It’s truly amazing that communication is possible at all. Every one of us is an island in an archipelago—a profoundly complex world separated by an expanse. We’re all trapped within our own minds as we try and make sense of the world around us.
It’s not easy to share our inner world with each other. We have to take all of these complex emotions, mental images, and bits of information and convert them into language. This is no small task. It’s difficult enough to understand the complex noise in our heads, let alone convert it into the limitations of language. But then we must transmit that language to someone else by speaking it or writing it down. The whole time, we assume that the meaning we attach to our words is shared by our listeners.
The knowledge that language can be used to manipulate, mislead, and control adds an extra level of complexity to communication. Every one of us has had experiences where we’ve been burned by taking someone’s speech at face value.
If we truly understood the challenges that are overcome every time we communicate, we’d never stop marveling that it’s possible at all.
Here are 3 things to remember about communication:
1. Communication begins with interpretation
We tend to think that we instantly understand everything we read, hear, and experience—but that’s not true. The process of interpretation happens so quickly that we’re hardly aware that it’s happening. Information is given to us and we filter it. The language used is run against our own private lexicon, and we attach our understanding to the words. We’re simultaneously taking those words and extracting information and meaning from them. If it’s verbal communication, we’re also factoring in body language and tone. These two added components dramatically affect our interpretation.
Real understanding happens to the degree that we’re aware of the interpretation process. Information is given to us like disassembled Ikea furniture—except we don’t have the manual, and we’re not sure what the final product is suppose to look like. We pray that we have all the pieces we need as we try and construct what the designer intended. Our ability to do that is going to be dependent upon many factors: our past experience, our mechanical ability, our willingness to try different configurations, and whether we ask for input.
Too often someone is giving us the raw materials for a desk, and we start building a dresser. The other person has no idea that I’m building the wrong thing with their words. They have no idea what’a going on in my mind. So much of our communication breakdown occurs when interpretation goes wrong, because both parties assume their interpretation is accurate.
The key doesn’t lie in pretending that we’re not interpreting things through our own understanding and history; it lies in becoming aware of our our interpretive tendencies—and making adjustments when necessary.
We’re all conditioned to react to specific words or phrases (triggers). Sometimes the people using these triggers don’t understand what their language may be invoking; they’re simply using the tools they’ve been given. We all need to recognize the prejudice that lies within our own interpretation. The minute that we hear certain words or phrases and assume we can use that information to categorize the opinions or positions of people, we’ve bypassed good communication in a race to the finish line. From here on out, everything that individual says falls within our interpretive matrix—and they’re (and we’re) trapped.
This is why it’s important to communicate clearly and carefully.
2. Language is both an asset and a hurdle
The fact that language even exists is amazing. Our ability to translate thoughts into audible cues with the potential to recreate what we’re thinking in someone else’s mind would seem like science fiction if it wasn’t so commonplace. But since we’re always doing it, we don’t really think anything of it.
Unfortunately, we fail to realize how limiting language can be. Our thinking tends to be abstract, and we take those mercurial thoughts and translate them into language. Our ability to communicate our thoughts accurately has so much to do with our ability to represent those ideas with the proper words. A toddler starts developing more complex thoughts and feelings long before they have the vocabulary to communicate them. It’s no wonder they cry so often. Imagine trying to communicate your feelings with one or two sounds.
The average person uses about 5,000 words and can write about 10,000. An educated person could have a working vocabulary of 80,000+ words. This doesn’t necessarily make them more intelligent, but it does equip them with more tools for communicating their thoughts. Think about all of the emotions you’re capable of feeling in a single day. Now imagine that you could only use the words “mad,” “sad,” or “happy” to communicate them. The person with a smaller vocabulary is at an incredible disadvantage to not only communicate to others what they think, but also to communicate to themselves how they feel.
There is something to be said for developing a robust vocabulary. But we don’t do it to impress others. We do it to improve our ability to communicate nuanced thoughts and emotions, and to better understand the communication of others.
But having a broad vocabulary doesn’t necessarily set us up to win at communication. There’s still the real problem with how we define words. We can talk all day about “love,” but have no idea that we’re talking about two entirely different things. This is why it’s imperative to define the key terms in our discussions. Without settling on a common definition for these ideas and terms, real understanding is hampered.
3. Understanding is active, not passive
When it comes to communication, we’re generally rushing to extract the information we need to act or respond. But to communicate well, we have to put the effort into understanding—and it takes work. Most people don’t ask questions; they assume that they understand. They listen to someone, get a sense of the person is saying, and they’re off. And it’s at that point communication breaks down. When both parties are doing this (which is most of the time), it’s a complete disaster.
When you realize that you’re in a high-stakes conversation, it’s important that you regularly repeat back to the other party what you’re hearing. You aren’t just doing this to let them know you’re really listening (although this is important), you’re doing it because you know how easy it is to hear something different than what’s being said. The moment there’s this kind of disconnect in what’s said and what’s heard, that’s the moment you begin walking down two different paths. All additional discussion added onto that misconception puts you both further away from each other.
Listening is as active a discipline as talking. Reading, just like writing, requires effort. The listener and the reader are decoders of encrypted information and as soon as they get lazy in their job, they begin to fail.
Communication is more than conversation
With the advent of social media, it’s becoming clearer that there’s a big difference between communicating and talking. Language is simply a collection of symbols or sounds with the ability to transmit information. To truly communicate with someone—friend or enemy alike—you need to recognize that language is a tool that both parties are using to share their inner worlds with each other.
Anyone can have a conversation, but communication requires focused, intentional effort.