Expert Commentary

Communication Insights for Supervision

The supervisor is in a unique position, serving as the link between management and the workforce. The successful execution of organizational strategy hinges on the effectiveness of the supervisor's ability to lead workers to enthusiastically engage in their assigned tasks. To perform this compellingly, the supervisor must be able to effectively communicate with the workforce. It is equally important for the supervisors to be able to communicate with peers and management if they are to add value to the operation and, as such, to the organization. Astute upper management would be well served to offer supervisors a working as well as enhanced knowledge of effective communication skills.


Construction Safety
November 2014

Speech and language are the most common means of communication among people. Language expresses inner thoughts and emotions, makes sense of complex and abstract thought, and is used to communicate with others, to fulfill wants and needs, and to establish rules and maintain culture. Language is made up of words that have meaning; therefore, care should be taken in their selection. It is generally better to use familiar words in place of the unfamiliar ones, concrete words in place of the abstract ones, short words in place of long ones, and single words in place of several. For most people, effective communication means a proficient use of language. For communication to occur, both the sender and the receiver must have a common language and a similar understanding of it. Both the sender and the receiver must also have compatible understanding of the meaning of the words used in the communication.

Interpersonal Communication

Communication starts with one person having a thought or idea and wanting to communicate it to another. The person then has to put it into words (encode) and transmit it to the other person (receiver). The receiver then has to decode the message and make sense of it. The meaning conveyed by the sender's words depends upon the receiver's life experience, attitude, and perception as well as the context in which the exchange occurs. So to overcome this potential barrier, the sender must try to speak in terms of the receiver's outlook and circumstances. Therefore, the better the sender knows the receiver, the greater is the potential for successful communication.

Communication has many facets (see Figure 1). Simplistically, it is the transmission of a message to another person. How that other person receives the message can be affected by the receiver's listening skills; therefore, the sender should be attuned to this. There are many communication channels: oral (face-to-face) one-on-one and in groups, oral (electronically) by telephone or radio, or in written form—by email, letters, handouts, postings on bulletin boards, or signage. Selecting the appropriate channel for the situation will also impact the quality of the exchange. On a construction site, much of the communication is generally done verbally, and so the environment where the exchange occurs will impact the quality of the exchange. See "The Role of Communication in Effective Supervision" for greater detail of the basics involved.

Figure 1: Two-Way Communication Model

Two-Way Communication Model

People have engaged in nonverbal communication for much longer than they have been using language. The main reason is that much of nonverbal communication takes place below our conscious awareness level. Generally, all messages communicated orally and, to some extent, the ones in writing have a nonverbal component, which can reinforce, complement, detract from, or contradict the message. We may express something verbally while our facial expressions, postures and positions, tone of voice, or gestures may indicate the opposite. The nonverbal component typically communicates belief, attitude, or emotional aspects of the message, as well as potentially the participant's state of mind. It may also be indicative of the relationship between people.

Gestures are sometimes used to reinforce a statement or indicate direction, approval, or dislike. They may be inviting or threatening, communicating encouragement, disappointment, or anger. Facial expressions and posture also are strong indicators of what a person is feeling or thinking. These may telegraph whether the person is fearful, agitated, sad, conciliatory, calm, happy, or some other emotion. Therefore, any of the nonverbal cues can play an important role in either facilitating or hindering effective communication, or conversely it can provide valuable information about the thinking of the people involved in the exchange.

The supervisor may not be fully aware of the importance of nonverbal communication and its effect on dealing with people as well as its impact on effectively managing everyday work-related issues. This could create barriers to the effective exchange of information and, more importantly, understanding. This could render the supervisor less than optimally effective. This also impacts the effectiveness of the workforce, the efficiency of operations, and profitability of the organization. Research has shown that about 7 percent of information is communicated by words, 38 percent by body language, and 55 percent by vocal tone (see Figure 2). The differences in values, beliefs, and personalities between sender and receivers will impact the way each person hears, interprets, and reacts to the same information. So being aware of this and taking it into consideration will greatly improve the exchange of information. Another important factor for which the sender should be looking is feedback from the receiver of the message, especially body language and tone of voice. This will allow the sender to make adjustments so that the message is received as intended and understood by the receiver.

Figure 2: Communication Flow

Communication Flow

It is important to note that, in positive interactions, we do not seem to focus as much on the tone of voice or nonverbal component of the interaction as on what is being said and how the message makes us feel. When the exchange is negative, emotionally charged, or confrontational, the focus tends to gravitate more heavily to the nonverbal part of the interaction, with body language, facial expression, and especially tone of voice taking on a significant role in how we react to the message.

The Effect of Facial Expressions on Communication

Facial expressions play a significant role in communication. Facial expressions during communication convey the emotional state of an individual to an observer. The eyes are often viewed as important features of facial expressions and considered an important aspect of interpersonal communication. Such things as blinking rate can be used to assess whether or not a person is nervous or whether or not he or she may be lying. Eye contact is considered an important aspect of interpersonal communication in some cultures and has a different implication in others.

The Effect of Postures on Communication

Posture also pays a role in nonverbal communication. Certain postures such as folded arms or crossed legs may signal defensiveness or concern, while an open posture may portray friendliness and positivity. Leaning toward a speaker signals interest in what is being said. Mirroring (copying the other person's posture) helps to subtly develop a connection with another person. Paying attention to posture will improve communication.

The Effect of Gestures on Communication

A motion of the hand, head, or body can express or emphasize an idea or emotion. Research has found that when gestures and words are aligned, the message is more effective, but when they are not aligned, they tend to confuse the listener and detract from the message. Gestures also heighten the interest of the listeners and so add value to communication.

