Matters Column

The (big) difference between conversation and communication

October 18, 2013
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Far too many people believe having the ability to converse is the same as being able to communicate. They believe that telling is equivalent to talking, that sending an e-mail or leaving a voicemail message is better than spending time in two-way discussion. They believe that if one can speak effectively, they will be able to influence the behavior of others, and that “give and take” conversation only delays the decision-making process. They are firm believers in the principle that “he/she who speaks last is right” so will talk an issue to death (or send a declaratory note or leave a one-sided voicemail), rather than allowing someone else to have the “final say.” 

Effective communication is a sum of several important parts, not simply words spoken or sounds heard. Talking is the result of opening our mouths and letting words flow. Communication is the act of thinking about what we wish to say before uttering words, of organizing the thoughts we wish others to hear and discuss so they will result in an appropriate action.

Conversation is an exchange of words, while communication is the transformation of thoughts and words into meaningful action. Conversation typically involves what you wish to share with another; communication focuses more on what you wish to accomplish.

In order to communicate effectively, we must:

  • Listen actively.
  • Speak only after considering the ramifications of our words.
  • Establish and assign ownership to a shared vision or idea while transferring accountability with responsibility to the individual assuming each task.
  • Intentionally follow through to make sure expectations are met and objectives are accomplished (while avoiding the natural tendency to “rescue” or “save” another from mistakes or failures).
  • Allow mistakes (our own and those of others) to become learning experiences rather than death sentences.
  • Praise openly and honestly and criticize privately and quietly.

To communicate well we must identify what we wish to accomplish — figure out what we want our words to change, alter or enhance — before we begin to talk, write or “tweet.” 

Politicians often seem to say whatever they think you want to hear in a manner convincing enough to make us forget what they may have said yesterday or what they will be saying tomorrow. They are typically highly effective conversationalists but may be lacking as communicators where listening and speaking must closely align. Politicians (and other effective public speakers) deliver what their audience wants to “take away” from a speech, often abandoning their principles or core values in order to appease the masses.

A conversationalist enters a debate with ears (and mouth) wide open, clearly identifying and discussing the “means” but often failing to bring to fruition an “end.”

An effective communicator plans his or her outcome before speaking, listens to (and considers) responses, then works toward a mutually satisfactory actionable result. Ineffective communication is often “telling.” Effective communication becomes active, participative “selling.”

One of the more critical aspects of communication is silence: that space where listening becomes active and saying nothing helps to formulate direction. When one is speaking, he or she is not actively listening. When planting your thoughts and concepts, it is hard to harvest the bounty another might offer. When we try to be heard above the noise around us, we often lose sight of the fact that a whisper can be much more effective in a quiet, listening room than a shout in a crowded building.

Silence often creates discomfort, but it is not your responsibility to fill every void with the sound of your own voice. In order to communicate effectively we must allow silence to be deafening at times. Allow your thoughts and ideas to fill the moments of silence that listening (rather than talking) creates; then express those thoughts into encouraging words that identify, communicate and motivate change.

Effective communication is more than talking. It is transforming words into actions through carefully directed compromise that produces “win-win” situations rather than creating and fostering a “win-lose” mentality. When wishing to share experiences, thoughts, feelings or dreams — converse. 

While one needs to converse in order to communicate, not all conversation becomes effective communication. Communication is conversation on steroids, an exchange of thoughts and ideas that results in an investment of time and resources focused toward the accomplishment of an intended consequence. (If there were more effective communicators in Congress we might not have suffered the recent government shutdown that affected more than 80,000 individuals who ended up pawns in a chess match between narrow-minded conversationalists that were relatively unaffected by the results of their inaction.) 

Talk is cheap. It fills time and space with words but does not necessarily require an investment of resources to create an intended result. While conversation is a necessary part of living within a community, communication is the key to change. When you need to accomplish something — when an action must result in an equal and opposite reaction that alters or modifies a condition or behavior — communicate your thoughts, your intents and your expectations clearly by stating the facts and then listening for (and encouraging) a buy-in from all involved. 

We should all strive to be better conversationalists but making a conscious effort to communicate more effectively can help to change the world.

David Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association of Grand Rapids.

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