Communication: An Introduction
Communication: An Introduction
Definition, Nature and Scope of Communication
Talking is easy but communication is difficult. Effective communicators are successful in every walk of life whereas bad communicators are not. Many people talk but cannot connect to others. Some people do not talk but they are able to connect easily. So, let’s try to understand what it is and what role it can play in our lives.
The word communication is derived from the Latin word communicare meaning ‘ impart, to participate, to share’. Hence it the process of sharing or putting across a message, either an idea, a feeling or an attitude, from one/more individual/groups to one/more individual(s)/group(s). In other words it is the activity of transferring or transmitting information/idea/feeling/attitude from one source to another and facilitating feedback to ensure the successful transmission of the message. Since the beginning of civilization, communication has played a pivotal role in bonding people, strengthening relationships and sustaining the society. Wikipedia defines it as “sign-mediated interactions between at least two agents which share a repertoire of signs and semiotic rules.” In order for communication to be successful, the sender and receiver must have common signs, words or signals so the sent message can be understood. It is the process which helps us express our thoughts, feelings and emotions before the people we care, the people we work for or the people we live with.
Key Elements of Communication
Social Contact Participants have to be in touch with each other.
Common Medium Participants must share a common language or means of communication
Transmission The message has to be imparted clearly
Understanding The message has to be received, properly understood and interpreted
Communication is not limited to human beings only. It can occur in the animal world as well as the plant world. But when we say communication, we usually mean the transmission of a message between human participants. This communication amongst the human participants can be effected through different formats like signs, symbols, graphs, charts, posters, pieces of art and sculpture but language is the most widely used means of communication. This act of human communication can be general or professional. General communication is mostly social in nature and can occur in any situation in our day to day life. Our communication with our fellow people in the social environment is general communication whereas the communication that occurs in our office environment or business environment is professional communication. Human beings, being more social than economic beings, need to communicate more in the social environment than in the business environment. Many of the principles of communication which hold true for general communication are also found to be true for professional communication. The only difference that one may come across is that the issues which are often ignored in general communication are highlighted in professional communication. Hence the distinction between general communication and professional communication gets blurred. It is only a matter of degree, not kind.
Process of Communication
In the act of communication, both the sender and the receiver play equally important roles. While sending a message the sender mentally converts the ideas into the words of a language, either in the written form or spoken form. This process is known as encoding and involves the act of putting the words together to form sentences and finally expressing them in the form of short or long messages. The units of information are selected from a raw set of information, organized for transmission and then transmitted through the appropriate format. The message that we send across can be a single word or a group of words, sentences or passages, or large discourses. The message can have different formats: letters, snail-mail, e-mail, word of the mouth, recordings on electronic gadgets and voice mail. Though we do not attach much importance to the form, communication is more effective when it is presented through attractive formats. That’s the reason why poetry is more attractive and popular than prose. Often we use signals/symbols to convey a message non-verbally. Each signal/symbol has a fixed form and conveys a simple meaning.
Whatever message sender sends to the receiver, it has to focus on a topic (some idea, event, action, object, person, quality or theory). This topic may involve or exclude people, depending upon what is being talked about. In scientific writing, for example, neither the sender nor the receiver is more important: both are equally important. While encoding a message the sender uses a code or a set of symbols, guided by a set of rules, carrying the intended meaning which after decoding gets converted into a meaningful message. In other words we can say that the encoding of a message involves the selection or right codes and transmission of the message intended through the appropriate media. The traffic lights, for example, are associated with various meanings which the commuters are able to understand easily. In human communication, language is mostly used as the code. However, we have non-linguistic or non-verbal ways of communicating our thoughts, emotions and feelings.
