Countering the illusion of communication

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Courtney Malengo, APR
Courtney Malengo, APR

We all hear that communication is important, but what do we do about it?

Communication can be complicated, contingent on the message we are sending. Was the message received as intended, or received at all?

Other questions follow. Was the channel effective? Did I say the right thing? Did my nonverbal align with my verbal? There are disruptions and epiphanies along the way, but communication is crucial to everything we do.

It reminds me of Gus Portokalos, the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” who boldly asserts he can prove any word originated from a Greek word.

I believe the majority of problems, at their core, originate from communication. One of George Bernard Shaw's quotes sums it up best: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that is has taken place.”

I would venture to say we have all experienced this before. Leaders and managers fall prey to this illusion all the time.

Before we go any further, let me say, no one is a perfect communicator — not even those of us whose livelihoods depend on it.

At a recent conference, I attended a session on corporate communication. Several attendees were lamenting how their executive teams do not communicate effectively. The presenter shared his breakthrough with an executive he was advising.

“Did you tell your wife that you loved her when you got married?” the presenter asked.

The executive emphatically responded, “Yes, of course.”

Laying the groundwork for his analogy, he further inquired, “Do you still tell your wife you love her?”

Again, the executive answered, saying, “Of course I do.”

“Well, just because you told your wife you loved her on your wedding day, that doesn't mean you stop telling her you love her, right?”

It sounds so obvious in the aforementioned conversation, but often this is exactly what we do. It illustrates how easily we can get off track. We make the assumption that because we said it once, we do not have to say it again. In reality, we have to keep repeating ourselves for that message to be heard, understood and received (and then, we hope, acted on). In advertising, it can take anywhere from seven to more than 20 touchpoints before someone decides to act.

In senior living, working with residents, family members and other guests, I would suggest that we ought to set the bar even higher for our communication. We must reiterate those touchpoints every day, 365 days a year, to those living in our communities.

As senior living professionals, we have the privilege of interacting with seniors and their loved ones at integral times in their lives. We play a role in helping to educate them about retirement options and ensuring they are able to make informed decisions.

This is especially true when we help seniors and loved ones navigate a health crisis — they are coming to us because they need immediate assistance. In these scenarios, these individuals desperately need us to communicate clearly, concisely and with empathy. Our communication style can make or break those fragile interactions.

This is not just a challenge leaders or managers face. It happens with front-line staff, too — the ones who are engaging daily with customers. Clinical teams can ramble off acronyms at rapid-fire pace, enough to leave anyone dizzy. We assume understanding rather than explaining what we mean. Imagine the difference our communication would have if we were able to synthesize that information and make it relatable to the resident, guest or family member.

Here are some tips to enhance communication mindfulness:

  • Listen. All of us are going, going, going all-day long. Sometimes we anticipate the next thing we want to say, or how we will say it, rather than simply listening. Listening creates more empathy and knowledge than you may realize. 
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. When you finally start to get tired of hearing yourself say it, then say it again! That intentional and strategic repetition of messaging will help it stick.  
  • Reinforce context. Explain why you are doing something and why it is important to the outcome at hand. When individuals understand context and how their roles factor into that, there is a greater likelihood they will embrace your messaging. Residents never like it when you raise rates, but rather than simply saying you are raising rates, explain why you are raising rates. 
  • Assume not. We all know what happens when we assume.
  • Commitment. Be committed to the process and consistency. It takes work and effort to communicate effectively, but if you put the work in on the front-end, then there is less work to do on the back-end. Think of it as building up your communication muscles — the more you work them, the stronger you will be.

Courtney Malengo, an accredited public relations professional, has spent more 13 years in various marketing and communication capacities in several industries. For the past eight years, she has crafted public relations, marketing and branding strategies for senior living. Malengo is the director of communications for National Lutheran Communities & Services based in Rockville, MD. She has a Master of Arts degree in communication and leadership studies from Gonzaga University.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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