What is communication all about?



Always take into account the “hidden” aspects of communication




Elements defining communication

Communication is basically a transfer of information, usually between different individuals or groups. It involves a:

sender (the one who has the information and wants to transmit it),

receiver (the one who gets the information),

message (the information that is meant to be sent)

channel (medium through which the information is delivered e.g. by phone, by paper)

code (a set of rules that are known by both the sender and the receiver which are used to send the message e.g. language)

feedback (a response from the receiver after getting the message e.g. an emotion triggered by receiving some news)


Verbal and non-verbal communication

We usually refer to communication as an oral or written exchange of information. The use of sounds and language to transmit a message is called as verbal communication.

Still, more than 70% of a message is sent by non-verbal means (tone of voice, expression, gestures, clothing, proximity to the receiver, etc.). Try to imagine that the cat in the picture is saying, “I am so happy about this!”. Is your impression the one sent in a verbal way (about really being happy)? Or is the non-verbal message just too strong for you to believe that she is happy?

It is often considered that communication is inevitable. It is impossible not to communicate. Even if you are not saying or writing anything, your behaviour, the way you dress, the way you are sitting or standing, everything sends some message. Even if you completely isolate yourself from the rest of the world you are still communicating, saying: “I don’t want to meet anyone!”. The things you do, the way you behave, the expression of your face, they eye contact, and the tone of your voice, each of these “says” something to the other. And more important, they all can be misinterpreted.

Keep in mind that it is not just what you are saying that matters. How you say it is often more important!


The dimensions of communication

Moreover, even referring to verbal communication, if we take a minute to analyse the process, we will notice that whenever we communicate something we are not sending just one message. Take, for instance, the following communication, happening at work, between a superior and an employee:

It may seem like quite straightforward: one person is noticing that another has arrived late. Well, this is just the objective part of the message. Getting deeper into the meaning, we also observe that the person is also sending some other information. Firstly, by scolding him, she is emphasizing that she is the superior, so something about the relation between the two is transmitted. Secondly, by saying this, she also states that she is not pleased with this so it should not happen again, so a call for action is sent. Last, she is also saying something about herself, that she is not very tolerant with people not being punctual.

What we generally think of being “one message” is actually four messages:

an objective one: “I have observed that you are late again”

a self-disclosure: “I am not happy when people are running late!”

a call for action: “Please don’t be late again!”

something about the relationship: “I am your superior!”

Why is important to know about these things? Well, knowing that in communication is never about one message and that we are sending a lot of messages, even if this is not really our intention, makes us more aware about what mistakes can happen, where errors can occur and why.

Let’s imagine that our attitude towards a new colleague is neutral and we don’t engage with him in any conversation. Nothing bad can come out of this, right? Well, not quite! This person can interpret the silence as a sign of hostility and get the impression that we don’t really like him, so he will behave accordingly. We basically did nothing wrong, but because there are so many aspects involved by communication, there are now tensions between us.

Thinking of another example, we are asking one of your organisation’s volunteers to bring us a stapler. Simple, right? Well, again, not quite! Even if the message we are sending is that we need a stapler, we are also saying something about our relation. Given that he is a new volunteer, he can understand from our message that, as he has just joined your team, we are considering him as our inferior. And again tensions are rising without the sender knowing why.

Let’s think of something that probably we all did at one point: running late to a meeting. We can arrive there with the best intentions but this will not prevent the other from thinking the he is not important to us, as we did not even bother to show up on time. Without even being there, we have communicated to that person a negative thing, and this will probably affect the following interaction.

For all these and many more aspects that were not approached here, it is really important that when we communicate we take into account all the different faces of the process and we make sure that all the messages we are sending cannot be misinterpreted.



It is not just what you are saying that matters. How you say it is equally or even more important!




Practical exercise

Non-verbal communication

On a number of pieces of paper equal to the number of participants, the following emotions will be evenly written down and distributed:

  1. Happiness
  2. Sadness
  3. Boredom
  4. Surprise
  5. Anger
  6. Disgust

Each participant should receive one paper representing one type of emotion. After this, participants will be asked to group by emotions (all people that received sadness, happiness, etc.) without speaking to each other, just by showing this emotion. Like this, they will both be divided in groups and a debriefing can be conducted about non-verbal messages and about how to we communicate even if we are not speaking.

Questions for the debriefing:

- Was it difficult to group?

- How did you managed to group even if you were not speaking to each other?


Practical exercise

Non-verbal communication

To further explore other types of non-verbal messages, that are not necessarily an extension of the verbal one, a role-play can be organised. Using the teams from the previous exercise, you will ask them to enact one the following situations:

  1. One NGO responsible asks the volunteer to wait a while because she is late and still seeing another client
  2. One NGO responsible forgets the client's name
  3. One NGO responsible takes a call on their mobile phone
  4. One NGO responsible clicks their pen on and off
  5. One NGO responsible is inattentive, no eye contact and is constantly writing or doodling
  6. One NGO responsible has inappropriate body language, crossing arms, pointing finger etc.

The debriefing will focus on what kind of messages can be sent even without us paying attention, with the participants being requested to think if they have faced similar situations.

Questions for the debriefing:

- What can you say about the situations presented?

- What did you observed in the behaviour of the participants that gave you these impressions?

- Could you name other ways in which we communicate, even if we do not speak?


Practical exercise

Open & Closed questions

The trainer will briefly explain about closed questions (that usually get a one or two words answer – usually starting with “Is?”, “Are?”, “Do?”, “Did?”, “How many?”) and about open questions (that encourage a more elaborated response, usually starting with “What?”, “Could?”, “Would?”, “How?”). Also, the advantages and disadvantages of using one or another will be pointed out.

While sitting in a half circle, participants will be asked to think about one closed question. After two minutes of thinking, they will be asked, one by one, to share that question. The person on the right will then have to rephrase that closed question in such a way that it will be transformed into an open one. This will continue until all persons have been involved.

Questions for the debriefing:

- Was is difficult to rephrase the questions?

- Can you think of different situations in which open questions are better to be used than others?


Practical exercise

Clarity in communication

One participant from the group will be asked to come in front and will be given a simple drawing. He will then have to give instructions to the others in order for them to draw the same thing. After the instructions will be finished, all the participants will show what they drew and all the drawings will be compared. As they will most likely be different, a discussion can be started about how one message is understood differently than it was meant, how the same information is perceived differently from person to person, depending on several aspects, and about how can we make sure that what we want to say is understood in the same way.

Questions for the debriefing:

- Why do you think your drawing is different than the initial one?

- Given that you heard the same things, why do you think that you drew different things?

- Can we find similar situations in real life?

- How can we prevent similar things from happening in real life?

Here you can find an example image for this exercise:

Explained drawing - Image (right click and then press "Save as..." in the menu)


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