In spoken communication the encoded message is sent to the receiver through the sound waves which travel through the air and reach used as the code the ears of the receiver. In written communication, words are converted into visible marks made on paper or other surfaces, read by the receiver and then decoded. This encoding-decoding of a message or the ability to handle the sound meaning complex is unique to human beings. As Das rightly writes, “What a remarkable piece is the human being who can highly manipulate a highly complex set of psycho-motor functions by means of which meaning is encoded as sound and sound is decoded as meaning (Das, 2009, p.4). While decoding the message, the receiver converts the sounds or graphic images into meanings, originally intended by the sender. The decoding of a message involves the reception, identification and interpretation of a message, Like encoding, decoding also happens at two levels: at the level of listening or at the level of reading. Whatever we listen or read, should meet what we expect. If the intention/purpose of the sender does not match with the expectations of the receiver, then the communication is bound to fail. In whatever way the sender may pack the information/message/content, it cannot be transmitted to the receiver if s/he is not mentally prepared to receive it. In certain contexts, the receiver provides feedback to the sender on the quality of the message and hence there is a reversal of roles. Now the sender becomes the receiver and the receiver becomes the sender. Proper communication is said to have occurred only when there is scope for both the sender and the receiver to ask questions to each other and clarify doubts. If the receiver continues with a doubt and is not able to comprehend the full message, then communication remains incomplete.
Channel or the medium in the carrier of meaning from the sender to the receiver. In an act of speaking, for example, channel is auditory as the information is carried from the sender to the receiver through sound waves. This act of speaking, again, can be face-to-face, telephonic or microphonic. Hence the channels are different and also different are the skills required to transact the act of communication successfully. On the other hand, in written communication, the channel is visual as the receiver uses his ophthalmic sense organ(eyes) to see them, read them and decode them. The surface where the message appears may be a sheet of paper, the electronic screen of a computer monitor or the screen of a mobile where an SMS is displayed. The medium/agent of communication has undergone rapid changes over the years. Horses, pigeons and hawks have been replaced by electronic gadgets like radios, telephones, televisions, satellites, mobile phones and now interactive facilities on the internet. Now in 2010, when the whole world is expanding rapidly along the technological front, communication is not at all perceived as a challenge. With the click of a mouse, any person anywhere can send a message to anyone else anywhere in world instantly and inexpensively. Moreover, the use of satellite phones has succeeded in making virtually every location on the planet accessible.
The channel for the transmission of the information/content/message has to be clear and free from all interruptions. In an act of speaking, where communication is the most important function, if the speaker has a throat problem or there is some problem with the microphone, then the message will not be heard properly. Similarly, external interruptions in terms of the noise coming from outside or people barging in without any schedule act as barriers and interrupt the decoding process.
Basic Principles of Communication
• Communication is an important weapon for success in every sphere of life
Communication is the breathe of life. Life without communication is stagnant and means death in life. Unless we remain connected to people, we won’t understand our importance as social beings. But many of us do not understand this and take this for granted. But everything in life will come to a standstill if there is no communication among the participants in any community. With the growth of communities beyond national borders, now the importance of community is felt more vigorously than it was felt earlier. Each and every individual, irrespective of his/her location and vocation, should be aware of the potential of communication and create conductive environment for effective communication in the place where they are located to be successful in their lives.
• Communication is a complex process
Effective communication takes place when there is a combination of insights (knowledge), skills and values. The insights that go into effective communication can be put as:
(a) Psychological Insights: While engaging in an act of communication, one should try to understand the nature and behaviour of the participants. Unless the participants are in the right state of mind and have the propensity to communicate, they cannot be forced to communicate. Different people behave differently in different situations and positive interactions can bring about changes in their behaviour pattern.
(b) Sociological Insights: It is not enough if we understand the nature and behaviour of the participants; we must also understand the patterns of social organization. Our understanding of how societies are constituted and how social circumstances change our behaviour affects the way we communicate.
(c) Linguistic Insights: Linguistic insights or our understanding of language helps us to make appropriate choices in response to varying social circumstances and changing behavioural patterns among the participants. The way we make a request at home will be different from the way we make the same request in an office; our pattern of communication will also differ when we are talking to a normal human being and an abnormal one.
