4 Principles of Communication

Did you know our learners are naturally wired to look for specific things during the learning process?

By Tim Rymel, M.Ed., President, Corporate Kindergarten

As professional trainers, we are generally good about applying the basics when presenting or creating learning materials. We know how to use agendas, objectives, and examples, but did you know our learners are naturally wired to look for specific things during the learning process? According to researcher Paul Grice, there are four basic principles of communication that come naturally to us as humans:

1. We’re wired to look for truth. We look for quality in communication. Have you ever gotten that feeling someone was lying to you? There is something to be said for intuition. Our brains are searching for something that sounds and feels right. We naturally look for something we can agree upon with the person to whom we are speaking, or listening.

Research shows common traits in those who are lying. UCLA Professor Edward Geiselman discovered, among other things, that people who lie typically say as little as possible, justify what they do say, repeat questions to give them time to think, and slow down their stories to evaluate how their message is being received.

Conversely, when we listen to people speak, we look for plausibility. Does what they are saying make sense? What mannerisms are they using that might clue us in about the legitimacy of what they are saying? According to Professor Grice, our brains naturally look for these types of validations to evaluate communication.

2. We are wired to look for information. We are looking for the quantity of information being presented during communication. In other words, how much of what someone is saying resonates as new and useful information verses simply using words to fill time?

As learning specialists, we sometimes can be so focused on how we present learning that we forget about the learning itself. In one such organization, for which I consult, I discovered an e-learning module that included no less than 17 minutes of introduction about what the learner would learn and less than two minutes of actual content. I wasn’t sure if I was more shocked at the lack of business sense of the module itself, or the cost spent to develop it.

Our brains are constantly trying to make cognitive assortment of information we receive. Agendas, stories, humor, and anecdotes should enhance the learning experience, not substitute for actual content. Though adult learners like to be entertained once in a while, we appreciate tools that help make our jobs and lives simpler.

3. We are wired to look for relation. Information makes more sense when it’s relevant. Last year I was asked to teach a series of classes at the last minute because the designated instructor was unavailable. This particular class was a new milestone in my corporate career. I managed to successfully teach more than 25 classes and not learn one thing about the subject matter. If anyone asked a question that strayed from the script, I looked like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “I’ll get back to you” was my motto. It was during these sessions I learned to appreciate virtual teaching.

Our brains prefer to learn cognitively. We add information to what we already know and filter new information based on the current information we already have stored in memory. When we listen or communicate with someone, we are looking to build on what is already there. If we hear something that is new, that doesn’t resonate with what we know, we have to decide if it is something worth remembering and create a new space for it, or we simply won’t remember it at all.

When designing curriculum, I want to know who my audience is and what experience, if any, they have with the topic being developed. Knowing my audience helps me know how to tie the subject matter into something to make it relevant and noteworthy. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, the learners, like the instructor, can go through 25 classes without learning a thing.

4. We are wired to look for manner. The manner in which something is communicated defines the clarity of the communication. Research shows that words themselves can keep us from learning. It’s not that we don’t understand the words, it’s that sometimes we are so focused on the way something is worded that we stop listening to the rest of what is being said. We focus on making sense of the way the words are put together. Bandwidth, for example was a term initially used to describe the ability to transfer data on a certain frequency without distortion. When someone says, “I don’t have the bandwidth,” I have to interpret this to mean, “I don’t have the time or capacity.” So rather than listening to the content of the meeting, I focus my attention on interpreting the discussion into discernible, bite-size chunks that make the content truthful, informative, relevant, and clear.

We must make a conscious effort to speak with clarity to the least common denominator. That means having the ability to speak to those who have been with the company for years without excluding those who are new. Productivity can easily be lost by well-meaning trainers, who use what seems to be common verbiage or departmental jargon to make a point.

Our brains shouldn’t have to work overtime to discern what can easily and clearly be stated. Loss of clarity translates into loss of productivity. Employees focused on training are not focused on working. A few more minutes spent on how an e-learning script is developed or how an instructor-led class is delivered can save hours of work for participants back in the office.

While scenarios, mnemonics, and all the resources we have as professional trainers certainly help communicate the message, let’s not forget the basics: Be honest, be informative, be relevant, and be clear.

Tim Rymel is a writer, speaker, and consultant in business and academic education. He is the president of Corporate Kindergarten and holds degrees in business management and adult education. For more information, log on to http://www.CorporateKindergarten.com.

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