There Is No Such Thing As Communication Skill
Just as we cannot objectively measure greatness of love, we cannot objectively measure effectiveness of communication either. Nobody can be a great lover to everyone, and nobody can be a great communicator to everyone. On a résumé or a help wanted ad, it is useless to list “communication skills”. Everyone is a good communicator to the people they surround themselves with. Nobody thinks they lack “communication skills”. In fact, if someone claims he has “great communication skills”, it is a pretty good sign that he has a poor understanding of what communication is. If you need someone to manage communication, you should look for someone who understands the fundamentally nebulous nature of communication, not someone who thinks he knows what he is doing. (This is true for user-experience designers too.)
Most of us learned to communicate intuitively, just as we learned to walk intuitively. If asked to explain how we do what we do, we have a hard time articulating it. Most people have no theoretical understanding of how we communicate. It’s very much like songwriting. You don’t need to study music theories to write great songs. Some of the best songwriters never studied theories. But there are certain things in life that we cannot achieve without theories, like writing a symphony. Theories allow us to expand our possibilities beyond our own intuitions and talents.
Theory is a method of generalization. Without a theory, we can apply our knowledge or skills only to specific things. A particular skill may work for a particular task very well, but it may not work for a different task, and you wouldn’t know why it doesn’t work, because you don’t know why it worked for the original task. For you to be able to apply that skill for other tasks, you would need to understand the general principle of your skill, why and how it is working for the original task. To go beyond the specific application of your skill, it is not enough to master the skill; you need to step outside of yourself and analyze how you are doing what you are doing. Self-proclaimed “great communicators” haven’t realized the need to do this, and the mastery of communication within their own bubbles have them convinced of their own greatness.
Those who have never theoretically studied communication (i.e. who can communicate only intuitively) tend to take their own knowledge or point of view for granted, because they have no objective understanding of their own mental processes. This makes them poor instructors/teachers. When someone is trying to explain to you how to get to his house. He might say, “When you get out of the subway, walk towards the church,” overlooking the fact that the church is visible only if you exited the station in a specific way. It doesn’t occur to him to instruct you which way you need to turn after you exit the turnstile because he himself always turn the right way without thinking about it.
If you do not regularly evaluate your own mental processes, your natural tendency is to assume that the behaviors that worked well for you in the past are universally right behaviors for everyone. Say, you spoke to a girl at a bar in a certain way and were able to get her phone number. You would then assume that you discovered a right way to talk to all girls. You might even try to teach other men how to talk to girls.
Communication takes at least two to tango, and the specific combination of players determines the effective way to communicate. It is not possible to establish a standard of effectiveness for communication because everything is a variable and the possible permutations are infinite. Nobody is a master of communication to everyone, although it is possible for someone to be a master of communication to a specific type of people. Even if you are good at picking up fashion models at nightclubs, it does not necessarily mean that you could seduce a bookworm at a library. When trying to figure out the best way to communicate, you have to first evaluate who is talking and who is listening, before you begin to think about how or what to communicate.
Writing teachers often tell you to “know your audience”. This is true but it is equally important to know yourself. There are two aspects to knowing yourself: Who you think you are, and what other people think you are. They could be quite different. For instance, when you are speaking in front of an Iranian audience, whether you are another Iranian or an American would significantly influence the outcome. You may think you know yourself very well but that wouldn’t help you in this situation. You yourself might not consider your own nationality as an important aspect of yourself but the audience might not see it that way.
When I first came to the US in the 80s, the relationship between Japan and the US was contentious because of what was happening in the automotive industry at the time. My mere presence in the same room could influence the way other people talked about cars in general. This certainly complicated my communication. My association with Japan would color the way they perceived me and what I said, and it wasn’t possible to simply ignore it.
This too can fall under the same category of knowing your audience but it’s an aspect that is easy for us to overlook because when someone tells you to “know” something, your tendency is to observe that object or subject in a scientific manner where you do not take into account how the observer influences the observed.
For your communication to be effective, you need to take into account who your audience is and who they think you are, and employ a “tone” that would allow you to achieve the desired effect. By “desired effect”, I do not simply mean the smoothest way to communicate. Depending on the situation, your objective might be to annoy or anger your audience. This is an important point to keep in mind because we tend to assume that giving the audience what they want is the ultimate objective of communication in general, but this isn’t always true. Photographers sometimes treat their subjects rudely as soon as they arrive at their studios, in order to capture angry expressions. Effectiveness of communication is measured by how closely you matched your own desired effect, not by any sort of universal standard.
To be an effective communicator, you need to behave like a chameleon. In the West, behaving like a chameleon has negative connotations, but in Japan, it is expected of everyone. If you were to observe one Japanese person in Japan throughout the day, you would notice significant shifts in the way he acts. Even the language itself changes depending on whom they are talking to. Just by reading a few lines of written dialogue, you could guess whether this person was talking to someone older or younger, man or woman, at work or at home, etc.. The mutable nature of self is so deeply assumed in Japanese culture that it reflects in their language.
As this blog article concisely explains, “voice reflects the nature of the author, while tone reflects the nature of the intended audience.” This is an important distinction to keep in mind for all forms of communication, not just writing. Even in speaking, it is more effective to change your tone depending on who you are talking to. This does not necessarily mean that you are trying to pretend to be someone you are not. What should come through, despite your shifting tones, is your “voice” which still allows the audience to recognize you. But “voice” is not something you consciously craft. As your creative expressions mature over time, your voice would naturally emerge, almost unintentionally. In this sense, there is no need for you to be concerned about your own voice. It is for your audience to perceive, not for you to control or manipulate.
Most people do not need to communicate with people outside of their own worlds. If you are a scientist, you would most likely be surrounded by other scientists. If you are a banker, by other bankers. A lawyer, by other lawyers. In these situations, relying on intuition is sufficient to become successful, just as great songwriters do not need to understand general theory of music. But to pursue communication as a profession, we cannot simply rely on our own intuitions. We must study a variety of theories, such as cultural anthropology, linguistics, psychology, semiotics, sociology, etc.. And, I believe, the broader you study, the better. After all, communication is a form of translation. It is about connecting the dots. We can let the specialists fill in each dot. Our job as a professional communicator is to recognize which dots need to be connected. For that, we need to see the world holistically.
Also, we as professional communicators do not necessarily have to be good speakers, writers, or visual artists ourselves, just as great composers do not have to be good violinists, trumpeters, or percussionists. Our key competency is our theoretical understanding of communication, and our ability to generalize what we learned. But let’s not delude ourselves; communication is something we will never fully understand no matter how much we theorize. Communication is not a skill, just as love is not a skill. We can only aim to increase the probability of success through our theories; failures will always be unavoidable. It is not possible to come up with a universally right way to communicate. Every instance will have different variables and permutations of players. Every need to communicate will require a different solution. Our job is to increase the odds of success, not to pretend as though we know the right answer.