(d) Cultural Insights: A sympathetic understanding of the prevailing culture in a society helps us communicate effectively with appropriate responses. Unless we are aware of the cultural nuances existing in a society, we won’t be able to generate socially appropriate responses.
All these insights and corresponding skills become ineffective if we do not have right attitudes and values. A positive attitude to all social relationships and respect for participants boosts effective communication and proves that communication is essential for the sustenance of all societies, irrespective of the ends and purposes it serves. As social beings, all human beings possess an inherent desire to remain connected to some members inside their communities, despite the versatility in their values and vocations.
•Communication is mainly driven by an awareness of “Purpose” and “Audience”
We are aware that no communication is possible unless the participants have some purpose. We engage ourselves in the act of communication, both spoken and written, in order to satisfy our physical, emotional and psychological needs. Though the purpose of communication is decided by the sender mainly, it is often controlled by the receiver. Unless the receiver has the desire to receive a message, communication cannot be complete and effective.
If an act of communication is not driven by a purpose, it fails to reach the audience. The quality of communication improves when the purpose is made explicit but this too is culturally conditioned. Some cultures encourage openness and transparency whereas some other cultures prefer to keep their things away from the purview of the public. Usually we have the following purposes while communicating: (a) interact (b) inform (c) instruct (d) influence (e) motivate (f) entertain (g) record (h) find out (i) regulate
Apart from these, the speaker also has some other purposes while engaging in an act of communication: these purposes involve reinforcement of an existing attitude, reduction of dissonance, increasing the importance of an issue, calling attention to a problem, testing an idea, refuting an assertion, warding off a threat, establishing or maintaining status, etc. The communicative behaviour of a participant may be both offensive and/or defensive and depends wholly upon the purpose the person has in mind.
Not only the purpose but also the attitude of the speaker as well as his understanding of the subject control the act of communication to a great extent. The speakers’ careful use of his/her voice and body also play an important role in modulating the message before it reaches the receiver. If someone says, “I am innocent”, it may simply mean that the person is giving some information but if the same person says it aggressively, his statement is interpreted as an assertion, not a simple piece of information. If a speaker does not have a good command over the subject s/he deals with, s/he falters while connecting the ideas and causes confusion to the audience. Moreover, the voice becomes weak, unsteady, body becomes stiff, gaze is directed to the windows or ceiling and give an opportunity to the audience to form a bad opinion about his/her abilities. On the contrary our overconfidence in a subject may also lead to breach of communication as we tend to become overbearing, disregard the facts and figures and opinions of others, so as to create a negative impression about our personality and performance. The crux of the matter is that we should be careful in choosing a topic before we decide to speak on it, respect the audience and presume them to be mightier than us so that we do not tend to overestimate ourselves and become successful in communicating our ideas to the audience.
Whatever is the purpose, communication is ineffective and incomplete unless the speaker has a clear idea about the audience for which the message has been designed. When the message is planned, the speaker has the aim of securing the attention, assistance, sympathy, help, guidance or support of the receiver or listener. In order to be successful in targeting the receiver, the sender has to design and deliver the message in such a manner that it satisfies the needs of the receiver. If an audience does not want to listen to a speaker, it won’t pay heed to the speaker however well s/he may deliver the message.
A good speaker should be able to see things from the receiver’s point of view and understand the receiver’s interests, tastes, preferences and needs. Besides, the speaker also needs to take into account the age, level of education, familiarity with the subject or topic, anticipated responses from the receivers. This is applicable to both written and spoken communication. In spoken communication, the audience may or may not be physically present but in written communication the audience is either imagined or hypothetical, but it is very much there. It is not enough if we know the audience, we should also have respect for them and have the right attitude towards them in order to make communication effective. At the organizational level, this is done through the conduct of formal or informal audience research. After analysis of the audience needs, advertisements, newspapers, journals, books and literature for different products are deigned, produced and released for the public.
