How can PMs ensure that their message is better delivered and understood?
The sender-receiver model has been around for a long time. I came across its concepts when I was preparing for the PMP certification proposed by PMI. I have observed over and over again the effectiveness of this model to improve communications regardless of the media used and the contents of the message. So, I’d like to take the time in this article to walk you through it and illustrate it with a few examples from real life to clarify some of its aspects.
The sender-Receiver Model
The communications starts with a message that the source, the sender, wants to convey to the recipient, the receiver, with some assurance that it has been well understood. As you’ll read later on, the second part of the sentence is crucial.
- at one end, the sender is the source of the message
- at the other end, the receiver is the target recipient for the message
- the sender encodes his/her message: this is the encoding step. Basically, he/she translates his/her ideas into a set of symbols that provide the structure in which ideas can be formulated into a coherent and comprehensive message. These symbols could be words (written or spoken), images, pictures…
- the message is the actual output of this encoding process applied to the content emitted by the source
- the media are the means selected to carry across the message. It could be a phone conversation, a face to face session, a memo, an email, a video, a set of slide…
- the receiver decodes the message: the decoding step. The receiver interprets the content based on the set of symbols used by the sender.
- the last step is the feedback one. The feedback is any reaction the receiver may have to the message he/she received.
This model exists since life was born and is not limited to humans. While simple, it carries a number of inherent weaknesses that can be as many barriers to efficient communications.
Potential barriers to efficient communications
Let’s take a closer look at these potential barriers.
Differences between sender and receiver
Language and accent can make the encoding/decoding process very difficult. Even though I consider that my level of English is OK, I had a hard time when working in Scotland for a few months. Not that the Scottish are difficult people, they’re in general lovely, caring and open. However, their accent and some of the terms they use are quite tough to understand for an unaccustomed ear like mine. It took a few repeats and laugh at my own accent for us to communicate effectively. Interestingly, my American colleagues on the team had somewhat similar difficulties.
Cultures, beliefs and values are different. Geographical, ethnic, political, religious, generational and company cultures may differ between the sender and the receiver. This can cause message distortion, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, generate issues where there are none…
Also, the level of education and professional background may not be the same on each side. This does increase the risks of miscommunicating unless the sender is particularly careful to adapt his/her message to the target recipient taking its level of knowledge into account.
Geographical distance between people who know each other well may not be such an issue in communications. But geographically spread projects and distributed teams not seeing each other very often (when at all) is to be taken into account.
Additionally, personality and attitude towards the following areas can vary: Power play, hidden agendas, being in position of authority or not, withholding or volunteering information.
And there are great chances that the work environments/ecosystems are different at both ends of the communication channel: surrounding situation, worries, local issues, personal context, office culture…
Another often underestimated difference is the level of interest one may have in the subject of the communication. What may seem critical to the sender may be mundane to the receiver and his/her span and focus of attention may be very limited towards the message of the sender.
Language is again an issue and also the choice of symbols. Symbols can easily be sent with one meaning and interpreted with another one: Images, pictures, comparisons, and analogies are not universally understandable.
For example, it’s quite usual in the United States of America to use sports terminology in business. This is not a bad thing to create bond. However, some of these expressions may be totally impossible to understand to foreigners. "We have to hit a real home run with this project!", "I just wanted to touch bases with you on…", "People, what we need here is a touchdown"… Most of these do not translate well outside USA where baseball and American Football are not very popular. Therefore, decoding these will be really difficult for a non native English speaker in France, Spain or Italy.
Similarly, references to Jewish or Christian religions may not be easy to relate with in India, China or Japan. Some pictures can hurt the feelings and reduce comprehension instead of facilitating it. The choice of colors in your slides can be important in some cultures, as the Bloomsburg University Virtual Training Help Center tells us…"In China, green hats mean a man’s wife is cheating on him; it is not a good color for packaging. In France studies have indicated green is not a good color choice for packaging either. In India green is the color of Islam. In Ireland green has religious significance (Catholic). In some tropical countries green is associated with danger."
As you can appreciate, the encoding process is not as simple as it may appear at first glance.
I’ve learned by trial and error a few rules that may sound basic to some of you:
- seek clarity in the choice of words. Prefer common language to complex or unusual terminology
- use short sentences
- be direct, i.e. to the point, no indirect messages
- avoid negative messages where possible. I would prefer to use "send me a report each month" versus "do not miss reporting each month" which suggest failure to do so as a possibility.
- ban double negative sentences from your message. For example, in the film Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke uses a double negative when he says: "If you don’t want to go nowhere…". You’ll be better served with "If you want to go somewhere…".
- keep it simple: one message per communication and one question at a time. During my first trip to Japan, I made this mistake. I asked: "should we meet again on Wednesday or Thursday?". The very polite answer I received was "Yes".
- avoid unexpressed assumptions. As a sender, if you make any assumption, make it clear to the other party, the receiver. There is a high probability that there assumptions are different from yours.
This could be the sole topic of an entire book. Obviously, all media are not equal nor are they suitable for your message. So, you need to be very selective with the type of media you decide to use depending on the message, the target audience, the context, the cultures…
For example, I think that it is inappropriate to send a communication aimed at addressing a critical problem via email. This type of communication is complex, subject to interpretations, it could hurt feelings and/or self esteem, and it is therefore better handled in face to face communication, video conference or phone meeting as last resource. The lecture of your email may cause lots of frustration and you may not even be conscious of it.
However, in an international context with uneven level of understanding of English, a phone call may not be most appropriate approach unless it is preceded and followed by written messages for clarity and confirmation.
Also, the environment shall be taken into account. Surrounding noise at both ends, quality of the phone line, need for confidentiality to express oneself, relative hierarchical positions of recipients in case you face multiple persons, can each vastly influence the success of you communication.
Probably the most critical element of all and often the most neglected one. The sender needs to get and appreciate feedback from the receiver to ensure that the message has been not only transmitted but also fully understood. Communicating in projects (and elsewhere) is never a one way street. Communication has to be bi-directional to be fully effective.
The communication’s process is not complete until you close the loop with the recipient to ensure that he/she has "got" it, i.e. received AND understood.
So, as a sender, you need to look for feedback. Not only expressed by words but also in the gesture, tone of voice (or tone of email) and in attitude. If it does not come naturally, it is your due as the sender to go get it. Feedback may not come spontaneously for many reasons. The receiver is ashamed of asking you to repeat the message, or to look stupid, or doesn’t want to confront you, or to hurt your feelings, or, or, or… On your side, you may feel quite good about receiving no feedback: "who doesn’t disagree agrees"; it’s not challenging you; it’s not showing that you did not express yourself clearly enough to be understood. Please fight this attitude.
Show empathy to the receiver’s needs and always encourage a full duplex communication.
Favoring effective communications
A few things to do:
- be clear on the intended results of the communications
- one simple and single message at a time
- plan your message taking into account the targeted receiver to maximize his/her chances to fully understand the first time
- select the most appropriate media
- validate and double/triple check that the message has been received and 100% understood
As a teacher once told me about communications: "It is 10% about what you say and 90% how you say it".
So, careful planning of the symbols, media, non verbal communications and attitude is vital to successful communications.