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Communication Theory

With the increasing influence of digital technologies, we are becoming slaves to our devices – at work and at home. And most of us are unaware of how our behaviors are changing as a result of the proliferation of digital platforms and our near-constant use of them. What’s more, our communication skills and styles are evolving in lockstep with digital systems and processes, often out of necessity, conformance and avoidance of physical interaction. We often don’t realize how the assimilation, accommodations and desire in how we communicate and interact with others is fundamentally changing. Nor do we recognize how our minds are being reprogrammed to maintain connectivity with each other.

Most of us march on to the digital beat and are experiencing psychological, subconscious, and emotional side effects. Next gens speak in shorthand and fear missing out of perceived important interactions on their devices. Employees are experiencing screen fatigue and are overwhelmed by email overload, particularly since our physical interactions are less than what they once were.

We’re going to take a pause and look at communication, how it is changing and how to best communicate in a digital age while also bringing forth some food for thought on how our individual brains are adapting to tech and in many ways being reprogrammed.

Communication in a Digital Age

Communication theory has been around since 1980 when technology started coming to the forefront. The theory provides a way of talking about and analyzing key events, processes, and commitments that together form communication. Communication theory can be seen as a way to map the world in the context of senders and receivers and make it navigable.

What does all this really mean? In the 80s, technology was in its infancy and thought leaders recognized the potential efficiencies and capabilities that the technology would offer but did not yet understand the impact it would have on human behaviors, particularly in how we communicate with each other. Basically, communication theory states that all living beings on the planet communicate, although the ways of communication are very different. Communicating is the essence of life, and it permits humans to express themselves.

Clear, articulate, and accessible communication is essential for any organization whether that be in communicating to its workforce or engaging with its customers. Leaders and teams get in trouble when there are communications breakdowns, and they happen more often than you would think. A deep dive into communication theory is useful as a reminder that the more aware we are of how we communicate, the better the chance that our communication is effective and understood.

The Universal Law of Communication Theory, an extension of the basic theory of communication, says that all living beings, whether they are plants, animals, or human beings, communicate through sound, visible changes, movements, and gestures. Movement as communication is more than the words we use. Sound and tone convey meaning along with movement. Gestures are nuances that then enhance our communication. The theory is relevant and has context — especially today. In a Zoom/Teams working environment, these communication skills have been largely lost in an on-screen virtual communication and interaction format.

The use of tone and body movements, including facial expressions and eye movement, is firmly rooted in human evolution and our behavior. Many of the cues a receiver receives from a communicator are interpreted both on the conscious and subconscious level — firstly rooted in the receiver’s life experience, values and learned knowledge from similar interactions. The same physical behaviors are used by the communicator to choose his or her words, frame and deliver intent via what information to include and what information to omit.

We’ve all found workarounds in digital communications, including social media, texting, email, messaging apps and other platforms to replace our gestures, facial expressions, and body movements with emojis and acronyms. The workarounds offer assistance in conveying meaning and intent in how we now predominantly communicate, but these shortcuts are subject to the same challenges in how they may be chosen to beget the communicator’s intent and how they are received by the receiver. There is always a huge potential for misunderstanding and misinterpreting what was communicated. It has happened to all of us even when we have the best of intentions.

There are several views on what communication is particularly for human-to-human interaction. Depending on how we perceive the world and those around us, individuals may manifest different beliefs of the who, what, when, where why we communicate and how it should be done.