•Communication should have long-term as well as short-term goals
Though most of the acts of communication pertain to the immediate needs of the senders and receives of messages, the communication goals can be short-term as well as long term. Both in private and public spheres, we need to pay attention to both the goals. In personal life, for example, we learn the life skills from our parents, friends and relatives through our day to day acts of communication. The relationship between a husband and wife can be taken as an example in this regard. The small and successful acts of communication occurring between both the partners add to the strength of their marital life and makes life easy going. Otherwise, due to breach of communication in the initial stages, marriages dwindle into divorces or continue over a bed of thorns, making the hell of life. In the business sector, the long term and short term communication goals help the participants understand the importance of building lasting relationships with the customers or companies. Small and large companies invest their human and material resources in creating and building up communication networks to create a brand image in the market as the most honest and dependable agency/organization. Small misunderstandings between a company and its staff or clientele have the potential to spoil their future prospects.
•Communication should be positive
Whatever is the purpose of communication, it should always be positive. To communicate means to connect, to bridge the gaps between people in a community, society or organization. The main aim of every act of communication should be positive, even if it involves the transmission of negative, painful and unpleasant messages. The painful and unpleasant messages can also be presented in innovative ways to reduce their negative impact upon the receiver. For instance, while terminating an employee, the top management may simply issue the termination order but alternatively they can write a letter of recognition in appreciation of the services rendered by the person concerned and inform in a round about manner that his/her termination has become a necessity in view of the changing policy of the management. A promise for help in future may also be embedded into a letter of this kind to boost the moral of the person being terminated.
•Communication should be a collaborative activity between the sender and the receiver
Communication is a completely dialogic process. One cannot communicate anything to himself/herself. Even in a monologue, there is an assumed audience. The initiator of the message or the sender is not the only person responsible for the success or failure of an act of communication. Once the message is transmitted, either in the written form or the spoken form, the recipient/receiver of the message should be mentally ready to receive the message, decode it as per his/her needs and interpret it. Even interpretation is not enough, the receiver should be able to send the feedback to the sender in order to complete the process of communication. Hence close cooperation between the sender and the receiver is required for the success of any act of communication. It is the responsibility of both the sender and receiver to ensure the smooth transmission of the message from the source to the destination.
•Participants in a an act of communication should be aware of the barriers to communication and be prepared to take positive action to overcome them
All participants in an act of communication must understand that there might be barriers which may hinder communication or lead to the complete breakdown of communication. Both the sender and receiver, being aware of these barriers, should try to remove these barriers and successfully complete the act of communication. Those who are able to connect to others are people who have an open mind to receive the opinions of others and have the patience to listen to others. If we are not ready to admit that there can be two views on an issue that we have initiated, we will end up in fighting with the disagreeing person and cause the breach in communication. Besides, other barriers like the linguistic and cultural barriers can also be disastrous to the success of communication. Foreigners coming to India as a tourists shall have problems in interacting with the people in rural India. People in rural India will be inaccessible to them for two reasons: both their culture and language would be altogether different. Not knowing a pinch of English or without having a glimpse of western culture they may shy away from the tourists and put them into trouble. The same thing is likely to happen to an Indian visiting a foreign country where a language other than English is spoken and the culture is entirely different. Hence in contexts like these the participants should try to understand the barriers, take measures to remove the barriers in any way they like and make the act of communication successful.
•Communication should be strategised and not left to chance
Communication, particularly formal communication, should be strategized, or planned in advance in order to save it from being disjointed and unsuccessful. Whatever is the purpose of communication, it should be properly planned so as to ensure its success. When we are responding to a letter, for example, we should keep the original letter in front to relate to every point in the letter and write the response accordingly. Likewise, while going for a debate we should prepare a blue print of the points to be covered and note down the important ideas that can be put under each of the points. Going to a meeting to give a speech extempore is just like cooking a dish without knowing the recipe. Apart from this, we must predict the problems or queries related to the topic under discussion and remain mentally prepared to face them. The queries that we may encounter depend upon the context where we are involved, our own background, the kind of people we interact with, their background and finally the environment where such interactions are likely to occur. An effective communicator should be able to read the minds of the audience and alter his moves to adjust with the changes from time to time.