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The functions of nonverbal communication





The functions of nonverbal communication

Although nonverbal communication can stand alone, it frequently works with speech. Our words carry part of the message, and nonverbal signals carry the rest. Together, the two modes of expression make a powerful team, augmenting, reinforcing, and clarifying each other.

Experts in nonverbal communication suggest that it has six specific functions:

To provide information, either consciously or unconsciously

To regulate the flow of conversation

To express emotion

To qualify, complement, contradict, or expand verbal messages

To control or influence others

To facilitate specific tasks, such as teaching, a person to swing a golf club

Nonverbal communication plays a role in business too. For one thing, it helps establish credibility and leadership potential. If you can leam to manage the impression you create with your body language, facial characteristics, voice, and appearance, you can do a great deal to communicate that you are

competent, trustworthy, and dynamic. For example, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton has developed a homespun style that puts people at ease, thereby helping them to be more receptive, perhaps even more open.

Furthermore, if you can learn to read other people's nonverbal messages, you will be able to interpret their underlying attitudes and intentions more accurately. When dealing with co-workers, customers, and clients, watch carefully for small signs that reveal how the conversation is going. If you aren't having the effect you want, check your words; then, if your words are all right, try to be aware of the nonverbal meanings you are transmitting. At the same time, stay tuned to the nonverbal signals that the other person is sending.

Verbal communication

Although you can express many things nonverbally, there are limits to what you can communicate without the help of language. If you want to discuss pastevents, ideas, or abstractions, you need words—symbols that stand for

thoughts—arranged in meaningful patterns. In the English language, we have a growing pool of words—currently about 750,000, although most of us recognize only about 20,000 of them.6 To create a thought with these words, we arrange them according to the rules of grammar, putting the various parts of

speech in the proper sequence.

We then transmit the message in spoken or written form, hoping that someone will hear or read what we have to say. Figure 1.1 shows how much time business people devote to the various types of verbal communication.

They use speaking and writing to send messages; they use listening and reading to receive them.

Spiking and writing

When it comes to sending business messages, speaking is more common than writing. Giving instructions, conducting interviews, working in small groups, attending meetings, and making speeches are all important activities, and you'll learn more about them in Chapters 15 and 16. Even though writing may be less common, it is important too. When you want to send a complex message of lasting significance, you will probably want to put it in writing. Thus Chapters 6 through 12 deal with writing letters, memos, and reports.



Listening and reading

Although this book focuses on writing and speaking, it's important to remember that effective communication is a two-way street. People in business spend more time obtaining information than transmitting it, so to do their jobs effectively, they need good listening and reading skills. Unfortunately, most of us are not very good listeners. Immediately after hearing a ten-minute speech, we typically remember only half of what was said. A few days later, we've forgotten three-quarters of the message. To some extent, our listening problems stem from our education, or lack of it. We spend years learning to express our ideas, but few of us ever take a course in listening.

Similarly, our reading skills often leave a good deal to be desired. Recent studies indicate that approximately 38 percent of the adults in the United States have trouble reading the help-wanted ads in the newspaper, 14 percent cannot fill out a check properly, 26 percent can't figure out the deductions listed on their paychecks, and 20 percent are functionally illiterate, Even those who do read may not know how to read effectively. They have trouble extracting the important points from a document, so they cannot make the most of the information presented.

As a college student, you are probably better at listening and reading than are many other people, partly because you get so much practice. On the basis of your own experience as a student you no doubt realize that your listening and reading efficiency varies tremendously, depending on how you approach the task. Obtaining and remembering information takes a special effort.

Although listening and reading obviously differ, both require a similar approach. The first step is to register the information, which means that you must tune, out distractions and focus your attention. You must then interpret arid evaluate the information, respond in some fashion, and file away the data for future reference.

The most important part of this process is interpretation and evaluation, which is no easy matter. While absorbing the material, you must decide what is important and what isn't. One approach is to look for the main ideas and the most important supporting details, rather than trying to remember everything

you read or hear. If you can discern the structure of the material, you can also understand the relationships' among the ideas.

If you're listening as opposed to reading, you have the advantage of being able to ask questions and interact with the speaker. Instead of just gathering information, you can cooperate in solving problems. This interactive process requires additional listening skills, which are discussed in Chapter 17.

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.

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.

