22 Jun The Enemy of Effective Communication Is…Us
“We have met the enemy and he is us.” So stated comic strip character Pogo in a 1971 Earth Day
poster by artist Walt Kelly that decried human abuse of the planet. While not the original intent, the
sentiment applies equally well to the trials we humans face as communicators.
Reduced to the bare essentials, communicating entails several basic building blocks: a sender, a
message, a channel of conveyance, a receiver, and some acknowledgement that communication has
actually occurred—frequently referred to as “feedback.” However, as anyone who’s ever been in a
relationship will attest, human communication represents a far more complex and daunting undertaking,
which is why it continues as the subject of considerable scientific investigation. If it were as simple as
merely transmitting a message to a receiver, then there’d never be misunderstandings, confusion,
unintentional offenses, misconceptions, and so on.
So what is it that makes communicating clearly so difficult, or as an insightful client once rhetorically
asked me, “Why is the likely outcome of communicating misunderstanding?” As it turns out, one major
culprit is the very thing that enables us to communicate in the first place: our ability to represent the
meaning underlying both tangible objects and intangible concepts symbolically. Swiss developmental
psychologist Jean Piaget way back in the late 19th century dubbed this “Abstract Symbolic Reasoning,”
and it’s what enables us to represent thoughts, ideas, and concepts symbolically—through language,
numbers, pictures, sounds, and so on.
For example, the vast majority of English speakers readily grasp the meaning behind the question,
“What time is it?” But would we understand as quickly or easily if the question was, “Where are we on
the non-spatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past
through present to future?” I think not.
Similarly, the word “table” isn’t truly the table. It serves as a proxy for some other intended meaning.
And here’s where we start to glimpse the challenge. The word “table” could refer to a piece of
furniture, an infographic where facts or figures are systematically displayed, or an invocation to
postpone consideration (‘table this discussion’).
Nor does it end there. Written words themselves are accumulations of other symbols—we call them
letters or characters—that represent one or more spoken sounds, or the constituents of an alphabet.
Yet even the symbols we use to represent letters could, and often do, mean something entirely different
in another context. For example, a simple rectangle could represent the lowercase letter “l” or a capital
“i”, or it might mean the number “1”, or it could even mean, if it were to blink on and off, the place where
typing will appear on a computer screen. And the problems only multiply when we start stringing
symbols together into written or spoken sentences for the purpose of communicating.
In other words, when we communicate—either verbally or non-verbally—we’re communicating in code.
We’re representing objects, ideas, concepts, action, abstractions and more as symbols. As senders,
these thoughts are first encoded into coherent, comprehensible verbal and/or non-verbal symbols that
are packaged up as messages, which are then conveyed to one or more receivers using a transmission
medium. The receivers then decode the symbols to arrive at some interpreted meaning. If we as
senders skillfully deploy symbols that we know, or conclude, receivers will decode properly, then the
interpreted meaning will closely align with our intended meaning and effective communication likely
occurs. By the same token though, even a single mismatch can derail the communication.
Obviously then, for everything to work right, these symbols need to be chosen carefully. They need to
parallel and reflect the receivers’ expectations, situations, experiences, education, and levels of
sophistication—to name only a few. If they don’t, then we run the risk that what we say will be
misinterpreted—that our intended meaning will be misunderstood. Equally important, we have to
organize these symbols in a context that enables the receivers to correctly decode them. We don’t
want them interpreting a letter as an integer, or a line as an insertion mark.
So, if you’re looking for who’s working against you when people don’t seem to embrace what you say,
or misunderstandings occur, or you’re quoted “out-of-context”, or your communications generally just
don’t gain traction, then a good place to start the search is in the mirror.