Simple Communication Can Be Remarkably Challenging
The first in a series of articles begins with a lighthearted look at the challenges of communication
Communication is about the simplest thing we do every day, and simultaneously it is also the most challenging. We speak, we write, and sometimes even combine the two mediums such as during a presentation with handouts or slides. Many other forms of communication exist (art, body language, etc.), but we’ll save those for another day. In this series, we will focus on the written and spoken word.
I mean, it really should be easy, right? Just say what you mean. Well, not so fast. Consider for example, a situation late afternoon where hunger strikes surprisingly early. Any couple will likely relate to this example and probably already knows where this illustration is headed. You would like to solve this hunger problem which instantly occupies the vast majority of your conscious thought.
Rather than grabbing a snack, you consider that the dinner hour is close by. A more prudent approach would be to collaborate with your partner on a traditional meal plan. Thus, you walk into the living room to formulate such a plan and find your partner seated comfortably reading a novel.
Just say what you think, right? Well, the thought literally going through your head is “I’m starving, and wouldn’t it be delightful if a plate of delicious food magically appeared in front of me.” That would be the purest form of communication, a stream of consciousness reminiscent of your days as a toddler when there was minimal transformation occurring between thoughts and audible words.
The lack of a filter or any transformation here is likely not your best option. Using a humorous tone with this line may garner a smile or positive reaction, but outside of a satirical take on this, I would not be overly optimistic about your hit rate. We’ll need to find a different communication style before that dinner plate arrives.
Practice, practice, practice.
Before we consider other options, it is important to note that in talking to others, we have to get it right the first time. There is literally no practice round, outside of any dress rehearsals that might be conducted inside your own head. Once we have uttered the words, they are out there and simply can’t be taken back. This is a truly unfortunate property of spoken communication.
Using the written word, of course, the opposite is true. We get to enjoy numerous practice rounds and have the opportunity to iterate until we are satisfied with the result. This state of completion can occur hours later, or sometimes weeks or months after beginning the process. Only then do we hit the publish button. As a case in point, you don’t want to know how many times I have rewritten this article before you now have the opportunity to read it.
Of course, the grass is not always greener, as the bar is much higher for the written word. As a reader, we expect more of articles, books, and prose for which the author has labored over and constructed for our reading enjoyment or information consumption.
Nonetheless, writing gives you a visual opportunity to organize and prepare your thoughts before communicating them. You could leverage this benefit by preparing a message and texting your partner from the other side of the house. This certainly is an option, but text messages lose the tone of your voice, a critical component in the grand scheme of things. To compensate for this, an emoji could be used to convey the intended humor. Personally, this approach is not my style. It may show my age, but I will admit that it still seems odds to me to text someone located in the same residence. The technique does come in handy on occasion though, typically when attempting to gain the attention of your teenager.
Layers of interpretation and misinterpretation
On the surface, we are just talking to our partner about dinner. In reality, we are transforming thoughts in our head into words we articulate. From there, our partner hears those words and is required to interpret them. The lousy part in this whole equation is that they are not required to interpret them solely as we intended. In fact, the listener’s only choice is to interpret them in the context of their own thought pattern, ideas, and perspective.
Well that just ruined the whole thing, didn’t it? It would be much easier if they just took our words the way we meant them.
It is this very fact that has caused me to fail so many times when communicating, and those events have stuck with me. I attempt nowadays to turn those occurrences into a positive, leaning on the words of Oscar Wilde who once said:
“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”
Beyond trying to improve my communication skills, I find the topic full of fascinating problems to solve. Is there a greater challenge than taking a complex idea, a nuanced argument, or a disparate set of information and communicating it to an audience in a simple and effective manner? In particular, it is the task of making complicated things understandable and easy to digest that I enjoy.
Back to our communication options
Hunger still remains an issue, so let’s determine our approach. A simple choice would be to simply say “I’m hungry.” Direct, concise, however we must calculate our partners feelings in this endeavor. This statement might result in a question back, “Ok, what do you want to do for dinner?” Here, you’ve started the dialogue and as a team can now address the issue.
Alternatively, this may be received as a problem statement without a solution. While identifying a problem is important, providing a suggested solution is even better. In this scenario, what you might hear back is “Ok, so what do you want to do for dinner?”
Wait a second, those are almost the exact same words as the first reply! Yes, indeed they are, but in this case they were delivered with a much different tone. The tone of this response might indicate the other party’s initial thought was something along the lines of, “Well, you see me reading this book here, so what are you going to do about it?”
To avoid that potential outcome, you decide to combine your expression of need with a potential solution. “I’m hungry, want to order some food?” This is certainly a better choice, right? We aren’t assuming either party has to proceed to cook a meal. It’s open, honest, and a corresponding plan of action was served as a side-dish alongside our primary concern.
“Ok, sounds good. Where do you want to order from?” I can’t believe I didn’t think about that ahead of time! I knew I should have drafted the message and texted instead. If I suggest a place, will my partner simply go with the suggestion? What if they really want something else?
When you spend time dissecting these patterns, one of two thoughts might come to mind. Either this is over-analyzing the topic (quite possible), or it is a miracle that any person is ever able to communicate something of value to another individual. Yet, we do it all the time, every day. We need to communicate to survive, from the time we are born to the present day. As an infant, crying is our form of communication in the hopes that our needs will be met. Wait, maybe breaking down into tears is the way to get that barbecue I’ve been craving. No, better save that technique for later when it’s time to choose a movie.
Joking aside, these communication patterns do often work fairly well, in large part due to a reason we have not yet discussed here. Author Kate Murphy in “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters” beautifully describes the importance of the art of listening. Of equal importance in communication, or perhaps even of greater importance, is the act of listening to the other person. In addition to the joy of learning about that individual, you also gain insight into their personal interpretation model as well as instant feedback on your communication methods. No practice rounds still, but plenty of opportunity to fine tune your techniques.
Interpersonal communication is a simple mystery that we all get to engage in every day. Future articles in this series will dive deeper into the topic and also explore business communication and presentations.
Well, after more time than I originally planned, I am now done editing this article and at a point where I am happy with it. It’s time to publish. All that work made me hungry though. What’s for dinner?