Different Models of Communication

  • Basic Communication
    Basic communication is the simple process of transferring information from sender to receiver where the receiver decodes the information and acts accordingly. This is how thoughts, feelings and emotions are shared and is typically viewed as a one-way transfer. Happiness, fear, sadness, and anger are basic communications.
  • Mechanistic Communication
    This communication is the utilitarian transmission of information from the first party (sender) to the second party (receiver), without recognition of the thoughts and emotions or emphasis, via tone and body movement. Instructions and commands are mechanistic.
  • Psychological Communication
    This flow of information from the sender to receiver is complex and includes the reactions and feelings of the receiver after decoding the information. Psychological communication acknowledges that there is a deeper interaction between a sender and a receiver. The interaction is a two-way transfer with the communicator expressing thoughts and feelings and the receiver in return, reacting with thoughts and feelings. Ideations, strategic planning, and performance reviews are psychological.
  • Systemic Communication
    Systemic communication is when individuals interpret the information in their own way. This communication can become a minefield when the receiver receives an entirely different message than the communicator intended. This is also where conscious and unconscious bias enters the picture and information is at the mercy of anyone drawing their own conclusion. Implementing change, introducing new directions, and creating a new marketing orientation are systemic communications.
  • Social Communication
    Social communication results in direct interaction between the sender and the receiver. How one communicates is the basis of social communication including tone, gestures, and expression. Raising your voice, lowering your voice, and whispering are socially connecting techniques. Motivating employees, workplace events, and sales meetings are social.
  • Critical Communication
    Critical communication is how an individual expresses power and authority over other individuals. Critical communication is not related to critical thinking. With critical thinking you are seeking to remain objective, listening to everything that is being said, and analyzing and assessing it to discern whether it is fact or fiction. You are not seeking to evoke a power position. Command-and-control, top-down messaging represents critical communications.

Bridging Theory to Practice

From a theoretical framework perspective, one of the most important things to understand across all the different types of communication theory is that there is rarely shared understanding, interpretation, knowledge, and experience. This may sound depressing, particularly if you are the main communicator in your team. The reality is that
you have your own interpretation as a communicator on one side, and the receiver’s interpretation is on the other side. In the middle is a very small sliver of shared interpretation and understanding. That sweet spot is where true communication takes place.

If you understand the concepts around senders and receivers, your skill as a communicator will improve and so will the results you experience. We may not all have the same background, socioeconomic status, education, or life experiences. Therefore, finding that small sliver of shared information with someone else is key. We also need to be sensitive to our human limitations and capacity. It is impossible to know everything. That’s why communication is so vital in building a management team and workforce that seeks to work towards the creation of shared knowledge and understanding. We are basically in contract with our stakeholders to enhance and improve our ability to communicate with each other, and the more you know, the better prepared you are to use communication meaningfully and productively.

Communication Bias

All our communications are biased because any sender is choosing specific words to convey intent. Body movements, gestures and so forth are also used to convey meaning to the receiver. We are biased, given our individual knowledge, values and experiences, in how we choose what information and data to include and what to omit. Despite intending to be objective, we reflect bias and subjectivity. We also make assumptions about what the receiver will understand, compute, and internalize to come to the desired conclusion. And that conclusion may not be what we intended!

The challenge with our assumptive default mental processing is that the receiver does not have the same knowledge as the sender and therefore, the assumptions are faulty and biased from the start. As humans, we are always making assumptions and we are often not consciously aware of the biases that we are bringing to communicating as a sender, but also in how we as a receiver are interpreting what has been communicated.

Part of the problem that has become even more prevalent as a result of digital and our devices, is that we have come to believe that we are great at multitasking. This belief in something that isn’t possible in reality, further challenges our interpersonal interactions.

The human mind can only focus on one thing at a time, if only for a few brief seconds. For example, if we are in a serious conversation with somebody who is expressing the pain and challenges of a relationship and we are also paying attention to our mobile, we are distracted and not fully focused. We may believe that we’re participating in that conversation and internalizing and processing the dialogue, but we are not. Our commitment to or contract with the communicator is compromised.

What happens? We make up information to fill in the gaps. Our own knowledge, life experiences and values fill in the gaps, but they may have nothing to do with what is being communicated.

