Communication is an outcome

The Philosopher Developer

September 17, 2021

This is something I've observed countless times in both my personal and professional life.

Often, I will hear someone say that they sent someone else an email, or a Slack message, or a text, confident that they communicated important information to the other person.

It can be the same when a team member says, "I wrote a page about this." Or: "I published a blog post." Or: "I gave a demo of this."

The fallacy is a misunderstanding of what good communication is. To communicate something means to successfully transfer the information into another person's brain. It isn't just the sending, it's confirmation of the receipt.

What if you send a Slack message and the recipient doesn't notice it? What if you publish a blog post and nobody reads it? Then you aren't actually communicating. You're putting a message in a bottle and hoping someone discovers it when it washes ashore.

Is this communication?
Is this communication?

Am I claiming that, when you share information, it is 100% your fault if your audience doesn't absorb and remember it forever? No. Without a doubt, I have allowed my mind to wander when I should have been paying attention far too many times. I have also honestly forgotten things that people have told me. We all have. To the extent these cases represent failed communication, the fault was mostly or entirely mine. But they were still communication failures.

What I'm saying is that communication is an outcome, not an action. Communication is not saying things, or writing things, or sharing things. How you communicate something is an implementation detail; what matters is whether it actually lands, and sticks, in the mind(s) of your audience. Skilled communicators are those who can reliably transmit information accurately all the way into other people's heads.

So how do you know if you have communicated effectively?

  1. Good: At a bare minimum, you need a response. Not from a robot—a blue checkmark or some analytics data doesn't count1—a response from the person. That said, not all responses are created equal.
  2. Better: Ideally the response includes an attempt to understand. An email that just reads "Thank you" doesn't tell you the recipient even bothered reading what you wrote. On the other hand, "Thanks for writing this, you make some great points" tells you they read it; however, there is still a chance they missed what you were really trying to say.
  3. Best: The strongest confirmation you can get is when your audience is able to demonstrate understanding. This could be as simple as "Got it—I'll make X my top priority" where X is something you've requested from a colleague. It doesn't have to be an agreement, though; it could be someone engaging with your points and even disagreeing with you, as long as they are able to accurately represent your position.

Now, what if you haven't communicated effectively? What if no one reads your email? Or replies to your Slack message? Or what if the responses you get make you suspect you didn't clearly get your message across?

Not to worry. Do the same thing you always do when at first you don't succeed: try, try again. If you didn't get a response, try a gentle reminder. If you got a generic response, ask for validation. (Sometimes I try: "Could you put that in your own words just to make sure we're on the same page?") And finally, if you got a response that implies misunderstanding, treat it as a challenge! Your new mission: to reach a shared understanding with this person. The next step could be a follow-up email providing more background context, or a drawing or diagram to help visualize the ideas, or a list of questions to better understand their perspective. For me, it's often as simple as a 30-minute video chat.

Just remember that communication is an outcome. The work isn't done when you hit send.

  1. Think for a moment about what these signals actually mean: that a computer sent a message to another computer. E.g. a client application established a connection to a server application, theoretically as the result of a human action—but maybe not. And even if it was, the person might have clicked on a link accidentally; or they opened a window and then immediately got distracted and forgot about it; or their child was playing with their phone; or their cat was walking on their keyboard.