Tuesday, March 07, 2006

(Mis) communication [LONG]

“The world only goes round by misunderstanding.” Charles Baudelaire

What an appropriate quote for today.

One of my “official” majors in college was Communication. I did this major as the “sensible” course of study which could potentially land me a job. My ‘real’ major was History. And what does one do with a History degree? Besides teach—no thanks—and get more degrees and write boring papers? Uhh, yeah. Hence the “official” major. Four years of college and I graduated with two majors, two minors and SHEER TERROR about what I should do next. So, I went to graduate school and followed my sister’s path into Library Science.

But I digress. I was talking about misunderstanding. One of the best classes I had in college was Interpersonal Communication taught by Pete Settle. There are lots of stories from that class—it’s funny how you can remember some classes so much more clearly than others, isn’t it? None of my regular friends were in this class (maybe that’s why it’s so clear?), and in fact it a rather bizarre conglomeration of people including one non-trad student and a jock who showed up for two classes (first day/last day). Mind you, this is a small private vaguely religious college.

Pete hammered into us a couple of things that I try to remember every day. We’d already learned about the “noise theory” of communication:
Speaker -->~~~~/~~/~~~/~~~/~~~ -->Hearer, where ~~~ = the media and / = noise
[that’s the closest approximation I can do without reference to my class notes or the ability to properly draw a picture]

Obviously, the more / / / in that diagram, the harder it is for the Hearer to understand the message the Speaker is putting out there.

In Pete’s class, we delved much more deeply into that idea. One of the clearest and most important things I took away from the class was the idea that any time you have a lot of unclear messages floating around (i.e., lots of / / / / ), the more uncertainty (or fear) increases for the hearer. And the more uncertainty (fear) there is, the less actual communication there is actually taking place, because people will naturally spend more time dealing with the uncertainty (their emotions). If you increase the uncertainty (fear), you will decrease the effectiveness of thoughtful communication.

There are lots of examples of this: actual noise, body language that doesn’t match the verbal, euphemisms/jargon, intentional misdirection, etc. Those are all pretty obvious. What isn’t as obvious is the internal ‘noise’ we all have. Think of a word or phrase that “sets you off.” When you hear it, you immediately feel your blood pressure rise. Now, think about what you’re doing when you hear that word: are you still listening to whatever the person is continuing to say? Would to be able to give an accurate picture of what was said on either side of your KEY? Will your response to the Speaker be more geared toward a rational conversation or an emotional response to the KEY?

At work I deal with a lot of patrons who get completely flummoxed by the concepts of Fiction and Non-Fiction. For some reason, this is a KEY for them. As soon as those words are uttered, their brains seize up. It’s very important for me to stop at that point (or, preferably before it) and say something to clarify: “I mean fact books (or stories/ novels).” If I don’t do that, I have lost their attention.

That’s a fairly innocuous one. There are lots of others. We can’t possibly know from looking at someone that saying “Consumer Reports” is going to set him off, but I’ve had just that kind of thing happen.

So, back to Pete, the second thing I remember from that class is that it is the Speaker’s job to ensure the Message has been relayed completely. It is not the Hearer’s job, it is the SPEAKER’S job. It’s nice if you have a Hearer who is fully invested in clarification, but c’mon, let’s be real: how often is that likely to happen? The ways to reduce uncertainty in the Message are restating it, clarifying it, asking questions of your audience… etc.

In a nutshell, if you are really trying to talk to someone and want everyone to be on the same page, it behooves you to 1) say what you mean clearly and pay attention to whoever you are talking to, and 2) make sure they got it. If that means you have to say stuff over and over, so be it. If that means that you have to stop dancing around the “elephant in the living room” (but that’s another of my pet peeves), then shit, just talk about the damn elephant. We all know it’s there. Greet it, shake it’s trunk, introduce it to the neighborhood and get on with the communication at hand.

You all know that saying, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” It’s the same concept: Once you’ve named the devil in your conversation, the power it holds over the conversation dissipates. You can get on with chopping it into pieces that are manageable and easily dealt with.

So, I say, enough with euphemism and overly-zealous tactfulness. Down with jargon and cant! Speak up clearly and fearlessly. There really is nothing to fear except fear itself. Usually when conversation devolves into hurt feelings and/or argument it’s because communication has stopped. You can’t control the way the other person feels about what you’ve said, but you can made damn sure that what you said is clear to them by trying to remove uncertainty from your message and the line. If you’re shouting in an angry tone, “OF COURSE I F*CKING LOVE YOU!!!!” then there may be a mixed message there. If you do f*cking love someone, mixed messages are never the way to go.

OK. Lecture over.

As I find myself telling Sparky repeatedly: “Pull your head out. You aren’t the center of the universe.” I think it’s possible I’ve read entirely too many newspapers today: 8 days’ worth. Whaddaya think? Or maybe it’s all the crap in my sinuses. I haven’t had a soapbox moment like that for months!

Sorry. Back to the usual trivia now….

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