Emotional conflicts

Another potential problem in developing the message arises when the sender has conflicting emotions about the subject or the audience. Let's say that you've been asked to prepare a report recommending ways to improve the organization of your department. After analyzing the situation, you have come to believe that the best approach is to combine two positions. Unfortunately, this solution means eliminating the job of one of your close associates, and when the time comes to write your report, you find yourself apologizing for your recommendation. Even though you know your position is justified, you find you cannot make a convincing case.

Different backgrounds

When the receiver's life experience differs substantially from the sender's, communication becomes more difficult. For example, as Wal-Mart expands into larger urban areas, managers may find that local employees have backgrounds and communication expectations that differ from those of rural employees. Age, education, gender, social status, economic position, cultural background, temperament health, beauty, popularity, religion, political belief, and even a passing mood can all separate one person from another and make understanding difficult. Figure 1.2 shows how shared experience contributes to shared meaning and understanding; the portion of each diagram where the circles overlap represents the level of understanding between sender and receiver.

Decoding a message to absorb its ideas is a complex process. Our ability to absorb information depends on our past experiences, and over time, each of us builds up a particular view of the world. Then when we learn something new, we try to fit it into our existing pattern. But if the new information doesn't quite fit, we are inclined to distort it rather than rearrange the pattern, or we pay more attention to some ideas than to others. Therefore, when we communicate with people who share similar experiences and expectations, much of what we say automatically fits into their mental framework. But when we encounter people with different backgrounds, what we say may be interpreted from an entirely different viewpoint. Communicating with someone from another country is probably the most extreme example of how background may impede communication, and Chapter 17 details the problems and opportunities of intercultural communication.

Complexity of the message

In business messages, you must communicate both as an individual and as a representative of an organization. Thus you must adjust your own ideas and style so that they are acceptable to your employer. In fact, you may be asked occasionally to write or say something that you disagree with personally. Let's suppose that you work in the personnel department as a recruiter for your firm. You have interviewed someone who you believe would make an excellent employee, but others in the firm have rejected this person's application. Now you are in the position of having to write a letter telling the candidate, in effect, "Sorry, we don't want you." That's a tough assignment.

Even when you agree with the message, you may have emotional reservations about expressing it. You may know that you are doing the right thing, that you have no choice but to fire this or that person or to cancel this or that program, but you would also rather avoid causing hardship or disappointment. Business is full of difficult decisions like these, decisions that affect people's lives.

Even in purely unemotional situations, you may be dealing with subject matter that is difficult to express. Imagine trying to write an interesting insurance policy or a set of instructions on how to operate a scraped-surface heat exchanger. These topics are dry, and making them clear and interesting is a real challenge.

On top of everything else, you may not know as much as you need to know about the purpose of or the audience for your message. Furthermore, you may be asked to prepare it under difficult conditions. You may be under time pressure, with two days to do a job that should take ten. You may be interrupted in the middle of your work. You may have to collaborate with other people and incorporate their ideas, regardless of whether they fit or not. You may be told to produce a document that looks professional but, at the same time, not to waste a lot of time and money. Moreover, you may have to revise, your message time and again to please everybody in the chain of command.

Stick to the point

You can also help your audience by eliminating any information that doesn't directly contribute to your purpose. Many business messages contain too much material; in hopes of being thorough, the sender tries to explain everything there is to know about a subject. But most receivers don't need everything. All they need are a few pertinent facts, enough information to answer their questions or facilitate their decisions.

By keeping your messages as lean as possible, you make them easier to absorb. With few exceptions, one page is better than two, especially in a business environment where the receiver is bombarded by competing claims for attention. By eliminating unnecessary ideas, you focus the over person’s thoughts on those few point that really matter.

You have to be careful, however, to develop each main idea adequately. You're better off covering three points thoroughly than eight points superficially. Don't rush the audience through a laundry list of vague generalities in the mistaken belief that you are being brief. If an idea is worth including, it's worth explaining.

MINIMIZE NOISE

Even the most carefully constructed message will fail to achieve results if it does not reach the receiver. To the extent possible, you should try to eliminate potential sources of interference that stand between you and your audience. The key to getting through to the receiver often lies in the choice of communication channels and media. You should choose the method that will most likely attract the receiver's attention and enable him or her to concentrate on the message.

