July 5, 2024

The Fundamentals of Communication


‍The Fundamentals of Communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. - George Bernard Shaw

Communication is one of the foundations of a functioning of society, as psychologist Paul Watzlawick declared, “you cannot NOT communicate”. As soon as individuals are aware of each other, they communicate, however, sometimes, the receiver of a communication does not get the message the sender thinks they sent. Miscommunication is disruptive and requires further communication to clear up the confusion; we know this from personal relationships, as well as the work environment.

Communication problems, not addressed, can become systemic and have ruined businesses. The impact on organisational performance is hugely underestimated and, as a result, organisations do not put as much effort into optimising it as they should. In this piece, we look at the fundamental components of communication, some of the major factors which influence success or failure in communication, and how the application of effective psychometric tools can help improve communication.

The Anatomy of Communication


“Once a word has been allowed to escape, it cannot be recalled”. - Horace

Talking is usually the first thing which comes to mind when we think about communication. Speaking enables us to transmit information from ourselves to others.

Any message we send conveys several things. According to Friedemann Schulz von Thun, a message contains four kinds of information, 1) factual information, 2) an appeal to react to the sender’s message, 3) information about the sender themselves and 4) information about the relationship the sender has to the receiver. As senders, we tend to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the factual information, so it is important to understand how the other dimensions’ messages land and how these can cause misunderstandings.

We, therefore, need to give conscious thought to the message we want to send and to the messages that accompany it, so it is received as intended. Consider the following example: If someone tells a colleague “I need this report on my desk tomorrow”. The factual information is they expect the report to be finished by tomorrow. The appeal to the receiver is they should work on the report immediately, to deliver it. However, the phrasing of the message also conveys information about the sender and the attitude of the sender towards the receiver. The relationship conveyed by the speaker is one of hierarchy, which is likely to make the receiver feel subordinate. The information the sender conveys about themselves suggests inflexibility, toughness and a focus on the outcome. The message has transmitted far more than may have been intended.

This isn't necessarily right or wrong, but the speaker may not be aware of the messages they are sending alongside the factual information and the appeal. It is therefore important to consider the collateral impact our messages can have.


“It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak, and another to hear”. - Henry David Thoreau

Listening is the second core building block of effective communication. Listening is about being prepared to receive the message the sender is trying to convey. Most of us think we are good listeners, but we are not. Active listening involves more than we think and it is exhausting, both physically and mentally. A study once showed that listening actively is as physically demanding as digging a ditch!

Even when we listen, we communicate non-verbally. We may signal that we are paying attention with eye-contact and appropriate gestures and movements. Inadvertently, this means we also signal when we aren't listening, which strains the exchange.

Active listening means we listen giving our full attention to the speaker. This is difficult because we are used to formulating an opinion or response while the other person speaks. If you ever find yourself thinking about how you are going to respond to what someone issaying, you aren't listening. Effective listening demands that judgement is avoided, and responses are formed after the sender has finished speaking. We need to resist the temptation to interrupt or make a judgement.

When we listen, the focus is on the sender. We nede to hear and understand what they say, reflect on what has been said and retain the information, potentially acting on any points that have emerged during the exchange. Periodically clarifying whether what one takes away from the message is what the sender wanted us to take away is a great way to show that we have been listening, and also a way of making sure we really understand. Listening properly can enhance trust in a personal relationship but it requires practice. When we lose focus, it helps to be honest, admit it and ask the sender to repeat what they have said.

Non-verbal communication

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said”. - Peter Drucker

Communication does not just happen verbally. In fact, more information is signalled non-verbally, through body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, than through words alone. Non-verbal communication can underline a verbal message, contradict it or even substitute it. Going back to the example above, the tone in which it is delivered makes a difference to how it is received.

To create the best possible environment for effective communication, it is important to deliver messages in a way that underlines trust and respect. Maintaining eye contact, holding a relaxed posture and using natural gestures all contribute to this. A smile can go a long way towards making the receiver feel comfortable. Non-verbal communication should be non-threatening and signal that feedback is welcome, for example by inserting pauses into one’s speech. There are many features of non-verbal communication, but to distil it to its essence, it is about being conscious of how our behaviour sends a message and exerting control over these signals.

The tools of speaking, non-verbal communication and listening are in our toolbox, but we need to sharpen them to communicate effectively. Effective communication benefits everyone in our environment, not just ourselves. This is particularly true at work where miscommunication is one of the commonest root causes of mistakes and conflict.

‍Context Matters

“The person delivering a message to us and the channel through which this happens have a huge effect on how we perceive and use the information”.

