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What Leaders Need to Know about Theory Based Communication

Dec 18, 2007
Leadership, sales, marketing, training, mentoring -they all demand communication skills. Understand a few communication theories and you can greatly improve these skills.

While I would like to give you simple pat answers, life is not always simple. Some of the most abundant oil wells require deep drilling. I say that so that you will not check out on reading something that can make a dynamic difference in your business. It will require some deep mental drilling. Hopefully we will be drilling and not boring. (Pun intended.)

I am going to talk about communication theories. I have discovered how important it is to have a basic understanding of communication theories in my work as a communication and e-learning professional and consultant.

If you want to communicate more effectively, base your communication on some of these theories. Understanding just a few theories is one of the most effective ways to improve your communication and marketing skills.

Definition of theory

What definition of theory will I use? Theory: It is a pattern of study that has been developed over time and contains a testable body of information or principles that guide activities. It is a systematic model that explains interactions in a way that helps you predict the future.

When you communicate as leader in business, education, church or marketing, you want to use proven patterns that have a history of success, don't you? It makes sense to have principles that have been tested and proven to be good guides?

What theory is not

The theories I refer to are not abstract speculation that some John Doe dreamed up in the middle of the night because he had too much pizza before bed. Sometimes the term theory is used in this way.

Some people call speculation theory. Used that way theory is the opposite of fact. That is not the theory you need, although you probably know leaders that operate on those kinds of theories.

Sometime methods and accepted traditional models are defined as theory, such as music theory. It is closer to the definition -- but not quite close enough.

The power of theory

The power of theory (the first definition) is when it can be adapted to guide your activities. You use the theory to plan; then you implement the plan; you check the results, and make adjustments to your understanding of the theory and do it again. That is the kind of theory that turbo-charges your thinking.

So the short definition for the kind of theory I reference here is: a systematic model that explains interactions in such a way that it helps you predict the future.

Theories are everywhere. Here are three ways a theory can serve you if you are a leader.

1. It allows you to learn from genius

The kind of theories I defined have been developed out of careful research and study, sometimes a lifetime of it. Because they have been developed by scholars and preserved in their writings, you can read and learn from past genius.

For example there have been heavily researched theories regarding face-saving. Face saving is the action designed not to cause the other person embarrassment. Theories related to face-saving indicate that persons who come from more collectivistic cultures engage in high face saving.

Conversely, people from more individualistic cultures tend to speak more directly and with less concern about helping the other party save face. This launches us into the next way theories help communicators and leaders.

2. Theory provides a basis for analysis you might otherwise miss

In the example of face-saving theory, I mentioned collectivistic cultures. Collective cultures are cultures with high interdependence. Examples of collectivistic cultures might include some Asian and Hispanic cultures.

Let speculate and say you are an individualist and you invite a Latin American you just met to a social event. This person says they will come. If you understand face-saving you will quickly analyze the situation and understand that the invitee may intend to come.

However, you also realize the invitee may be helping you save face, not wanting to embarrass you by refusing your hospitality. This leads to the third way a theory may serve you.

3. Theory provides a big-picture vantage point

Using the example above you know about face-saving, so you overtly provide a way in the conversation for the person to gracefully decline. Or perhaps it means you are a little slower to brand the persons as "not keeping their word" when in their culture "yes" means "I would like to" rather than a definite, "I am coming".

Understanding the theory could help you understand the situation from a higher cultural view point rather than a personal view point. This keeps you from wasting emotional energy because you take it personally and are angry, hurt, or disappointed.

There are other ways that theories can help us understand our interactions. They can give us consistency in the way we mentally process interactions; they provide a common language and understanding of what may be occurring; and, they provide a point from which to develop new theories as the old are applied to new situations.

Know that the example above is only one example. Watch for upcoming articles on theories that you as a leader will want to know and apply. In the meantime, do a web search combining theory with words like, communication or leadership.

Practice looking at situations through the lens of some good theories and it will make you a better leader in religious, direct marketing, educational, training, and sales organizations. Theories give insight. Use them.
About the Author
Rick Hubbard has B.A. in Organizational Communication and a M.A. in e-Learning/Instructional System Design. He works in instructional technology at a Florida university and does consulting in both communication and instructional design. A Leadership Revolution
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