Communicating in an Imperfect World
Have you ever been speaking with someone and thought to yourself:
Wow, they just don’t get what I am saying. They must be from another planet!
Man, I can’t make myself any clearer. How can they not understand me. They must be an idiot.
In a perfect world our communications would go something like this:
- I have a chunk of meaning I want to pass on to someone else.
- I use language – words, tone of voice, and body language to send that meaning.
- The other person receives my “message.”
- The other person then has in their mind the same chunk of meaning that I wanted to pass along
However, this is rarely true. Why?
The reason is that everyone has their own unique “model of the world” which directly shapes how they send and receive meaning when they communicate.
Our Model of the World
We pay attention to various aspects of reality based on how we individually use our brains. We create our internal representations of the events in our lives by filtering the information that comes from our senses. This filtering distorts, deletes, and generalizes the information we receive so that it is manageable for the conscious mind. We create our own perceptions of reality based on this.
So, in fact, we actually only inhabit our perceptions and interpretations of reality. And everyone’s perception and interpretation of the world, of their reality, their model of the world is different. It may only be slightly different than our own, or it may be vastly different – but it is different.
If people you are communicating with just don’t get what you are trying to say, they are not from a different planet, nor are they idiots. Their model of the world is just different, and we need to understand and respect this.
You are, then, communicating across different “models of the world,” “alternate realities” so to speak. It is these differences that can, and often lead to misunderstandings, arguments, and breakdowns in communications.
We are always communicating in an imperfect world across alternate realities. Both the Sender and the Receiver need to take this into account.
So, what can be done?
What the Sender Can Do
Our natural assumption is that our intended meaning will be perfectly understood by the other person. When it isn’t, our natural inclination is to blame the other person for the breakdown. We often assume that the other person didn’t “hear” what we said so we repeat it exactly the same hoping or expecting different results. Often, we will increase the volume of the message assuming that a “louder” message will get through. All of this is likely to be very counterproductive and only increase the frustration, tension, and communication breakdown.
Unless you have positive evidence to the contrary, you should always assume that whomever you are interacting with is normal. By this is meant that they are not impaired in any serious way from hearing, seeing, or understanding what you say or do, and that they are not acting in any way to deliberately sabotage the interaction. In other words, don’t judge them as an idiot just because they didn’t immediately get your meaning.
A Sender needs to apply the following rule:
The meaning of a communication you send is the response you get.
You need to accept that your receiver’s response is what they honestly believe the meaning to be, no matter how different it is from what you intended. Blaming the listener for not “getting” your message is counterproductive. So, when you find yourself in a situation where your receiver clearly does not get your message you need to find another way to send your message so they can “get” it.
The onus is on you to put your message/meaning in a frame that fits with the listener’s model of the world – that enters into their alternate reality and makes sense to them.
What the Receiver Can Do
The responsibility for establishing the meaning of any communications starts with the sender. They are the only one who knows what is really intended. It is through the sender’s deliberate reshaping of the message that the receiver can come to understand it.
However, this does not mean the receiver is merely a passive receiver and has no responsibility to try and arrive at the intended meaning of the communications. The more the receiver participates meaningfully in arriving at the meaning of the communication the more productive and enjoyable the experience will be.
A great deal of the time when people hear someone say or see them do something they don’t understand they assume that it is false, and they try to imagine what could be wrong with the person to cause them to say or do something so ridiculous. This is the same reaction as a sender assuming that the receiver is an idiot because they didn’t “get” the message. A receiver’s reaction like this is virtually guaranteed to create a serious break down in communications.
A Receiver needs to apply Miller’s Law.
Miller’s Law instructs us to suspend judgment about what someone is saying so that we can first understand them without imbuing their message with our own personal interpretations. The law states:
To understand what a person is saying or doing that does not make sense to you, assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.
How to apply Miller’s Law
- Assume what you heard, or saw is true. Just assume it. You do not have to like it or accept it. You just need to come to understand it.
- Ask yourself: What could this be true of? Test this out with the other person by asking relevant questions.
- Ask Yourself: In a world where this is true what else would be true. Test this out with the other person by asking relevant questions.
- Continue this line of investigation until you have enough information to craft your message within the other person’s model of the world.
In any communication, you are both a Sender and a Receiver. The person you are speaking to is neither from another planet, nor an idiot. They do, however, have a different model of the world than yours. These alternate realities may be quite similar or vastly different. Both the Sender and Receiver need to understand and respect each other’s model of the world. Entering into the other person’s model of the world takes conscious effort. It is not necessarily easy. However, doing so will achieve much more meaningful and effective communications.
Note: Miller’s Law was formulated by George Miller (1920-2012), Princeton Professor and psychologist. He was one of the founders of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He also made significant contributions to psycho-linguistics and the study of human communication.