Building Blocks of Communication

In last week’s blog, I focused on the natural communication breakdowns that get in the way of our forward momentum in work and relationships. Most of us would love to avoid those breakdowns, because they are roadblocks to performance at work and create rifts in relationships that slow us down at best and bring us to a dead stop at worst.

So, we simply work harder at “effective” communication. We want people to understand what we are trying to say – to get it and do it! That rarely works. What we are really looking for is meaningful communication: an interaction between people where they achieve mutual understanding of the situation, the outcomes, and each other’s perspective. The interaction is powerful because it creates shared meaning – thus meaningful communication. You might think that sounds a bit touchy feely – but it is so much more.

Meaningful communication is not the absence of great communication skills, such as, active listening, paraphrasing, or asking good questions. Rather, meaningful communication includes at its foundation the building blocks that reinforce these powerful skills. So, what are the building blocks?

  • Awareness of our own preferred communication style
  • Embracing that not everyone prefers the same thing
  • Seeking to understand differences in others and learning to speak their “language”

These building blocks sustain communication that acknowledges your preferences while remaining teachable, leadable, and open to adapting your style to meet the demands of a particular situation or relationship. To get more concrete, let’s build on our examples from last week’s blog:

A manager delegating a task:

The manager shares the big picture of the project or task. The ideas behind it and what it will mean to achieve it. The team member appreciates details, facts and some concrete traction to complete the project. Meaningful communication is the manager taking the time to share the project or outcomes with more detail. Inviting questions from the team member in areas they don’t understand. The team member leverages their strengths by outlining the steps and paraphrasing the manager’s picture in their language to confirm understanding.

A team problem solving a challenge:

Meaningful communication is making space in the meeting to tap different team member’s needs and strengths. It might mean formalizing a process that starts with ideas and innovation, moving to analyzing and critical thinking, then choosing action and working out the specific details for action – with room to re-evaluate and assess results. Tapping into the different needs in communication and problem solving will draw out more details and create a shared understanding of both the problem and the solution.

A couple plans a vacation or a simple date night:

One partner is looking forward to connection, time together, or deeper conversation. The other partner is looking for an adventure, trying something new and making a memory. Meaningful communication is acknowledging that needs and expectations for the experience will be different. Awareness of your own needs, articulating those needs, and acknowledging that they might not be shared is the foundation that energizes great communication skills like asking questions, finding common ground, or adjusting to meet different needs.

These are the conversations that will be powerful – the ones that explore, go deeper, and paint a bigger, more detailed picture of expectations, needs, and outcomes. Meaningful communication emerges from awareness of differences allowing communicators to apply powerful communication skills in a more relevant way. Stay tuned. My next blog will explore using communication skills with intentionality.


Annie Perdue Olson

Annie is founder of Leading Better Together, guiding leaders through the relationship and people challenges that sidetrack ministry. With 20+ years of experience in nonprofit management and pastoral ministry she equips people and teams to work better together. She holds a Master of Arts in Human Resources and Change Leadership from St. Thomas University and received her coaching certification from the Center for Coaching Excellence.

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