 people, messages that are highly irrational and full of emotions tend to be received more effectively.
  3. It is necessary to have a strong organization and rationalization of all communication channels.

What does all this mean at an operative level?

  1. If you have a short time for a meeting, you must keep the number of participants at a minimum. Adding a couple of people may double the time needed to do the job.
  2. If the group is large (more than 20 members), one must privilege the emotion- al channel and give very simple concepts (black or white, good or bad) rich in emotional elements. It is basically impossible to explain in detail a complicated concept and therefore best to use the visual channel (e.g., graphs) to support the verbal/listening channels. It is furthermore difficult to manage a series of feedbacks because the pressure that is generated acts as a censor to questions and comments.
  3. If you must stimulate debate or moments of analysis and/or focus within a large group, it will be necessary to divide the group into smaller groups of, at a maximum, 5–6 people. It will be possible to use the natural competition between groups to enhance performance and increase the quality of the work done.
Different psychological situations when speaking over the phone.

Therefore, people making business presentations to large groups should consider several issues:

1. One’s presentation must be well structured in three distinct parts.

Say what will be said….

A. Introduction

  1. Introduction with a personal presentation and reference to the listeners and their possible motivations.
  2. Description of the aim (reason why of the presentation). Synthesis of the main guidelines of the presentation and estimation of the length of the presentation.

Say it….

B. Central part where the message is described in detail, using a variety of logical schemes, such as:

  1. Chronological (yesterday/today/tomorrow), which is the easiest to understand.
  2. Geographical (in Italy/in Europe/in the world), which is also easy to perceive.
  3. In steps (Step 1/Step 2/Step 3).
  4. Tree (a-a1, a2, a3, b-b1, b2, b3).
  5. Matrix (products/markets).

While the first two logical schemes may be used without visual supports, the last three need continuous recalls to diagrams, charts, etc.

Say what you have said….

C. Conclude by summing up the logical scheme used and the issues explained, and give a personal statement.

2.  Evaluate the audience

Try to understand the psychological situation of the listeners and, therefore, the motivation of those who are “exposed” to your message. It is important to refer to the prevailing behavior, which could be

  • Of extreme interest to the specific issue (you just need to be clear and give many examples to explain the concept).
  • Of complete indifference to the specific issue (it is important to “touch” their feelings and emotions).
  • Of opposition to the specific issue and maybe also to the speaker (it is important to demonstrate that you are open to discussion, and the speech must be well-structured, and the examples given must be 100% undeniable).
Understand the audience and react accordingly.

3.  Check the context

Remember that to receive a message and listen with ease, it is important in many cases to be able to see what is being presented. Therefore, it is important to verify the correct functioning of the audio system and ensure that slides can be seen clearly. Also check the temperature of the room and the comfort of the environment in general.