Intelligent Communication

Have you been the victim of modern communication? Our culture can move information at the speed of light, but do we always receive the message correctly or do we spin it the way we want it to be? We must weigh the words we are reading or hearing. We must not jump to conclusions, but understand what those writing or speaking are really trying to say. It has been my sad experience that jumping to conclusions can cause a host of problems for all parties to the communication equation.

Words once uttered or written cannot be recovered. Their force cannot be blunted. One of the major assumptions underlying modern communication (print, voice, Internet and the like) is that the people on the receiving end of the information will always correctly receive and comprehend the actual meaning of the message being sent. This is one of the great fallacies in our world. People perceive the same words in different ways. If you do not believe me, just use the thesaurus on your word processor to conduct a short test. Pick a word and then check the many other words that can be thought to have the same or at least a similar meaning.

Let me offer an example. I have chosen the word "understand." The first series of words revolves around the word "appreciate" as another word for understanding:

Appreciate, know, recognize, comprehend, realize, be aware of, value, identify with, empathize

There is another series of words that circle around the word "comprehend" as another version or means of understanding something. The words here are:

Comprehend, be familiar with, know, appreciate

Yet another series of words equates with understanding in terms of "grasping what it being said, written or stated." These are:

Grasp, take in, figure out, work out, get it, get the picture

Do you see where I am heading? Which version of the concept of understanding did you have in mind when you began the communication process?

One person's words may not translate well based on another person's experience, education and vocabulary. Before you fly off the handle and begin ranting at people, it is critical to engage in a studied dialogue. Through the asking of reasonable, intelligent questions, it may be possible to avoid controversies and arrive at an understanding of what is being said. One of the easiest questions to ask is, "Did you really mean to say _ when you said _?" Another interrogative that could be useful goes something like this: "Correct me if I'm wrong, but did you mean to say _? Did I understand that message correctly?" You will need to be calm, cool and collected when you use these sorts of questions.

The wise leader must become a master of the reasonable interaction. Unfortunately, far too many people read or hear something and draw an instantaneous conclusion. They become angry and launch into a rant-and-rave session with the person whose thoughts or words they might have misconstrued.

Each of us listens with a mind that has grown to adulthood with biases, prejudices and meaning databases. Just because you, as the leader, know what you are saying, that's no guarantee that the people receiving your message will take it in the manner you meant it. If you tell 20 people the same thing at the same time, do you actually think that everyone will perceive what you stated in the manner you meant it? If you think this way, you will find out that you may only be correct about half of the time. It is possible that the percentage of people who understand what you have said could be higher if the concept is simple. However, as the topic gains in complexity, the percentage of people will drop.

There is another problem the wise leader must keep in mind. Not everyone who reads, sees or hears your message will react in a reasonable manner. There will be those who read or hear your words and quickly jump to a conclusion that you had never even considered. Further, when people get fired up about something, you can be sure that the first thing to leave the discussion will be the concept of reason.

The fact that you are delivering your message in a reasoned and studied manner is no guarantee of successful communication. Just because you are a reasonable person does not guarantee that the response of those with whom you are attempting to communicate will be equally reasonable.

Let us look at one type of communication model that is available to guide you in your efforts to pass along information. It comes from one of my favorite textbooks, Organizations: Behavior, Structure, Processes by James L. Gibson, John M. Ivancevich and James H. Donnelly (see the diagram on the facing page). Each of us has played a part in this equation on countless occasions. Many times, problems arise from the choice of words on the part of the communicator. The basic purpose of communication is to place the thought you have in your head into the mind of another with a minimal distortion of intent, according to Gibson, Ivancevich and Donnelly. Here are some things to consider when entering into a communication interaction:

  • To whom are you speaking?
  • What is their level of education and training with regard to the subject being communicated?
  • Do they share an understanding of the concept you are about to communicate?
  • Are they members of the fire service or are they members of another emergency service group? Or are they civilians?
  • Did you prepare them to receive your message or did you simply spring it on them? This is very important.
  • Are they fanatics or zealots? This is a critical question. I have never found it profitable to attempt to engage in a meaningful dialogue with people who lack reason, understanding and compassion.

One issue often overlooked by people about to communicate is how they are perceived by the people with whom they wish to interact. Far too frequently, we forget that the twin concepts of trust and empathy are a key part of interaction. There are those people that we never listen to simply because they have never earned our trust. Further, these sorts of people have either never been in your shoes or they have forgotten just how tough it is on many of us. They know what they know and tough stuff for the rest of us.

Communication is the one area where problems are a given. Study the system as outlined above, then practice it and create your own style of communication. In this way, people can see a sort of consistency in your method and they can begin to trust and understand you.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, and veteran of 46 years in the fire and emergency service. He is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners of Howell Township, NJ, Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. Carter also has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company in Howell Township for 38 years, serving as chief in 1991. Carter is a member of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain, for which he formerly served as vice president and secretary. He also is president of the New Jersey Association of Fire Districts, a life member of the National Fire Protection Association and former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Carter holds six degrees, with his terminal degree being a Ph.D. in business administration from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN, where he is an adjunct faculty member.