If a written document seems the best choice, try to make it physically appealing and easy to comprehend. Use an attractive, convenient format, and pay attention to such details as the choice of paper and quality of type. If possible, deliver the document when you know the reader will have time to study it.

If the message calls for an oral delivery channel, try to eliminate environmental competition. The location should be comfortable and quiet, with adequate lighting, good acoustics, and few visual distractions. In addition, you should think about how your own appearance will affect the audience. An outfit that screams for attention creates as much noise as a squeaky air-conditioning system. Another way to reduce interference, particularly in oral communication, is to deliver your message directly to the intended audience. The more people who filter your message, the greater the potential for distortion.

FACILITATE FEEDBACK

In addition to minimizing noise, you frequently need to give, the receiver a chance to provide feedback. But one of the things making business communication difficult is the complexity of the feedback loop. If you're talking face-to-face with one other person, feedback is immediate and clear. But if you're writing a letter, memo, or report that will be read by several people, feedback will be delayed and mixed. Some of the readers will be enthusiastic or respond promptly; others will be critical or reluctant to respond. As a consequence, revising your message to take account of their feedback will be difficult.

When you plan a message, think about the amount of feedback that you want to encourage. Although generally useful, feedback reduces your control over the communication situation. You need to know whether your message is being understood and accepted, but you may not want to respond to comments until you have completed your argument. If you are communicating with a group, you may not have the time to react to every impression or question.

For this reason, think about how you want to obtain feedback, and choose a form of communication "that suits your needs. Some channels and media are more compatible with feedback than others. For example, if you want to adjust your message quickly, you must talk to the receiver face-to-face or by phone. If feedback is less important to you, you can use a written document or give a prepared speech.

Feedback is not always easy to get, even when you have chosen a transmission method that encourages it. In some cases, you may have to draw out the other person by asking questions. If you want to know specific things, ask specific questions. But also encourage the other person to express general reactions; you can often learn something very interesting that way.

Remember too that in order to get feedback, you have to listen. Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton spends more time listening than giving orders. But listening is more difficult than you might think. We tend to let our minds wander, and miss important points, or we jump in too quickly with comments of our own so that the other person doesn't have a chance to complete a thought. We make the mistake of prejudging other people because we don't like the way they look or because they represent an opposing group. Often we lack patience, objectivity, and understanding. We send signals, subconsciously perhaps, that we don't value the other person's comments.

Regardless of whether the response to your message is written or oral, you have to encourage people to be open if you want them to tell you what they really think and feel. You can't say "please tell me what you think" and then get mad at the first critical comment. So try not to react defensively. Your goal is to find out whether the people in your audience have understood and accepted your message. If you find that they haven't, don't lose your temper. After all, the fault is at least partially yours. Instead of saying the same thing all over again, only louder this time, try to find the source of the misunderstanding. Then revise your message. If you keep .trying, you'll achieve success sooner or later. You may not win the audience to your point of view, but at least you'll make your meaning clear, and you'll part with a feeling of mutual respect.

SUMMARY

Effective communicators use both nonverbal and verbal signals to get their messages across. Moreover, they pay as much attention to receiving information as they do to transmitting it.

Communication is a five-step process: The sender has an idea, the idea becomes a message, the message is transmitted, the receiver gets the message, and the receiver reacts and sends feedback. Misunderstandings arise when any part of this process breaks down.

Business communication is especially prone to misunderstandings because the message is complex, conditions are difficult, and psychological or social differences often separate the sender and receiver. To overcome communication barriers, think about your audience, let them know what to expect, use vivid language, stick to the point, connect new ideas to familiar ones, emphasize and review key points, minimize noise, and provide opportunities for feedback.

APPLY YOUR KNOWLEDGE

1. How should Jon Sutton handle these problems:

(a) There are areas in certain courier routes where communications via the DADS computer unit are cut off.

(b) A new courier picks up the package at one office in a building on his route, but he unknowingly misses the pickup at two other offices in the same building,

(c) A seasoned courier leaves a small package in the back of his van when he returns to the station, clocks out, and goes home.

Which communication techniques are most appropriate to use in each situation?

2. In the past three months you've become disappointed in the pace and outcome of your monthly open-forum meetings. No one speaks up, and no suggestions are made; people just eye each other nervously, seeming anxious to get it over with and get back to work. What would you do to encourage greater participation? What specific communication techniques would you use? Include at least two strategies each of oral, written, and nonverbal communication.

