Communication is key to succeed in business

Several years ago, a seasoned plumber wrote to the U.S. Bureau of Standards promoting a new procedure for cleaning pipes. The bureau replied: “The efficiency of the recommended solution is completely undisputed. However, there is an inherent incompatibility between the aforementioned solution and the basic chemical structures of the commonly used materials in current household and commercial pipeworks.”

The plumber wrote back saying, “Thanks, I really liked it, too.”

Within a few days, the bureau responded with another letter: “Don’t use hydrochloric acid! It eats holes in pipes!”

Wouldn’t it have been so much easier – and less expensive – to put it simply the first time?

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The word “communication” comes from the Latin “communico,” meaning “share.” We share ideas, thoughts, information and concerns.

Communication needs to be clear and understandable. Communication requires both effective sending and receiving. And if we don’t do it effectively, we have wasted our time.

Research psychologists tell us the average 1-year-old child has a three-word vocabulary. At age 2, most children have a working knowledge of 272 words. A year later, that number more than triples. At age 6, the average child has command of 2,562 words.

As adults, our word accumulation continues to grow, but the effective use of them does not necessarily follow. We can speak up to 18,000 words each day, but that doesn’t mean those messages are clear or correctly received.

No one can succeed in business … without developing good communication skills. The most basic yet crucial leadership skill is communication. It’s important to continue to evaluate your performance in these fundamental areas:

Speaking. You must be able to explain your requests and instructions, your ideas and your strategies to people inside and outside your organization.

Listening. Repeat and paraphrase what people say to make sure you understand and to show that you take their opinions seriously.

Writing. The paper trail you leave tells people a lot about how clearly you think and express yourself.

Leading meetings. You should encourage other people to share their ideas without letting discussions meander aimlessly. Sharpen your ability to … elicit productive comments.

Resolving conflict. Conflict can be subtle, but you still must defuse it if you want things to get done. You’ll use a lot of the skills already discussed to encourage people to open up and clear the air about their disagreements.

Persuasion. The right words can stimulate agreements, offer alternate points of view, provoke thoughtful consideration and bring people around to your way of thinking.

Perhaps the most helpful advice came from Peter Drucker, the late management guru, who said, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”

Beware of misinterpreting simple messages because of your perception of the sender’s meaning or intent. Here’s an eye-opening fact: The 500 most common words in the English language have more than 14,000 definitions. That explains why so many verbal interactions often create confusion and misunderstanding.

Two people meet at an art exhibition. “What is your line of work?” asked the woman.

“I’m an artist,” came the reply.

“This is so exciting! I’ve always wanted my portrait painted. Could you do that?” said the woman.

“That’s my specialty!” the artist said.

“Wonderful!” she said. “I just have one request. I want the painting done in the nude.”

The artist hesitated for a minute and then said, “I’ll have to get back to you.”

A few days later the artist called the potential customer to discuss the plan. “I’m willing to do the painting as you requested,” the artist said, “but I have one stipulation. I want to leave my socks on. I need somewhere to put my paintbrushes.”

Mackay’s Moral: It is wiser to choose what you say than say what you choose.

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He can be reached through his website,