I recently attended a communications conference where one of the breakout sessions was titled “The Five Axioms of Strategic Communications.” The speaker specializes in organizational and behavioral communications, and works with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. His talk was an update on “truths” about communications originally developed in the 1960s by philosopher and communications theorist Paul Watzlawick. He said there were five basic axioms to explain how miscommunication happens if everybody is “not on the same page.” In the updated version, the speaker called it the “consequences of conversations” where everything happens within an organization as a result of a conversation. He offered these five “truths” about communications:
Truth 1: You cannot not communicate. Even when you think you are not sending any messages, you are communicating. Every behavior is a communications and even the absence of communication sends a message itself. Everything you do – and don’t do – sends a message. And, those can be nonverbal cues as well. A raised eyebrow, a frown or a smile, and the sound of silence are all sending a message.
Truth 2: Leadership communication is symbolic not literal. If employees in your organization don’t have much knowledge or interaction with the CEO, the will “fill in the blanks”. That’s where symbolism comes in. Say, for example, your company has just gone through a round of layoffs and cost-cutting. The CEO drives up in a brand new sports car and parks in his reserved spot. This is the symbolic lens that employees will now use to filter any communications from your CEO. Leaders – and all employees in an organization – need to practice intentional symbolism. This means thinking about what you want people to know about you. And, there are natural criteria. You are judged by how you spend your time (isolated in your office or walking the floor), who you spend time with (do you interact with employees up and down the organizational ladder?), your content consumption (what do you read, listen to) and your “stuff” (think trinkets on a desk, photos, and personal representations). For example, if the first things somebody sees when they come into your workspace are photos of your family, your dog and awards from a local service club versus pictures of you shaking hands with a celebrity, how different will that symbolic lens be?
Truth 3: Messages don’t mean anything without context. Words are only words unless they are provided in a context. Think of how many times you’ve heard somebody say they were quoted “out of context”. In today’s world of sound bites, 140 character tweets and social media posts, it’s easy to see how context is left behind. Think about your audience, setting, and how they might interpret your words. Ask yourself, who does this make more/less powerful, impact or disadvantage? It’s important when crafting your messages to lay the groundwork for the context. At the heart of miscommunication are messages delivered in one context, but understood differently in another.
Truth 4: All conversations happen for a reason. It’s important to know what a conversation is all about. It’s not simply pushing out information, but identifying what you are trying to communicate. And, you can’t do that without a plan for how to make that happen. Metaphors can be a powerful tool to help others quickly understand and relate to the ideas you are communicating.
Truth 5: Communications is an intentional strategy. Communications drives relationships and all relationships are different. Communications reflect the hierarchy of relationships as well. There are communications where the parties are equal in stature from a power perspective. While not guaranteed, this type of communication – where each party is “equal” to another – is often seen as more successful. But, for leaders and employees there is often an imbalance of structure. Leaders would be wise to avoid the off-putting conversations (“never talk about your dinner with the Queen”). That goes back to the intentional symbolism concept. What overarching values do you want to communicate, and what do you want people to know/see/understand about you?
These five truths of communications can help provide a foundation for all leaders and others in your organization to think about in developing their own communications strategy.
Claudia Keith is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.