The 4c's of Communications

    In the movie Cool Hand Luke, the prison warden says to the character played by Paul Newman, "What we got here is a failure to communicate." How much of our time is spent solving problems that are related to our failure to communicate? If we think about what we do most of the day as managers, we can see that a great deal of our time is spent talking. While good communication skills are essential to effective management, most of the time, we have not had any training on how to communicate and we may not even think about it. We just seem to do it.


    What is it that we call communication? The dictionary informs us that communication is "the exchange of information." The common communication model that is taught is that a "sender" transmits a message to a "receiver," much in the same way we send information from one computer to another over the Internet. Sometimes, I wish that all communication was that easy. My training in the philosophy of language and my experience as a manager have proven to me that it is never that simple. The reason is obvious: We are human beings, and as human beings, we are much more complicated than machines.


    How many times have you wondered why someone else has misinterpreted what you said or simply failed to do what you asked? Have you ever given 10 people instructions and had five people do it one way and five people do it another way? Communication can be learned, but there are different levels of competency. An experienced manager who is competent in communicating with employees will produce different, more effective results than a manager who is inexperienced or communicates without intention.


    I propose that we define communication not only as an exchange of information, but also as a tool for generating shared understanding and meaning between human beings. We use this tool to describe what is real for us, to create new possibilities, to make things happen and to coor-dinate action with others. If we improve our ability to communicate, we can substantially increase our effectiveness, our coordination of action with others, our personal well-being and our power.


    The following are some concepts that we can utilize to become more effective in our communication. I call these the Four Cs of Communication: consciousness, connection, context and content. Some of these concepts may seem simplistic and obvious, but I assure you that the mastery of their execution is the key to competent communication.


    1. Consciousness. I have found that many times I am just talking and not really thinking about what I am saying or how it may be interpreted by another person. Or sometimes, especially when I am in a hurry and want something done, I just blurt out what sounds like an order, such as, "Get me a new marker!" I am not nice and don't ask politely. I am not aware of the impact that it has on the other person. When I am not aware, I am not conscious.


    My first guideline is to become conscious of what exactly we communicate. We can't change what we don't see. As communicators, we need to observe the way we speak, our tone of voice, how the other person is listening and what his or her body language is saying in response to our words.


    If we are to become skillful communicators, we also need to be conscious of our listening. I have said that communication is about shared meaning. Listening is where meaning gets generated. It is where interpretations are produced. Frequently, I find that when another person is speaking, I am simultaneously thinking about what I am going to say next. This is not conscious listening. We need to listen with the conscious intent of understanding. There is only one way to determine how well you listen. It is to summarize what you heard and confirm with the speaker if you heard him or her correctly. Similarly, when you are the speaker, you need to verify what your listeners heard from you. This way, you can judge whether or not you achieved your objective of shared understanding.


    2. Connection. Connection starts by seeing the other person as a human being rather than an object. This might mean pausing for a second and making eye contact when you are speaking or listening. It could be stating a name to get someone's attention and then waiting until you have their attention before you begin to speak.


    If I anticipate that it is going to be a difficult conversation, then I may want to go further in connecting with that person. By this, I mean personalizing the introduction to the conversation by stating how long we have worked together, sharing a value that I have or just discussing our relationship.  For example, "Jon, we have been working together for about a year now, and for me, it is important that we are authentic with one another. Can we be completely honest with one another?" In other words, we are always in a relationship, on some level, with another person, and we want to make our communication personal.


    3. Context. Context creates the background for conversation; it has to do with meaning. As human beings, we have a need to make sense of things. In other words, creating the context for the content of a conversation is "setting the stage" so that you maximize the chance that other people will understand where you are coming from and more accurately interpret what it is that you want to say to them.


    Many times in my role as a manager, I have conversations with employees about how their work performance is not up to the standard I · want. I don't want them to think I am the parent, scolding them for doing a bad job. I don't want them to feel resentful.


    Let me give an example of how I might create the context for a conversation in a situation like this. "Mary, for me, it is extremely important that customers have positive impressions of who I am and of our company. If I see a typo in a newsletter, I worry they might think that we don't have high standards for the engineering work that we perform, so I am very picky about making sure everything sent to them is absolutely perfect." This creates the context for the conversation. It sets the stage for what I am about to say next, which is the final C, content.


    4. Content is the meat of the conversation. As a manager, the content is frequently a request that I want to communicate to an employee. In the previous example, I might have continued in the following way: "I am asking that before you give me the newsletter to review, you take extra time to double- and triple-check it yourself to make sure there are no typographical errors. Would you do that for me, please?"


    As managers, we not only communicate our requests, we also make promises, declarations, judgments, offers and voice complaints. We also need to listen to these acts of communication from our employees, peers and managers. Often, when I am consciously listening to another person speak to me, I am looking for the content of the conversation or the "meat" of the matter. If I listen when the other person is complaining, for example, I think to myself, "Does she have a request that she wants me to fulfill? What can I do to help her to resolve this issue?" By consciously listening and looking for the content of the conversation, I can better understand what the other person is saying and respond to it.


    If you master the Four Cs of Communication, I promise you will have fewer misunderstandings and mistakes that need to be fixed later, more enjoyable and mutually respectful relationships, increased productivity and greater peace of mind. Rollo May, the famous American existential psychologist, says it beautifully, "Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing." Imagine a working relationship like that!


    Mark Taylor, MBA, is founder and President of TAYLOR Systems Engineering Corporation, a technology and consulting firm that helps organizations save money in their shipping operations. In addition, Taylor is a professor at RushmoreUniversity, professional business speaker and business coach. He can be reached at 734-420-7447 or