Years ago, after spending a fun-filled day at a dear friend’s birthday/pool party, my family piled in the car to drive home. Hayden, my youngest son and a middle schooler at the time, spent the entire day in the pool hanging out with other kids his age, especially one really cute girl. As we backed out of the driveway, Austin, now a very “experienced” high schooler, ribbed Hayden, “I saw you hanging out with that girl. Did you get her contact information?” Hayden, a bit dazed from being in the sun all day and exhausted from playing in the pool, immediately responded, “She wears disposable ones too.” Huh??? Confusion set in until we all realized that Hayden misunderstood the question and thought Austin was asking about contact lenses!! Hayden quickly caught his mistake, but it was too late. We pretty much laughed all the way home.
Don’t worry -- I totally have Hayden’s permission to share this story, but I’m sure you are wondering about this blog’s communication lesson. In a nutshell: effective communication occurs when you understand your audience’s prior knowledge as well as your own prior knowledge. The knowledge and experiences you both bring to the communication situation can and should affect the communication strategies you use. At the time of my story, Hayden had little (if any) experience with girls (come on -- he was in middle school and still went to the school dances to run around with the guys, not to dance with girls!). When asked the question about the girl’s “contact information,” Hayden’s prior knowledge connected to contact lenses, certainly not to her phone number. Austin, on the other hand, was immersed in the dating/relationship drama of high school and assumed that Hayden knew what the question meant. We all have experienced communication situations where confusion and misunderstandings happen based on the prior knowledge of the sender or the receiver. So how can we avoid this confusion?
There are two sides to consider. First, look at your prior knowledge. As the communication sender, figure out what you already know about the topic or problem or organization or client. Then, if possible, add to your knowledge BEFORE the communication experience. Recently I presented a communication training for a group of very dedicated and knowledgeable pet groomers. I spent some time discussing the industry’s jargon and ways to share the specialized vocabulary with clients (see last week’s blog for ideas). But in order to give examples of the jargon, I had to learn at least some of the words. Enter Petco’s Groomlish: A Dog Grooming Glossary. That’s right -- I used an online glossary of grooming terms to help me develop industry-specific examples to use in my presentation. Ask me about a dog’s feathers or skirt, and I can totally explain! Before every new networking opportunity or sales meeting, before every client lunch or training session, I always work to build upon my prior knowledge by researching. I then use this knowledge to make communication choices that the audience can more completely relate to and connect to like using the industry’s jargon or discussing the company’s philosophy and how it relates to communication.
Then, you look at your audience’s prior knowledge. Wait a minute! How can you figure out what your audience knows or does not know? Most times you can’t! And making assumptions about prior knowledge will only contribute to any miscommunication. Instead, approach the communication situation with an open mind and look for ways to ask about prior knowledge. If you are speaking one-on-one, you can ask an open-ended question. I’ve learned that the best way for me to understand someone’s prior knowledge about communication strategies is to ask “What is the biggest communication problem you experience?” You can also preface statements with “As you may already know …” or “I’m not sure if this is applicable to your company …” Watch your audience’s body language as you communicate. It’s easy to see confusion on someone’s face, or look for affirming nods and strong eye contact to show understanding. Above all, communicate with confidence and authority but don’t become cocky or a know-it-all. And listen closely -- give your audience opportunities to share prior knowledge and as you learn more and more, be flexible enough to change your word choice, pacing, or examples.
etc Strategies believes that prior knowledge can make or break a communication experience. Working to increase your prior knowledge and working to understand your audience’s prior knowledge will help you more effectively deliver a message. And to give you a bit more prior knowledge, according to Hayden, while goofing around in the pool that day, he and that very cute girl carried on a lengthy conversation about -- contact lenses (thus leading to his answer to Austin’s question). He used their shared experiences with contacts to get to know her better. Maybe Hayden had more prior knowledge about girls than I realized!!