Communication can only happen when the crucial elements are in place and at its most basic they are as follows: a ‘sender‘ — with a message — and a ‘receiver‘ to get said message. Beyond that basic equation, true communication (at least in our North American culture) also requires some form of acknowledgement, feedback or response, some evidence or proof of receipt and understanding of message by the receiver to the sender. There are other, emerging theories of communication, but for now, this one is the dominant one. You can imagine that there are universes of obstacles, dead-ends, short cuts, hurdles and direct access routes between any given sender and any given receiver. It grows by orders of magnitude when you consider attempts at anything more than one-on-one communication.
For some reason, I remembered that from Communication 101 about five minutes after posting “When Words Fail”. And sighed. So, sometimes, it isn’t the words or the sender or the medium (sorry Marshall). Sometimes, a failure to communicate is because the message and its meaning cannot be transferred, and cannot be taken in.
A person takes in information in its various forms — words, images, sounds, smells, taste and touch, through any number of filters, including experience, prejudice, attention deficits, needs, wants, hopes, fears, bias, education, knowledge, curiosity, self-worth, beliefs, health status, age, culture, oh, and the big one, interest, that individually and/or combined interfere with taking in information. It is then, entirely possibly to listen but not hear what is being said, read and not absorb. Because some other thing has happened in the receiver that the sender could not know, some sort of internal semantic sensitivity or word or sound or smell association that conjures up things the sender could not possibly know or anticipate. Often the receiver doesn’t know it either.
Imagine telling a story to someone you know relatively well about the time you lost your virginity and you think the story is rather funny. Unbeknownst to you, virginity is touchy subject in your listener and as soon as you said the word, her mind went somewhere, taking her attention with it, making her unavailable to listen to the rest of your story.
You might notice, or feel her attention jump on a slipstream away from you, and think she is being rude, bored, uninterested.
Communication failed. Or did it?
Maybe the intended topic, a funny story involving you and your virginity, is not going to get the airplay you had hoped. However, an opportunity for a whole other communication to take place and for other listenings and for a friendship to deepen is now…wide open.
PS: To those organizatonal change folks who might read this, note I am not saying there is any fault with sender or receiver, or any particular medium of transmission. The stuff that’s in people’s heads .. is simply, on an individual basis, beyond managerial control. 🙂