The Role of the Messenger

The role of the messenger in how information is received and processed is vital. When we perceive someone as being knowledgeable, trustworthy, influential or authoritative, we ascribe more credibility to their views and opinions than we do to others. Unfortunately, these perceptions of someone’s expertise and credibility can be shaped by irrelevant factors such as the clothes they wear, the way they speak, what they look like or even how tall they are. The messenger effect is powerful. Even when we are aware of these biases, they can be hard to overcome.

"Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don't, and Why" by Stephen Martin explores the dynamics of influence and communication and iswell worth a read. Martin categorizes messengers into two types: hard and soft. Hard messengers gain influence through status, competence, and dominance. They are often authoritative, confident, and perceived as successful. Soft messengers, on the other hand, rely on warmth, trustworthiness, and likability. They build connections through empathy, relatability, and approachability.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial for effective communication as we can leverage messenger characteristics to increase our influence and ensure messages are heard and acted upon. It is equally important to understand these dynamics so we are not taken in by them.

Communication Channels

Another important, but less well-recognised, factor which shapes how effectively communication happens is the channel through which we communicate. Soft, or informal channels such as email and instant messaging platforms are seen as the future of organisational communication and the antidote to traditional, cumbersome and starchy processes such as formal meetings and messaging protocols. However, research has shown these can actually decrease the efficiency of communication (Tenhiala & Salvador, 2018). A study of over 160 production processes across more than 70 sites showed that informal communication channels led to inaccurate or incomplete transfer of information, the wrong people being included or excluded from conversations, lack of response from key stakeholders and distractions from competing priorities. They found an absence of accountability, leading to what is known as the “bystander effect” where nobody acts, because they assume it is someone else’s responsibility. The study also found cases where people seeking advice or guidance saw their requests bounce around the organisation unanswered, eventually they gave up and moved forward on their own, despite lacking the appropriate information.

The study found that informal communication channels led to slower communication, delays in production, contract penalties and expensive rework as well as lower customer satisfaction. Formal communication channels, on the other hand, allow organisations to involve the correct stakeholders, to craft messages which are complete and consistent, and to assign accountability for action points.

Of course, there are times when informal channels are useful; when speed is more important than accuracy, or when the complexity of a topic requires a lengthy exchange of ideas in the form of a protracted discussion, although in the latter case, this should always stop short of the actual decision. And, of course, informality is better when discussing a potentially sensitive or emotive topic, although in this instance, the communication should be face-to-face and not via a digital platform. Formal channels perform better when accuracy and/or action are required. They are the best way to communicate when stakes are high and standardised processes need to be followed. They work best when accountability needs to be assigned and they are vital when the information being transmitted may need to be retrieved at a later date.

Personality & Psychometrics

The importance of individual behavioural preferences in communication is often overlooked. When we are unaware of our own preferences or those of the person we are trying to communicate with, we may as well be speaking another language.  A keen sense of self-awareness and an ability to read others can be a game-changer in communication.

Effective psychometric tools can really help individuals and teams improve communication, however the key here is “effective” tools. So many personality profiling products on the market today are no better than horoscopes in a newspaper. There are, however, some very good ones. At MindAlpha we use the exceptional Lumina Spark which, from a validity perspective, is way ahead of the competition.

At its heart, psychometric tools explore how we engage with the world around us. They are a way of looking at our behavioural preferences across a core set of crucial interactions with the world around us: They reveal how we engage with other people; how we engage with tasks and functions; how we engage with judgement and decision making; and how we engage with ideas, new concepts and change. Consider, for example, dealing with change. Some people have a preference for imaginative, radical, big-picture thinking. These people thrive on change and are readily able to visualise a different future following the change, but they hate to be caught up in details. On the other hand, some people favour a pragmatic, evidence-based approach to change. They like to look at the data and assess the risks before they leap. These people are often accused as being resistant to change, but they really are not. They simply prefer to examine the facts before they commit. If these two types are not aware of each others preferences, any change programme will be fraught with problems. However if they are aware, each possesses strengths the other one lacks.

A lot of organisations flirt with psychometric personality assessments, but few use them effectively. Some are seduced by glossy marketing of the less reputable instruments but then get little out of them. Others simply don't use them at all, even after having invested in them. In our view, every organisation should have a professionally administered psychometric assessment capability at the heart of its communication strategy.


Effective communication is indispensable for the smooth functioning of any organization. The intricacies of verbal and non-verbal communication, coupled with active listening, form the bedrock of meaningful exchanges. Understanding the multifaceted nature of messages can help mitigate misunderstandings and foster a more productive environment.

The channels through which communication occurs and the messenger who delivers it shape how information is perceived and acted upon. Organizations must recognize the impact of these elements and strive to optimize their communication strategies accordingly.

Leveraging psychometric tools to understand individual behavioural preferences can significantly improve communication. By raising awareness of people's own behavioural patterns and those of others, organizations can ensure communication is effective, reduce conflict, improve decision-making and enhance overall performance.

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