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Did the cave man have it right?
I am always amazed at the number of seminars, workshops and articles I see about how to improve the one tool most basic to interaction with others – communication. One would think that once caveman and cave woman developed past the occasional grunt-and-gesture into a world where an actual book – the dictionary – was established to create common definitions, communication would have become much easier.

Yet, with all the opportunities available it seems that communication, or rather the lack thereof, is still one of the least addressed issues in business and education today. As a training and leadership consultant, I often ask teachers and trainers to define the word “teach” and “train.” It is always interesting how varied the meaning is to different people. How can a word mean so many different things to so many different people? And if it does and that is acceptable to our society then why have a dictionary in the first place. And if it does then I personally want to go back and discuss my grades on every vocabulary test from school. I also had a similar conversation with a group of business people about the culture of their company. I asked them to define culture and like the teachers, their answers were quite different. “Well, it means different things to different people.” Really?

As a young boy in the eighth grade, I had a favorite English teacher named Mrs. Frederick. She gave a vocabulary test every Thursday. Mrs. Frederick was very old-school and rather absolute in her thinking. If I had put as the answer, “Well it means different things to different people,” she would have introduced me to the dictionary with a smack to my head. It is actually pretty simple. If words didn’t have a common meaning, then wouldn’t it be impossible to communicate with each other?

Today there is dangerous tendency to assume that when people use the same words, they perceive a situation in the same way. In truth, this is rarely the case. Once one gets beyond a dictionary definition- a meaning that is often of little practical value-the meaning we assign to a word is often our belief or interpretation and rarely an absolute. It is fairly easy to see where the problems lie. We aren’t communicating. We are talking.

In our workshops and seminars, we use horses to facilitate leadership development programs. The longer I lead these classes, the more I learn about communication – the ability to express ideas effectively – from my equine partners. After all, horses are absolute communicators. They cannot lie. They have an absolute and common form of communication and understanding that has kept them alive and has remained virtually unchanged for some 50 million years. And for the most part their communication is non-verbal.

In our equine-assisted seminars, we typically have the group lead a horse through an obstacle course. However, no one is allowed to touch the horse. The first time the leader talks to everyone telling them what to do. Success, at first, is always fair at best. Then the team is asked to repeat the exercise without anyone being able to talk. Success is always much better.

So, why does the second effort work so much better? Two reasons. First, we stop using words, especially ones that “mean different things to different people.” We spend our time trying to figure out what is being said rather than focusing on the actual task. Second, maybe the caveman and the horses have it right. Actions really do speak louder than words. They force us to be absolute.

At times the most successful communication we have is not talking at all. According to research, about 80 to 90 percent of all communication is nonverbal. While our words can be misinterpreted, our actions are more absolute. Sorry, but email just doesn’t work to really communicate. How can you see a person’s reaction or action through the internet?

What does all this mean? Perhaps, as we go along our way, we can start to become more aware of how our communication is perceived by others and work to make our words and our actions mirror each other.

If you want to have fun sometimes, look up a word in the dictionary every once in a while to see if it means what you thought. See how little you can say and how successful you can be. Learn to listen and observe body language and facial expressions. Smile, feel good, and look at people in the eye.

This communication thing is supposed to make everything better.

Source: Don Huston
Don Hutson
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