The Message

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Learning Objectives

Learn to understand the following elements and consider them in forming your message:

  • Content
  • Channel
  • Delivery
  • Noise

Quotes

“How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”
—Karl Weick

Introduction

The message in a communication interaction usually refers to the information being communicated, or the content of that communication. But there is more to communicating a message than simply its content, or what we want to say. Communication of any message from one individual to another can be impacted by the selection of an appropriate channel, the method of delivery and one’s ability to overcome any physical and psychological noise that can interrupt the communication of that message. Successful communicators know and understand each of these important elements in the process of communication and tailor their messages to best adapt to the scenario at hand.

Self-test

When I communicate, the messages I send:




If any of these sounds familiar, you may be ready for a communication brush-up! Understanding the dynamics of the messages you send can help you become a much more effective communicator and have better outcomes from your interactions with others.

Elements to Consider When Crafting Your Message

In order to make your communications more effective, you should consider the following elements:

  1. The content of what you want to convey
  2. The channel of communication you choose to use (such as via email or in person)
  3. How you want to deliver your message (such as addressing the issue yourself before it gets back to the person via grapevine)
  4. Addressing possible “noise” or distracters to your message

The Effects of Content and Feedback

Perhaps the most straightforward part of a message is the content, or what is actually being communicated. Each person in any given communication interaction is simultaneously sending messages as well as receiving them. As receivers, we may be quietly listening to a person who is talking, but we are also sending messages of our own called feedback. Feedback is constantly exchanged between each person in a communication, both verbally and non-verbally. Consider the following scenario:

Andrea works in a lab with a fellow student, Tim. They have both been in the program for an equal amount of time, and they both have the same lab advisor. However, Andrea is feeling frustrated that Tim seems to get more lab assignments than her, and that the tasks she is assigned tend to be menial or unimportant. She feels this is unfair and limiting her growth. She is contemplating talking with Tim about it, but she is unsure and hasn’t yet said anything.

The following progression shows how giving a particular type of feedback, Andrea’s silence, is interpreted by Tim as content and how it affects her situation in the lab.

As you can see, whether Andrea states her feedback/message explicitly or not, she is still communicating a message that has a tangible outcome.

Inescapable and Irreversible Communication

An important and sometimes overlooked aspect of communication is that it is inescapable. As humans, we are always communicating through non-verbal behaviors or our actions, even when we try not to.

In addition to being inescapable, communication is irreversible. Once a statement has been heard or read, it has already impacted both the sender and receiver. Though we can apologize for inadvertently sending an unintentional message or try to explain our intended meaning behind a message, the initial impact of the original message has occurred. So it’s important to take the time to consider any message before sending it.

Choosing the Appropriate Channel

You may find that email communication is the way you discuss issues with your advisor, instructors, lab mates, or other important colleagues. Other situations may require that you meet with one or more of these people face to face. Regardless of which way you or others prefer to communicate, it is important that you learn to send messages effectively across a variety of channels.

In some ways, technology changes the skill sets required for effective communication. Corresponding by email allows you time to compose your response but also brings more opportunity for misunderstandings. People tend to form less detailed, but stronger impressions over computer-mediated communication1 . For example, writing too much or too little can aggravate a situation and an extended email exchange can be viewed as a waste of a professor’s time. Also, just because you are using electronic communication with your advisors and instructors doesn’t mean that you should be overly casual with them.

CareerWISE Tip: Instructors report being bothered by emails that are unsigned by the sender and that use spelling shortcuts such as “RU available to meet with me?” instead of “Are you available to meet with me?”2 . This frustration with an overly casual tone in email is not specific to older professors, but applies to anyone who qualifies as your superior, no matter their age. A simple rule is to use formal language when delivering any message that is professional in nature.

The Importance of Message Delivery

Once you figure out what you want to say and the mode in which you want to convey that message, you will want to deliver it the way you intended. It is easier to send a well-planned message from the start [see Planning the Message] than to try and amend a message later.

There are many ways that you can get your point across, but it is important to consider the appropriateness of each channel before selecting one over another. Certain informal channels eliminate the need to prepare, but they don’t guarantee a clear or accurate message.

For example, you may want to avoid letting “the grapevine” carry your message in the form of gossip or casual lab-chatter. Although the grapevine can feel like an informal, easy source of information, it can also get distorted and is generally not a good delivery system for important messages.

The same can be said for electronic channels such as email, and text or instant messaging. While it is quick and easy to send a message via such channels, they are typically seen as less serious and may not always be clear to the receiver.

Understanding the Concept of “Noise”

Finally, the message you think you sent might not be the one the other person received—something else might have gotten in the way or made your message difficult to understand. Your message might have been affected by “noise.” In communication research, the term “noise” refers to the many distractions that might interfere with the communication of messages or that interrupt the transmission of a message as it is sent, received, or both.

Noise can by physical, such as a bad phone connection, a lost email, or a loud air conditioner. For the most part, we are surrounded by so many physical noises in this busy and fast paced world that we get accustomed to these sounds and do not pay attention to the stress or distraction they might cause us3 .

Noise can also be psychological; for example, doubt or insecurity can creep into our heads and sabotage our communication. When we are distracted by negative psychological messages, it usually shows in our body language, facial expressions and even in our tone of voice. Though they may not realize it, the people with whom we communicate can subconsciously sense this noise as well3 .

Noise affects how you present (or don’t present) your messages. Think back to the scenario with Andrea and Tim. In the following diagram, the first three boxes all contain messages Andrea can tell herself that lead to the outcome listed in the fourth box—not talking to Tim. Which of the first three boxes could be considered noise?

“Tim is not here today” is not noise; the others are (psychological) noise because they represent assumptions versus fact.

Ultimately your message may seem like the most straightforward element of a communication interaction, but it is important not to overlook all of the elements that go into the creation of the message you want to send. After all, you want to ensure that when you do get the opportunity to communicate directly with the people who are important to your progress in the program, your message comes through as clearly as possible.

References

  1. Hancock, J. T., & Dunham, P. J. (2001). Impression formation in computer-mediated communication revisited: An analysis of the breadth and intensity of impressions. Communication Research, 28, 325-347. doi:10.1177/009365001028003004
  2. Stephens, K.K., Houser, M.L., & Cowan, R. L. (2009). R U able to meet me: The impact of students’ overly casual email messages to instructors. Communication Education, 58, 303-326. doi:10.1080/03634520802582598
  3. Evans, G. W., & Johnson, D. (2000). Stress and open office noise. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 779-783. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.85.5.779

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Critical Mass
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