Communication Obsession

Let’s consider our dependencies on digital devices, at work and at home. Our obsessions are powered by the influence of hormones, particularly dopamine. When we hear that familiar alert for notifications (phone, email, texts, social media – whatever) we are compelled automatically to respond. Think about the fear of missing out (FOMO) that obsesses not only next gens but their parents as well. What is happening is that each time that you interact with a tweet, feed on Facebook, or so forth, you are getting a dopamine burst which makes you feel good. Your subconscious wants to continue experiencing that burst which creates a compulsion for even more stimuli generating the same feel-good results. That leads to increased needs for interaction, which in turn leads to addiction to the dopamine bursts. As a result, you feel compelled to comment, like, share or respond. Often without fully reading or considering what was communicated. By taking an action, you get another dopamine burst to reward you. In taking action, chances are you rarely take a few moments to assess what you read or viewed to determine if you understood it, its meaning and how that meaning relates to you.

Now think of how this affects the workplace. Is your workforce distracted? Experiencing communication anxiety by missing out? Communication overload with a deluge of messages, most of which are unnecessary? Do you often get messages or reactions back to the communications that make you go back to reread what you said? Are there unstated addictions developing as a result of various forms of digital media?

If you think about it, digital devices and social media are really not much different than substance, food, or sex. All can lead to addiction through the tantalization of dopamine. People of all ages are addicted to video games, online feeds, and digital interactions that cause high anxiety when the connection is cut. Many of us have become so overstimulated by technology and the number of things that we now have to pay attention to that we often experience attention disorders, intensity and stress … and depression when we seek to disconnect.

Communication Deficits

Demands on our workforce to communicate is causing an avalanche of digital “busyness.” Way before the technology we may have had weekly phone calls, written letters, and meetings in person. Advance 20+ years and the speed and frequency of communications has become exponentially overwhelming while those inherent challenges of being human between a sender and receiver have remained the same. We now have the reach of hundreds, thousands, if not tens of thousands of people to interact with. And in each communication, there is potential to be misunderstood.

With the lack of in-person social interaction, communications are at an all-time high of dysfunction. The result is that we have to learn how to communicate differently. Psychologically, we feel too busy and pressured by having less time. Schedules are more compressed with too much to do and not enough time to do it and our energy levels are sapped. Rarely do people actually step away and understand the amount of time per day that they’re spending on social networks and consuming digital media. The average person spends roughly 50 minutes per day on Facebook, 30 minutes on Twitter and almost 60 minutes on YouTube. When you add that up, that is nearly three hours a day consuming content. With younger employees seamlessly traveling from one digital platform to another, all while “working,” multitasking has become a crazy balancing act. All these digital communication circles back to dopamine addiction with its resulting anxiety, stress and depression. When you step away and become aware of these behaviors, you realize how powerfully the subconscious controls behavior and what impacts are compromising the intended messages of our communications.

Communication Reboots

Leaders, teams and individuals in organizations not only need to relearn communications skills, but they also need to be sensitive to the moods and mental health of their teams–expressed through communication. At 2040 we work with clients to review their communication skills and platforms to optimize their success in connecting with, and leading their stakeholders.

We have developed a simple, shorthand playbook to help organizations up their game in communication.

  • Chose the right communication style for the right moment.
  • Control the number of digital communications deployed by your organization and develop protocols for responding to messaging limiting excess digital communication.
  • Create alternative to email that connect teams and larger groups within the organization in transparent messaging systems.
  • Recognize the effects of so many Zoom/Teams meetings on the workforce.
  • Train the workforce to audit how their behaviors change as a result of technology and support digital communication fatigue and FoMo with coaching and help.

These few guidelines may seem simple, but they are powerful tools to help us understand how we communicate, why we communicate, what comprises communication and how we have been influenced by technology and our own hormones. Using these tools will help improve how communications take shape and how those around us receive them. It’s worth the time to stop, pause and assess your own communication behaviors and skills. It’s worth the time to level up your ability to communicate and be understood.

Get in touch with us!

2040 helps organizations navigate the sea changes of finding their new normal. We offer actionable expertise in the strategy and operations of digital growth and engagement, empowering an empathetic workplace culture, strengthening your value proposition and driving revenues.  We’ve been in your shoes and we know what impedes transformation … and what unlocks it.

Onward and upward from the 2040 Team

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