Several years ago, a seasoned plumber wrote to the U.S. Bureau of Standards promoting a new procedure for cleaning pipes. The bureau replied: “The efficiency of the recommended solution is completely undisputed. However, there is an inherent incompatibility between the aforementioned solution and the basic chemical structures of the commonly used materials in current household and commercial pipeworks.”

The plumber wrote back saying, “Thanks, I really liked it, too.”

Within a few days, the Bureau responded with another letter: “Don’t use hydrochloric acid! It eats holes in pipes!”

Wouldn’t it have been so much easier – and less expensive – to put it simply the first time?

The word communication comes from the Latin communico, meaning share. We share ideas, thoughts, information and concerns. Communication can start friendships or make enemies.

Communication needs to be clear and understandable. Communication requires both effective sending and receiving. And if we don’t do it effectively, we have wasted our time.

Research psychologists tell us that the average one-year-old child has a three-word vocabulary. At age two, most children have a working knowledge of 272 words. A year later, that number more than triples. At age six, the average child has command of 2,562 words.

As adults, our word accumulation continues to grow but the effective use of them does not necessarily follow. We can speak up to 18,000 words each day, but that doesn’t mean those messages are clear or correctly received. In fact, words can often obscure our messages instead of clarifying them.

No one can succeed in business, or in life, for that matter, without developing good communication skills. The most basic yet crucial leadership skill is communication. It’s important to continue to evaluate your performance in these fundamental areas:

  • Speaking. Good verbal skills are essential. You have to be able to explain your requests and instructions, your ideas, and your strategies to people inside and outside your organization. Look for opportunities to hone your speaking skills at conferences, in meetings and among friends.
  • Listening. Pay attention to the people around you. Repeat and paraphrase what they say to make sure you understand – and to show that you take their opinions seriously.
  • Writing. The paper trail you leave tells people a lot about how clearly you think and express yourself. Don’t send even the simplest email without rereading it critically to be sure it says just what you want.
  • Leading meetings. You should encourage other people to share their ideas without letting discussions meander aimlessly. Sharpen your ability to keep meetings on track and elicit productive comments. Remember that every meeting should begin with a solid agenda and conclude with a commitment for action.
  • Resolving conflict. Conflict can be subtle, but you still must defuse it if you want things to get done. You’ll use a lot of the skills already discussed to encourage people to open up and clear the air about their disagreements.
  • Persuasion. The right words can stimulate agreements, offer alternate points of view, provoke thoughtful consideration and bring people around to your way of thinking. This is an especially critical skill for sales people, which is all of us in one capacity or another.

Perhaps the most helpful advice came from Peter Drucker, the late management guru, who said, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”

Beware of misinterpreting simple messages because of your perception of the sender’s meaning or intent. Here’s an eye-opening fact: the 500 most common words in the English language have more than 14,000 definitions. That explains a lot of why verbal interactions often create confusion and misunderstanding.

Two people meet at an art exhibition.  “What is your line of work?” asked the woman.

“I’m an artist,” came the reply.

“I’ve never met a real live artist before,” said the woman. “This is so exciting!  I’ve always wanted my portrait painted. Could you do that?”

“That’s my specialty!” the artist said.

“Wonderful!” she said. “I just have one request.  I want the painting done in the nude.”

The artist hesitated for a minute and then said, “I’ll have to get back to you.”

A few days later the artist called the potential customer to discuss the plan. “I’m willing to do the painting as you requested,” the artist said, “but I have one stipulation. I want to leave my socks on. I need somewhere to put my paint brushes.”

Mackay’s Moral:  It is wiser to choose what you say than say what you choose.

About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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