So, when does communication actually occur?

Many of us assume communication happens when we speak.  For important conversations, we often spend time preparing so we can say exactly what it is we want to say.  We write it down.  We rehearse.

But communication doesn’t happen when we talk.  Communication happens when the other person receives and makes meaning of what has been communicated.

“Nothing is meaningful until it is related to the hearer’s own experience,” Robert Greenleaf writes in The Servant as Leader.

Our job as leaders is to communicate so that the listener makes “that leap of imagination that connects the verbal concept to the hearer’s own experience,” states Robert. 

Differentiating between intent and impact is one of the key messages in the Conscious Communication module which is part of the excellent year-long Stagen Leadership Academy‘s “Integral Leadership Program.”

Imagine an archer lining up to shoot an arrow at the target.

1: We are the archer.  We have a message we want to send to the other person or group.  Intent is what is meant.  

2: The message itself is the arrow, what we communicate.  We are not able to transfer our thoughts directly to the other person.  So, we use words, our body language, and the tone of our voice.  

But these will always be an approximation of our thoughts.  Robert quotes the physicist and philosopher Percy Bridgman says, “No linguistic structure is capable of reproducing the full complexity of experience.” 

“No language can be anything but elliptical, requiring a leap of imagination to understand its meaning in its relevance to immediate experience,” adds Alfred North Whitehead. 

3:  The target represents the impact of the message we sent, how it is heard and interpreted.  If the listener hears and interprets the message exactly as we intended, we’ve shot a bulls-eye.  

Unfortunately, this rarely happens.  More times than not, we hit one of the outer rings.  Other times, we miss the target altogether. 

In our minds, we’ve communicated the message.  We’ve shot the arrow.  We don’t realize we’ve missed the target. 

Why is there so often a difference between intent and impact? 

We may lack the skills to articulate the message accurately to reflect our thoughts.  Or, the other person may interpret what we’ve said differently than what we intended due to their assumptions and beliefs.  

As leaders, we are wise to consider carefully the mindset of those to whom we are communicating.  Our goal is to tempt our listeners to make that “leap of imagination.” 

“One of the arts of communicating is to say just enough to facilitate that leap,” writes Robert.  “Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much.”

Silence, too, is also effective.

“One must not be afraid of a little silence.  Some find silence awkward or oppressive. But a relaxed approach to dialogue will include the welcoming of some silence,” Robert adds.  

“It is often a devastating question to ask oneself, but it is sometimes important to ask in. “In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?’” 


Reflection:  Think of a recent conversation that went off the tracks.  What might I have done differently?

Action:  Check for understanding during a conversation today.  

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