Communication Basics

brain with trap door open

Keep an Open Mind

Make room for new possibilities.

Our minds are crammed with information. We go at such a hectic pace, running from deadline to deadline, struggling to meet the demands of daily life. At the same time, we are bombarded with stimuli from every direction - radio, TV, email, faxes, phone calls, traffic, crowded spaces. The list goes on and on. Peace and quiet comes at a premium.

Right now, stop for a moment and watch yourself think:

  • What are you thinking about?
  • How fast are thoughts going through your mind?
  • How much does your mind focus on the past or the future, instead of the present?
  • How much are you caught up in your own thoughts, and not paying attention to what's happening around you?

Having a clear, open mind to new information is the most basic requirement for working creatively and effectively with others.

eye looking right


Become a focused, objective observer.

The goal is to observe without evaluating or judging. Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, in their book "Sparks of Genius," point out that creative geniuses often have amazing powers of observation. The famed microbiologist Alexander Fleming is a good example. He discovered penicillin by accident when he saw mold growing on bread crumbs spilled into a petri dish. Fleming noticed the mold destroying other microbes in the dish. This single observation ushered in a whole new era for modern medicine.

Are you able to observe things just as they are? For example, when you receive an upsetting email, how quickly do you fire off a response, only to later learn that you were wrong? Observing without categorizing or judging is difficult. Try standing on a busy street corner or other place where you can observe people. Then, answer these questions:

  • How quickly do you categorize the people you see - a tourist, a teenager, a techie? Your quick judgments about people and situations may be accurate, or not.
  • How often have you misjudged a person or situation?
  • How often has the person or situation changed over time without your realizing?


Develop your ability to hear.

How well do you listen? In conversations, how many times have you misunderstood because you were busy planning what to say next? Or worse, how often have you missed the entire communication because you were daydreaming? It isn't easy to truly listen to another person. While online communications aren't quite the same as face-to-face conversations, they are similar. Generally, online messages have the same informal tone as spoken messages. So while you are reading text off a screen, you can still apply the same listening skills.

To help focus when listening, try asking yourself:

  1. What is the point the speaker is trying to make?
  2. What is being said between the lines?
  3. What is the emotional tone of the message?

For more information about listening skills, follow the link to:

open mouth

Comprehension by Paraphrasing

Understand what the speaker is saying.

Comprehension skills are critical in online environments. In face-to-face situations, we can see a person's body language, hear their tone of voice, and pick up on the unspoken, conscious and unconscious. Surely, we have all had misunderstandings during face-to-face communication. However, in online environments, where we are limited to words on a screen, the danger of misunderstanding is even greater. So, it's extra important to check your understanding of what a speaker is saying by paraphrasing.

Paraphrasing is more than simply parroting back the words you hear. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the true meaning of another person's communication. Skill in using the following kinds of messages can be quite helpful:

  1. "I" versus "you" messages
  2. Clarifying statements
  3. Verifying statements
  4. Summarizing statements

Words are powerful. As the saying goes—

Beneathe the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Words can be a double-edged sword. Carelessly used, words can have damaging effects that were not intended. To avoid getting into trouble with your words, let's explore how to use these special kinds of messages and statements.
finger pointing
"I" versus "You" messages
Speak effectively.
"You" message:
Kim:You never help me out! The car just broke down, because you didn't take it in to have it serviced on time, and then you were too busy to come pick me up. Some friend you are.
"I" message:
Kim:Everything has gone wrong this week! I had a filling fall out. I had a fight with my boss, and then my car broke down. To top it all off, I have a deadline to get this project done and I'm feeling so overwhelmed that I can't even concentrate.

If Kim were speaking to you, how might you feel and respond to Kim's "You" message versus the "I" message? Which message would be easier for you to comprehend?

"You" messages can convey blame or meanings making them hard to hear. "You" messages increase the chances the listener will respond poorly. So the overall exchange degrades. "I" messages, on the other hand, keep feelings and observations on the speaker's side, which allows the listener to better hear and respond.

Although "I" messages are usually marked by use of the word "I", sometimes the "I" is implied. The point is that the speaker is not projecting his or her own point of view on to another person. The speaker assigns the communication to him or herself alone.

finger pointing
Clarifying statements
Check your understanding of the speaker.
Clarifying statement:
Pat:Sounds to me like you've had a really frustrating week and need to get away for a while.
Kim:Do you ever have that one right!

Notice in Pat's response the implied "I" statement in "Sounds to me —" The "really frustrating week" is the clarifying response to Kim's opening. Also notice that Pat is reading between the lines to address Kim's emotional tone.

finger pointing
Verifying statements
Let others know they understand you.

As you can see in the above example, Kim verifies Pat's comprehension. As this exchange shows, speakers often give a strong positive response when they are being heard and understood. Everybody likes to be understood, no matter what.

Verifying statement:
Kim:My world is spinning too fast and I need a place where I can get off for awhile, away from bosses, cars, and projects.
Pat:You're looking forward to finishing up your projects.
Kim:Not only finishing up, but also getting away from everything.

Sometimes, the listener doesn't completely catch the speaker's meaning, resulting in a different kind of verifying response. In the above exchange, Pat correctly interprets part of Kim's meaning, but misses the main point. Kim verifies that Pat partially understands and then adds the missing main point.

finger pointing
Summary statements
Review the conversation.
Summary statement:
Kim:I really do need to take a break; it's been years since I had a real vacation. I've got about a month's worth of work to do on this project and then I can afford to take a week off.
Pat:I think your everyday frustrations are piling up. It's been too long since you've had a vacation, and you can see a way to break free for a while.
Kim:You got it.

As you can see, Pat is not only clarifying what Kim has said, but is also summarizing what has transpired between them. Summary statements become quite important in longer and more complicated conversations like in collaborative teams.

Maintain your sense of humor
Humor is useful, especially when the going gets rough. Humor is a way to jolt ourselves out of our standard ways of thinking, reminding us not to take things too seriously. Humor also helps the creative flow of ideas, often generating new approaches to problem solving. Some research has shown that many highly effective teams are characterized by good humor.
Caveat: Humor should be appropriate.
Avoid off-color jokes. For example, sexual or ethnic jokes can severely damage team relationships and make it difficult for the team to work together.