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The process of communication

Whether you are speaking, writing, listening, or reading, communication is more than a single act. It is a chain of events that can be broken into five phases:

  1. The sender has an idea.
  2. The idea becomes a message.
  3. The message is transmitted.
  4. The receiver gets the message.
  5. The receiver reacts and sends feedback to the sender.

Then the process is repeated until both parties have finished expressing themselves. Communication is effective only when each step is successful.

The sender has an idea.

The world constantly bombards us with information: sights, sounds, scents, and so on. Our minds filter this stream of sensation and organize it into a mental map that represents our perception of reality. In no case is the map in a person's mind the same as the world itself, and no two maps are exactly alike. As you view the world, your mind absorbs your experiences in a unique and personal way. For example, if you and a friend go out for a pizza, each of you will mentally grasp different things. One of you may notice the coolness of the air-conditioning as you enter the restaurant; the other may notice the aroma of pizza or the music from the sound system.

Because your perceptions are unique, the ideas that you want to express are different from other people’s. Even when two people have experienced the same event, their mental images of that event will not be identical. As a communicator, you filter out the details that seem unimportant and focus your attention on the most relevant, and general, a process known as abstracting.

You also make assumptions and draw conclusions, even though you cannot directly verify those assumptions. You assume, for example, that the music in the pizza parlor comes from a sound system, although you cannot see it as you enter the door. Often your inferences are correct, but sometimes they are not. Thus, in the process of conceiving an idea, you leave out many things and assume many others. This means that the idea in your mind is a simplification of the real world, so whenever you send a message, you inevitably distort reality.

The idea becomes a massage

In a process not completely understood, the idea in your mind is transformed into words; you decide such issues as the message's length, organization, tone, and style. You can express an idea in an almost infinite number of ways, but something makes you choose one approach over another. For example, you may decide to say, "The man was driving a car," rather than, "The old geezer was poking along in a beat-up green 1982 Ford." Your choice of words depends on your subject, your purpose, your audience, and your personal style or mood.

To some extent, your choice of words also depends on your cultural background. If you are a government bureaucrat, you might say, "Expedited adjustment assistance may be ineffective in helping the industry cope with current problems of severe inventory overhang, low prices, and financial losses." That sort of language is considered appropriate in some bureaucracies. On the other hand, if you're a straightforward manager, you might say, "Even a swift government bailout won't save us from going broke." When you choose your words, you signal that you are a member of a particular club and that you know the code.

The nature of your code – your language and vocabulary — imposes its own limits on your message. For example, Eskimos are unable to express the difference between a car and a motorcycle. They use the same word for both. But their language has at least 30 separate terms for snow. Similarly, the language of a lawyer differs from that of an accountant or a doctor, and the difference in their vocabularies affects their ability to recognize and express ideas.

The message is transmitted

The third step in the communication process is physical transmission of the message from sender to receiver. The channel may be nonverbal or verbal, written or spoken. Beyond that, you can convey a message by phone, computer, letter, memo, report, face-to-face exchange, or other medium. Wal-Mart's executives use both face-to-face contact and a satellite communication system in addition to written reports, memos, and newsletters.

The transmission channel and the medium you choose depend on the message you want to convey and on factors such us the location of your audience, the need for speed, and the formality of the situation. Let's say that you are trying to sell books. You might advertise in newspapers and magazines, put a sign in your store window, hire a door-to-door sales force, launch a direct-mail campaign, or solicit sales over the phone. Whichever approach you choose, the nature of the channel and the medium will influence the message. The wording of a newspaper ad should be, and usually is, different from the wording used in

a face-to-face sales call.

The transmission channel and medium also affect what the receiver gets from the message. Watching a movie on television is different from watching it in a theater. Even though the movie is exactly the same, a theater offers no outside distractions, no commercials, and no lights. Likewise, reading a handwritten report is different from reading a perfectly typed copy of the same material. The paper, the binding, and the graphics of a document all influence its reception.

The receiver gets the massage

For communication to occur, the receiver has to get the message. If you send a letter, the recipient has to read it before she or he can understand it. If you're giving a speech, the people in the audience have to be able to hear you, and they have to be paying attention.

But physical reception is only the first step. The receiver also has to absorb the message mentally. In other words, the message has to be understood and stored in the receiver's mind. If all goes well, the message is interpreted correctly, that is7 the receiver assigns to the words the same basic meaning as the sender intended and responds in the desired way.

The receiver reacts and sends feedback to the sender

Feedback is the final link in the communication chain. After getting the message, the receiver responds in some way and signals that response to the sender. The signal may take the form of a smile, a long pause, a spoken comment, a written message, or an action of some sort. Even a lack of response is, in a sense, a form of feedback.

Feedback is a key element in the communication process because it enables the sender to evaluate the effectiveness of the message. If your audience doesn't understand what you mean, you can tell by the response and refine the message. In business, many written messages are also designed to elicit a response of some sort. If that response indicates you have not made your point, you may want to repeat the communication cycle as often as necessary. However, you may find that you need to make some changes in the way you encode and transmit the message.


How misunderstandings arise

Although most acts of communication are at least partially successful, very few are perfect. Generally speaking, some meaning is lost as the message encounters various barriers along the pathway between sender and receiver. Such communication barriers can arise while the message is being developed, transmitted, received, or processed.

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