The Effect of Tone of Voice on Communication

One part of communication that is often not carefully examined is how the message is delivered or the tone used when communicating with others. Tone pertains to pitch, volume, pace, and emphasis used in delivering a message. Pitch of voice (intensity, degree of high and low) and its timing also play a role in the quality of the communication. When tone is varied, life and energy are injected into the message. Tone of voice conveys emotions like excitement, enthusiasm, and humor. Our tone conveys our attitude, whether we send a message of humor, anger, sarcasm, jealousy, or sincerity.

People respond instinctively to voice tone, either positively or negatively. Tone might actually be more important than what is literally being said. Just ask anybody who listens to you! The same sentence can have different meaning depending on which word is emphasized and the tone of voice used. A common thread in complaints about upsetting messages is that, though the messages delivered may not seem offensive, the tone of voice accompanying that statement was hurtful, which impacts the outcome of the exchange.

Research indicates that people make instinctive judgment of others based upon the tone of the voice of the speaker. Specifically, people judge those with deeper voices as having more authority. To improve the impact of a message, supervisors should try to utilize the lower end of their voice ranges. The tone is often perceived as reflecting the speaker's negative attitude (critical, exasperated, contemptuous, etc.) toward the recipient. Usually, the listener's feelings are hurt by the disrespect, and he or she is not likely to hear the intended message. Also, any statement that may seem neutral on paper can become very offensive if spoken with a sarcastic or demeaning tone of voice.

Speaking slower has a number of positive effects on communication. It is important to slow down when giving advice, coaching, or providing constructive criticism. This is because, when you slow down, the implied message is that you are thinking before you speak. The implication also is that you are weighing the evidence and giving careful consideration to your message. So, the person who pauses and speaks at a slower pace tends to be perceived as more intelligent, thoughtful, and deliberate. His or her message carries more weight and tends to garner greater acceptance.

The Effect of Relationships on Communication

The relationship between people involved in communicating may form a greater barrier to the effectiveness of the process than almost any other cause. The communication between people with a good relationship tends to be more effective and successful. This is true of any form of communication. Douglas McGregor, a leading authority on management practices, once said, "It is a fairly safe generalization that difficulties in communication within an organization are more often than not, mere symptoms of underlying difficulties in relationships between parties involved. When communication is ineffective, one needs to look first at the nature of these relationships rather than at ways of improving communication."

Lack of empathy can create a barrier between the sender and receiver. Empathy, as defined in the dictionary, is "understanding so intimate that the feelings, thoughts, and motives of one are readily comprehended by another." Better messages can be transmitted if one can see oneself in the receiver's place and analyze the intended message from his or her point of view. The same thinking applies to the receiver, who must be able to empathize with the sender. This may be easier said than done, but the potential benefits of the effort can enhance working relationships as well as benefit the organization.

The Feedback Cycle

An important part of the communication process is the feedback element. The sender must pay attention to the feedback from the other person in order to manage the communication process more effectively. The sender must observe the receiver's facial expression and body language to make a determination of the reaction he or she is having to the message. This will allow the sender to adjust the various elements of the process in order to enhance the recipient's understanding of the message.

The next step is to solicit verbal feedback. This will provide information to the sender in two ways. First, the sender should look for any tonal information that will again deal with the recipient's emotional response to the message. The other source of information is the words used in the feedback. The assessment of this information will tell the sender if the receiver has understood the message as the sender intended. If there is a discrepancy, the sender can then take the necessary steps to modify the message to better explain it, reword the message to provide additional information, or repeat some portion of it to clarify a misunderstanding or confusion on the recipient's part.

Effective Verbal Communication Strategies

  • Focus on the issue, not people. Avoid taking things personally. Try to resolve issues amicably. Express needs and/or opinions in terms of the work at hand. Constructive criticism should be directed at the work and not the worker's personality.
  • Empathize rather than being judgmental. When dealing with people, it is important to demonstrate sensitivity. How one feels toward people will easily manifest itself in one's demeanor and will readily be picked up by them.
  • Create an atmosphere of openness so as to establish a good working relationship. In conversations, give your undivided attention to the people with whom you are conversing. Avoid trying to communicate in busy and noisy areas.
  • Avoid pulling rank. Be genuine and straightforward in dealings with others. Work toward creating a trusting and cooperative working relationship. Treat people fairly and with respect.
  • Demonstrate flexibility when dealing with others. Respond in ways that acknowledge their knowledge and experience. Thank them for their input.
  • Good listening skills and showing a genuine interest are attributes of a successful communicator. Actively listening to people creates an atmosphere of trust and respect, enhancing communication and problem resolution.
  • Be concise, use clear language, listen for feedback, and pay attention to body language and tone of voice.

Conclusion

We become better communicators to the extent that we can devise messages that elicit the response we expect or desire from recipients. To accomplish this effectively, we need to thoroughly understand the communication process and its inherent barriers. If we do not elicit the anticipated response, we need to be able to modify the message to facilitate its understanding.

We also need to be able to recognize the effect our messages can have on the recipient and how to structure them so the effect is as positive as possible. To communicate effectively, we also need to actively seek out feedback as well as build relationships so as to enhance the overall communication process.

The importance of effective communication can even be found in the Bible in the story of the collapse of the Tower of Babel due to people not being able to make sense of what they were saying to each other. Communication skills are critical in everything we do. How well we communicate and how effective our communication is determine to a great extent how successful we are in our professional or personal lives. The ability to convey knowledge is power. What we think or know only becomes powerful if we can pass it along to others so that they may use it to better their circumstances or those of their organization.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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