The functions of nonverbal communication

Although nonverbal communication can stand alone, it frequently works with speech. Our words carry part of the message, and nonverbal signals carry the rest. Together, the two modes of expression make a powerful team, augmenting, reinforcing, and clarifying each other.

Experts in nonverbal communication suggest that it has six specific functions:

To provide information, either consciously or unconsciously

To regulate the flow of conversation

To express emotion

To qualify, complement, contradict, or expand verbal messages

To control or influence others

To facilitate specific tasks, such as teaching, a person to swing a golf club

Nonverbal communication plays a role in business too. For one thing, it helps establish credibility and leadership potential. If you can leam to manage the impression you create with your body language, facial characteristics, voice, and appearance, you can do a great deal to communicate that you are

competent, trustworthy, and dynamic. For example, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton has developed a homespun style that puts people at ease, thereby helping them to be more receptive, perhaps even more open.

Furthermore, if you can learn to read other people's nonverbal messages, you will be able to interpret their underlying attitudes and intentions more accurately. When dealing with co-workers, customers, and clients, watch carefully for small signs that reveal how the conversation is going. If you aren't having the effect you want, check your words; then, if your words are all right, try to be aware of the nonverbal meanings you are transmitting. At the same time, stay tuned to the nonverbal signals that the other person is sending.

Verbal communication

Although you can express many things nonverbally, there are limits to what you can communicate without the help of language. If you want to discuss pastevents, ideas, or abstractions, you need words—symbols that stand for

thoughts—arranged in meaningful patterns. In the English language, we have a growing pool of words—currently about 750,000, although most of us recognize only about 20,000 of them.6 To create a thought with these words, we arrange them according to the rules of grammar, putting the various parts of

speech in the proper sequence.

We then transmit the message in spoken or written form, hoping that someone will hear or read what we have to say. Figure 1.1 shows how much time business people devote to the various types of verbal communication.

They use speaking and writing to send messages; they use listening and reading to receive them.

Spiking and writing

When it comes to sending business messages, speaking is more common than writing. Giving instructions, conducting interviews, working in small groups, attending meetings, and making speeches are all important activities, and you'll learn more about them in Chapters 15 and 16. Even though writing may be less common, it is important too. When you want to send a complex message of lasting significance, you will probably want to put it in writing. Thus Chapters 6 through 12 deal with writing letters, memos, and reports.

Listening and reading

Although this book focuses on writing and speaking, it's important to remember that effective communication is a two-way street. People in business spend more time obtaining information than transmitting it, so to do their jobs effectively, they need good listening and reading skills. Unfortunately, most of us are not very good listeners. Immediately after hearing a ten-minute speech, we typically remember only half of what was said. A few days later, we've forgotten three-quarters of the message. To some extent, our listening problems stem from our education, or lack of it. We spend years learning to express our ideas, but few of us ever take a course in listening.

Similarly, our reading skills often leave a good deal to be desired. Recent studies indicate that approximately 38 percent of the adults in the United States have trouble reading the help-wanted ads in the newspaper, 14 percent cannot fill out a check properly, 26 percent can't figure out the deductions listed on their paychecks, and 20 percent are functionally illiterate, Even those who do read may not know how to read effectively. They have trouble extracting the important points from a document, so they cannot make the most of the information presented.

As a college student, you are probably better at listening and reading than are many other people, partly because you get so much practice. On the basis of your own experience as a student you no doubt realize that your listening and reading efficiency varies tremendously, depending on how you approach the task. Obtaining and remembering information takes a special effort.

Although listening and reading obviously differ, both require a similar approach. The first step is to register the information, which means that you must tune, out distractions and focus your attention. You must then interpret arid evaluate the information, respond in some fashion, and file away the data for future reference.

The most important part of this process is interpretation and evaluation, which is no easy matter. While absorbing the material, you must decide what is important and what isn't. One approach is to look for the main ideas and the most important supporting details, rather than trying to remember everything

you read or hear. If you can discern the structure of the material, you can also understand the relationships' among the ideas.

If you're listening as opposed to reading, you have the advantage of being able to ask questions and interact with the speaker. Instead of just gathering information, you can cooperate in solving problems. This interactive process requires additional listening skills, which are discussed in Chapter 17.









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