Understand How Communication Works

Communication components

I’m a firm believer that just about every problem in life is due to an issue of miscommunication. Communication means sharing a message with someone, instead of talking to someone.  

If you were to take these words here and speak them out loud, you would be talking, regardless of whether or not someone is in the room to hear you speak. Talking doesn’t require another person. Talking simply requires you to utter noises from your mouth.  

Communication, on the other hand, requires another person. Communication refers to messages shared between two or more people. In fact, the word communication comes from the Latin word communicare meaning “to share”. Take a look at the words communicate, community, company, commune, compassion. They all have the prefix com- derived from the Latin word cum which meant with. At the heart of communication is the idea of sharing some kind of message with someone else.

There’s an old adage in education that asks if an instructor lectured for an hour but students learned nothing, did any teaching really take place? Of course, the answer is no. A similar idea exists with communication.  If I talk to you, but you don’t understand my message, did communication really take place?

So what are the components of communication and how does it really work?

There are five components of communication:

  • the sender
  • the receiver
  • the message
  • the medium
  • the feedback.  

Communication is driven by the sender. It’s the responsibility of the sender–and always the responsibility of the sender–to make sure he’s sending the right message. It’s the sender’s responsibility to use the right medium. It’s the sender’s responsibility to ensure that the message is actually reaching the receiver. If the message was actually received, then 99% of the time, the receiver will convey that back to the sender in the form of some kind of feedback.  

The key here is understanding just a bit more about each component in the communication cycle.  

The Sender

Anyone who sends a message must understand that the message is first filtered through the sender himself. The sender has certain beliefs, personality traits, vocabulary, speaking skills, and prejudices. All these things are going to affect the sender’s message. So what do you do? The answer is simple: you spend some time getting to know yourself. You can’t really get to know someone else until you get to know yourself. Find out what’s important in your life. Discover the qualities you value in someone else. Read what experts have to say about developing strong speaking skills. Figure out your strengths and use those to manage your weaknesses. The point here is to do whatever you can to learn more about yourself.

The Message

All communication has a purpose. Writing an email to your boss has a purpose. Speaking to a customer service rep on the phone has a purpose. Even kissing someone (which is also a form of communication) has a purpose. Be very aware of the message you want to send, and also the reason why you want to send it. In communications theory, there’s a concept called encoding which refers to taking your idea and wrapping it into a language that makes it easily understood by the receiver. Even though it’s your idea and your message that you are creating, it’s your responsibility to wrap your message in language and speed and vocabulary that are preferred by the receiver. You never encode your message in your own preferred language or vocabulary or pace because it’s not about you. It’s about the other person and what that other person needs. If all of this sounds confusing, remember this: failure to communicate is always the fault of the sender, and never (or very rarely) the fault of the receiver.

The Medium

Some experts call this component the channel, but I prefer the word medium.  Simply put, the medium is the method you use to convey the message. If your boss is out of town and you wanted to send him a message, the medium you might use is email. If the coffee shop barista got your order wrong, the medium you would use is verbal speech. When you wag your finger at your four-year-old who was just caught sneaking another cookie, that finger wag was done through the medium of body language. The medium is more important than most people think. For example, experts have discovered that when the medium is in the form of written words on paper, the receiver is just as affected by the formatting and design as they are by the content. Experts also determined that when communicating with someone verbally in person, body language and facial expressions account for 50% of the message received, while another 30% of the message is influenced by paralingual factors such as tone and pitch.  

The Receiver

Just like the sender, the receiver also has her own beliefs, personality traits, vocabulary, speaking skills, and prejudices. Imagine trying to talk with a young lady at a nightclub or a bar. In that kind of environment, there are some things you can’t possibly know about a woman just by looking at her. You don’t know if she’s already in a relationship, you don’t know her preferences in men, you don’t know her intellect, her humor, her values. However, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, if body language and facial expressions account for as much as 50% of in-person interactions, you can practice over time and get better at sending and gathering information through body language and facial expressions. Once you get to know the receiver better, you’ll understand her beliefs, persoanlity, and prejudices. This will help you better fashion your message to her preferences, improving the likelihood that your message is well-received.

The Feedback

Once you did your best to send the message you intended, the receiver should respond in some kind of way, usually through the same medium you used to send the message in the first place. Messages sent through writing usually lead to feedback in writing. Messages sent through body language usually lead to feedback using body language. That’s why smiling at a young lady usually leads to her smiling back. It’s a product of our psychological need for reciprocity. The feedback is your indication that the message was received, leading to the possibility of more communication.

One Final Note…

This week, make note of the ways in which you’ve been a piece of the communication cycle. This week, take care in being hyper-observant. At home, listen to the ways in which messages are being communicated by your family. What message is your girlfriend sending when she plops next to you on the couch in front of the TV? How do you offer feedback? If you speak with your parents this week, pay attention to some of the coded language being used to convey their messages. Pay attention to what you’re trying to say as well, and be aware of the feedback from others indicating that the messages were received correctly.

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