Inconsistent, ambiguous and unreliable messages produce psychological discomfort in human beings. (Photo: Shutterstock)

How to communicate better at work

What is the best way to speak to your employees or your manager? How can you get your message across without sending any unintentional signals? Clues from gestalt communication.

The importance of communication is an indisputable fact in organisations. Most conflicts occur or remain unresolved due to inappropriate communication that spoils mutual relationships. Moreover, communication is a source to demonstrate a level of emotional intelligence, which includes understanding and managing one's own emotions and showing empathy towards others.

A learning point of emotional intelligence and communication is that trustworthy relationships require deliberate, conscious and unconscious efforts, which will help to enhance credibility of senders in the eyes of the receivers. If the credibility of a person diminishes (or becomes questionable) in the eyes of the receivers, then mutual trust will either not be built or weakened. When a person cannot determine the intentions of a message, the result is mistrust.

Communication is a two way process in which messages are coded and decoded by senders and receivers. My review of communication studies shows that communication studies have, so far, paid more attention to overt aspects of communication, and ignored the covert elements that influence mutual communication. The concept of Gestalt communication encompasses both overt and covert aspects.

Read More: When is trust bad for us?

Overt communications comes in two forms

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Gestalt (a terminology borrowed from psychology) means studying phenomena as a whole rather than in parts. The assumption is that adding something is not merely an addition, rather it changes the whole substance. Accordingly, if you analyse a phenomena by studying its individual parts you will end up with a vastly different interpretation than if you had looked at it holistically.

Overt communication consists of two elements: explicit and implicit. Explicit communication refers to words which are used in oral and written communication. Of course, words carry some specific meanings (several, actually), which help to interpret messages. It is comparatively easier to identify; whether or not the contents of the explicit communication are appropriate. Moreover, explicit communication can be used as a reference in the future.

Implicit communication refers to all nonverbal elements such as choice of words, gestures, tone, sentence construction, immediacy of information, and enrichment of a message. Minor changes in implicit communication can have major effects;  for example, saying ‘Thanks’ is not an equivalent to ‘Thank you very much’. It is, indeed, debatable how much nonverbal communication helps to interpret a real intent of a message, nonetheless, the role of nonverbal communication increases when there is not clarity in an explicit message. Whether or not, implicit communication is intentional, consistent, or reliable, it is still a key part of human interaction.

I argue that implicit communication has its own merits and demerits though there is no specific classification for nonverbal clues. It is hard to use it as a reference to prove something; for example, it is difficult to prove whether or not a particular gesture was made to ignore someone. However, a useful function of implicit communication is that it can convey a message that would not be possible or appropriate through explicit means, i.e., aggressive behavior, domination or antagonism, which can be displayed through gestures or tone without being explicitly aggressive.

Read More: Neutrality of government communications challenged by political PR-spin

Emotions affect our perception and interpretation of events

Covert communication consists of  ‘reference chunks’ (or mental schema), emotions and context. All these factors affect the perception and interpretation of events. In my research, reference chunks refer to past events and experiences that individuals have stored in their minds.  People evoke these reference chunks according to the situation. In other words, the human beings’ cognitive reality is grounded upon reference chunks that influence social reality. Reference chunks assist individuals in interpreting a message. Emotions are affected by the cognitive reality that shapes our behavior and influence when we interact with others. Context refers to situations, conditions, position and reputation of the person, formal and informal structures of a system and so on. Escalation or diminution of communication between the parties depends upon how the context is viewed and interpreted using the reference chunks. Accordingly, emotions are triggered.

Individuals interpret communication through the Gestalt experience. A proposition is that reliance on an implicit communication and covert aspects will increase if explicit communication is ambiguous as explained in the following figures.

Figure 1: Overlapping Information (Credit: Yousaf, N., 2017)

The two squares in figure 1 do not tell whether A square is above B or vice versa. This problem is faced by human beings frequently when the incoming information does not show the correct intention of the sender. Your words might say, “Good job,” but your nonverbal clues says, “it is not as great a job as you think”. Experiencing such situations evokes three reactions in individuals: First, they search for more information; second, they remain confused; and third, they give deliberate meaning to incoming information.

Inconsistent, ambiguous and unreliable messages produce psychological discomfort in human beings. It is true that individuals do not have so much time to search for more information if they are not readily available. Therefore, they heuristically evaluate overt aspects using the covert means and assign meaning to the communicated message. We give meaning to incoming message using the available resources. Figure 2 shows two squares, though the figure C is incomplete. It is the previous knowledge that has filled the gap, therefore, we see two squares. The same method is applied in communication situations. If there is any inconsistency or ambiguity in the message, the covert means will be employed to fill the gap. The filled gap may not be correct, but sufficient to reduce the cognitive discomfort.

Figure 2: Filling the Gap in Communication (Credit: Yousaf, N., 2017)

Read More: Good science communication depends on good judgement

Gestalt communication at work

Communication in organizations is a formal activity and cannot be avoided. It plays a key role in the growth or decline of an entity. Previous research on communication, conflict, emotional intelligence, group and individual behavior in organisations indicates that the way communication is performed and interpreted, either strengthens or weakens the mutual relationship. Mutual trust erodes in organizations due to various reasons such as unilateral decisions, unclear, and improper messages, misinterpretation of policies, promotion of personal interests, and ignoring subordinates’ concerns.

I argue that managers have a greater responsibility to reduce the communication gap for three reasons: First, it is part of their job to manage people and engage their employees at work; second, employees’ organisational behavior is influenced by the attitude that they have towards the manager; and third, managers have positional authority.

Appreciating communication as a Gestalt experience may help managers to devise appropriate communication strategies to improve mutual communication. Managers must appreciate the fact that employees interpret what they say using overt and covert means. Disseminating information through meetings or written messages cannot be effective unless shared identity towards goals and objectives is developed. Shared identity can only be developed when communication is appropriate.

Read More: Diversity leads to greater social coherence and well-being

Dissemination of information is a one-way communication. One-way communication increases the likelihood that receivers used the third option ‘deliberate interpretation’ to interpret the message. A one-way communication is denoted as poor communication. Poor communication is a unilateral communication that carries a low transparency and less opportunities to debate and confront. It fosters mistrust and an alienated relationship. 

Compromising communication appears to be a two-way communication, but it lacks complete transparency in dealing. Apparently, it is rational and logical, but the context breeds doubt. Contexts are frequently modified or explained to suit the manager. For example, imagine the employees in an organisation who are confused about the manager’s intention of changing routines and practices in the name of improvement. Whenever employees question him, they get ambiguous answers or distorted facts. Discussions were such that the actual point of contention was lost. In compromising communication, employees’ opinions are heard, but ignored. This behavior creates a trust-mistrust situation, which fosters a like-dislike relationship. Mistakenly, some managers think compromising communication is integrative communication.

Integrative communication leads to a trustworthy relationship. It is a pure two-way communication. In integrative communication, managers are receptive to subordinates’ feelings, emotions, and critical views. They discuss and confront the issues to understand each other’s point of view. This fosters trustworthy relationships.

Model of Communication (Credit: Yousef et al. 2017)




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