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Communication breakdown

Have you had the situation where you have tried your best to communicate, but it has unexpectedly broken down?

Often it is the assumptions and heuristics that people employ to try to improve their communication that gets in the way- and often are the reason that their communication efforts fail. Understanding communication as a process allows an understanding of the errors that can emerge to derail our best efforts.

One way to understand communication is to see it as a ‘sender-receiver’ model. The sender has an idea that needs to be transmitted to the receiver. As there is no direct way to have the idea appear in the mind of the receiver, it has to be ‘transmitted’ through an intermediary channel to get it there.

The aim of sharing the message is to share an idea as faithfully as possible (faithful meme reproduction) with the receiver.

There are several key steps in the process such as the formation of the ide, the translation into the transmission form and medium, its reception and translation by the receiver and then the meaning making that happens to form the understanding of the original idea.

What could go wrong?

The nature of communication is fraught with the potential for errors and interference.

For example, what if:

  • The person with the idea to share does not have the ‘form’ to adequately describe the idea? A person may not have the words to tell you what is in their thinking.
  • The person does not have appropriate access to the channel? When Donald Trump was kicked off twitter, it massively impacted his ability to communicate his ideas to his fan base.
  • There is too much noise that drowns out the signal? This happens when you try to have a conversation at a noisy party or club – the external noise acts as interference in the signal.
  • The receiver does not have the ability to sense the signal? If the receiver does not have access to a channel then communicating there will have no chance of getting the message to them. If I am not on Instagram then i cannot be swayed by the ideas of the ‘influencer’ broadcasting there.
  • The receiver does not have the capacity to decode the message? Consider what happens when someone speaks a language not understood by the receiver.
  • The receiver perceives and decodes the message, but misinterprets the meaning of the message? This often happens when people misinterpret the meaning of a message due to their mood, history, expectations or understanding that ‘frames’ the mindset that guides the meaning-making.

To be a good communicator means understanding all of these potential places of error, and doing all you can to overcome them. The goal of a great communicator is to be understood.  It is the responsibility of the communicator to make every effort to help the receiver ‘get’ the message in its most accurate form.

The human heuristic:

People make an extremely common – and very unhelpful- set of shortcuts that derail communication . These include the assumptions that you will automatically have 100% ‘Pure’ communication with no errors, interference or losses in transmission, reception, processing or interpretation. Any errors must be the ‘fault’ of the receiver, even when the likelihood is that the error is created by the sender not paying enough attention to the potential errors and taking steps to mitigate them.

If your communication is important, it is worthwhile paying attention to each phase of communication and ensuring that the receiver ‘gets your message’.

This can involve:

  • Checking all of the aspects of communication are functioning, and you have their attention.
  • Testing the final result: Do they understand the idea now in the same way that you do?
  • Understanding the receiver’s frame of reference. How does your message have to be framed and delivered (form, language, channel, etc) to be understood?

When you hit a breakdown, working backwards to find the source of error – and doing what you can to overcome it can – enhance your efforts. Simply assigning blame (“they just don’t get it!”) is a failure of yours, not of theirs.

What common errors or assumptions do you make in communication?

How have you changed your communication to enhance the receiver’s experience?

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