Overcoming noisy communication

John Edmonds provides some handy tips on handling ‘noise’ in communication

Noise hinders communication. It’s so obvious I hesitate to say it. But, it is often something that is overlooked when we are planning communication activities with stakeholders.

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Noise, in communication terms, means any interference that makes it harder for the stakeholder to firstly receive, then interpret the message, and its meaning. Communication noise can have a profound impact on our perception of our communications – we can believe that we are doing far better than we actually are. Physical noise is relatively easy to understand – noisy rooms, traffic, other conversations and so on. So let’s look at two other types of noise that we should consider when we are communicating.

Psychological noise – we bring preconceived ideas to conversations, such as stereotypes, reputations, and assumptions.

Human beings don’t behave as robots, it is impossible to simply send, receive and process purely factual information alone. So there will be psychological noise, it is inevitable.

As a sender or receiver of communications, our brain will often, and very quickly, kick into an automatic mode leading to unconscious bias. The next time you see a well-known politician on television try to recognise what you are feeling about them at that moment – what bias is at work?

As communicators we need to realise that this is happening? What can we do about this unconscious bias, this psychological noise?

Well, we can be mindful. You may have come across the idea of mindfulness. It is about being fully present in the current situation; being aware of the context in which you are communicating, and being aware of your emotional state.

As communicators, we also need to have an awareness of the various different perspectives that others might have of a situation. Remember that listening is also part of communicating…

Semantic noise – this type of noise occurs when grammar or technical language is used that the receiver cannot understand, or cannot understand clearly. This means that the ‘decoding’ of the message is made far more difficult.

It occurs when the sender of the message uses a word or a phrase that we don’t know the meaning of, or which we use in a different way from the speaker. We may have been in a presentation when a speaker is using complex jargon or images of which we have little or no understanding. Or perhaps when a speaker has used a word or phrase that has a very different meaning to us, sometimes resulting in a wave of muffled giggles in the audience.

Semantic noise is usually due to our failure as the sender of the communication. We have not understood who our audience is and what they know. The type and nature of audience is what should determine the language, and any jargon that we will use.

We should also consider:

  • The length of our messages, are they long and rambling? Remember, less is more!
  • Our grammar – mistakes can be so distracting
  • Too much information – often we overdo the facts and forget to engage the emotion
  • Unexplained technical language – do not assume knowledge.

So, if you care about your communications with stakeholders, consider where there might be noise in the communication process and then take steps to reduce or eliminate it wherever you can, bearing in mind the principle “Seek first to understand, then be understood”.




Debbie Carter

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