The Communication Gap!
Nature of Distortion
In the field of telecommunication, it is axiomatic that no communication message passes un-distorted through a medium, even optic fibers. This is equally true of human communications. The difference however, is that in telecom, technologies have evolved to detect and correct (or compensate for) distortions introduced by the medium. In communication between people however, attempts to correct usually lead to more distortion and frequently breakdowns in relationships. We have a word for this. It's called the Communication Gap. Let's understand the nature of this distortion.
As you can see, every stage of the end to end communication process, right from the origin of a thought in the brain, is subject to distortion of some sort. If I just want to say that I want an ice cream, all this would not matter. Unfortunately however, in adult professional conversation, each of the above stages automatically introduces a potential communication gap. Some quick inferences so that we can move on…
- The strength of my vocabulary ( in my chosen language), my knowledge of grammar, my fluency with the idiomatic richness of the language, my level of awareness of the context and my sensitivity to the other person will both inform and limit my choice of words.
- Even if we ignore distortions by the physical medium ( Noise), the integrity of my message at the other end is just as compromised by the other guys understanding of my language with its subtleties…and my motives.
- And let's not forget the overwhelming influence of our own conditioning– by our family, our past experiences and by the constraints of the local culture ( Japan or jhumri talaiya)
Thus, "We can go for a picnic, but it's going to rain" is decidedly more pessimistic and discouraging than "It's going to rain, but we can go for a picnic". If you meant the latter but spoke the former, especially to an over-sensitive partner, be ready for a reaction you may not like.
On the other hand, virtually all conflict in various corners of the word can be traced back to an original communication gap between the parties involved, one that over the years has widened considerably due to various factors, media and sensationalism not excluded. Wherever power, prestige or survival is at stake, the risk of a communication gap represents a clear and present danger of escalation.
What never ceases to amaze me, however, is that despite these overwhelming odds against clear, precise, distortion free communication… most of us do have strong, meaningful and inspiring relationships with others…our friends, family members, close colleagues etc. What makes these communications different?
Intent, more than Content!
A typical mobile conversation with a close friend for me is at best – 2 minutes. Begins with a 'What's up' or 'Bol'( Tell me) and ends with a 'See you' or 'cool' with a crisp, abbreviated message in between. Clearly neither of us are much for long conversations on phone. But I don't recall a time when either of us felt the need to give defensive explanations to each other. Surely you too have such relationships. Obviously , this is possible only because of a strong foundation of trust.
The reason this Trust is critical in our context is because trust helps communication in 2 ways
- it establishes prior agreement on the Intent of my message, which for me, precedes and is surpassingly more important than the content of my message, ie. form and format, sequence and specifics etc. Knowing my intent is re-assuring for the other guy, it makes him receptive to my ideas, it reduces the influence of his conditioned biases.
- This being true, any deficiencies ( distortions) in my content or context then tends to be 'taken in the right spirit'
Communicating intent, especially in arms length professional relationships, is easier said than done. That's because intent is closely bound to emotions and feelings, which are usually harder to express. As a corporate employee for over 2 decades, I can vouch for the fact that speaking or writing about emotions is rarer than you think. One serious casualty is inter-departmental emails (where power, prestige or survival is at stake).
What is this 'Intent' thing that I refer to ? Let's take an example. In a strategic negotiation with a key vendor, my larger intent is to establish a long term partnership with an assurance of benefit to both of us. To articulate this in a way that touches the other person is the key to communicating intent. Yes, I meant 'touches'. It is a matter for the heart. This requires self assurance and an inherent belief in mutual goodwill, and certainly some courage.
If you get this part right, the rest is easily learnt. Enjoy the monsoon!