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Communication occurs best at ‘Ground Level’

Often the words we use to describe what we are looking for in a new employee or the improvement or changes we seek are too vague to facilitate effective communications. In Overcoming Resistance (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993 ISBN: 0671749498) Jerald M. Jellison compares how we use language to flying in an airplane. We use words at the 40,000 feet level when we should be getting down to ground level by using precise, easily understood terms to describe what we want.

Jellison describes looking at the window when cruising at 30 - 40,000 feet. We may be able to make out major landmasses and large bodies of water if clouds do not obscure our view. As we descend towards our destination, we can distinguish more that is on the ground. At 20,000 feet, we see fields and large buildings. By 10,000 feet we can see vehicles moving along highways. After we land, we can make out details such as cracks in the tarmac and the people who are standing, ready to service the aircraft.

The meaning of the words we use can be as vague to the listener as the landscape that we look down upon from 40,000 feet. From that altitude, we use generalizations that convey little meaning to the listener. “Customer service needs to be improved.” “Schools should put more emphasis on the basics.” Lines such as these prompt more anger than action.

30,000 feet is the “psychological” level where things are defined in terms of thoughts and feelings. “We want to hire someone who cares about people.” “We need more commitment to solving customers problems.”

At 20,000 feet, we speak of actions or outcomes, but the terms are still too general for the listener to understand our message. “It is important to hire someone who plans well.” “You should contribute more during meetings.”

By 10,000 feet, actions and outcomes are defined in sufficient detail to be understood by most listeners. “We want to improve satisfaction levels by 5 per cent.” “Spend most of your day meeting with clients.”

At ground level is realty. Actions and outcomes are described in detail. “Customers must be greeted within 15 seconds of entering.” “Every member should identify at least one potential club member.”

Whether creating a business plan, conducting a performance appraisal or interviewing candidates for a new position, think ground level! Both the listener and speaker are more likely to have a common understanding of what is said.


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A professional trainer, speaker, and consultant since 1995, Nelson Scott works with organizations that are committed to making the right hiring decisions, developing and retaining productive staff, and strengthening relationships with customers.  Learn more by visiting or e-mailing


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