A wise man once said that the hardest thing about communication is the illusion that it has occurred. I have been involved in hundreds of medical, military, and public safety operations, and the after-action reviews of each one cite communication as a problem. Whether in business, relationships, or anywhere else, avalanches of academic papers and mountains of media articles bemoan our inability to effectively talk to each other, and propose ways of fixing it.
Several factors are present in every communication event, including assumptions, emotions, perceptions, conditions, and facts. They change the communication, often without the participants realizing it.
Assumptions are believed true but without proof. Each person, whether he considers himself religious, spiritual, philosophical, materialistic, or something else, makes metaphysical assumptions, assumptions about the fundamental questions of life. Suppose three college students, Mike, Sienna, and Jorge, are talking about their planned vacations. Mike, a Christian, believes that God created everything, that He is the center of existence, and that the purpose of every created thing, including people, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Sienna, a secularist, believes that the universe is just one of many universes in a “multiverse”, that the human community is the center of existence, and that making oneself happy is the purpose of existence. Jorge, a philosophical naturalist, agrees with Sienna on the origin of things, believes that each individual is the center of existence for that individual, and claims that the universe has no meaning or end at all. Mike plans to do a mission trip to Brazil for his spring break, Sienna is scheduled to take an eco- and poverty-tourist trip to Belize, and Jorge is going to the Caribbean for alcohol, parties, and women. Each is acting in accordance with their fundamental assumptions about life, but their discussion will probably be no deeper than “whatever works for you.”
Most people do not recognize their own assumptions, but have a smorgasbord mishmash drawn from religions, the media, popular culture, and those around them. Nonetheless, these assumptions color everything that we do – from who we marry to how we work and vote. When two people talk, the further apart their assumptions are, the harder it will be for them to communicate, and the less likely it will be for the conversation to go well. Keep in mind that we are talking about fundamental, important assumptions; beliefs about life, the nature of good and evil, and purpose.
Imagine that Asherah, an ancient Sumerian woman, were listening to the conversation between Mike, Sienna, and Jorge. Unfamiliar with any idea of universal religion, she would puzzle over why Mike was sailing over the ocean (she couldn’t conceive of flying) to bring his religion to another people, who already had their own gods. Scoffing at the idea that all people are created equal, she would be scandalized that Sienna was going anywhere without her father or brother, and that she should be care about poor at all. Even if our Sumerian maiden secretly admired Sienna’s independence, she would not admire her egalitarian leanings. Asherah would understand Jorge’s plans the best, and if Jorge were wealthy, might approve.
Lesser assumptions also impact communication. If a woman believes that black men are threatening, or that men in general are oppressive, she will have trouble understanding anything that a male is trying to say, no matter how he says it. If a man considers women little more than sexual prey, he will be equally impotent in understanding women. The same is true for other prejudices, no matter their basis (religion, culture, nation, etc.). That is why such attitudes are so toxic.
I know the look. When I am talking with my oldest daughter, I am in trouble when she squints, tilts her head, and furrows her brow. At that point, I better start apologizing, because we have moved from (usually) rational discourse to emotional damage control. It is not that she is unusually irrational but that she, like all people, is a complex mix of intellect and emotion. Often the emotion leads. My daughter is helpful in that she signals when the switch has occurred – with others you may never know.
Emotions powerfully affect communication, sometimes blocking it entirely. When doctors give a patient a terminal diagnosis, the patient hears nothing else during that conversation, no matter how the doctor says it. When a judge announces a contest winner, the same thing happens. Excessive anger or fear can also stop the ears and close the mind. Stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol surge in the body, and all the person can do is react.
Emotions color conversations. All else being equal, speaking with someone you love will always be better than speaking with someone that you do not like, or are neutral towards, even if the words are as tame as “Please pass the butter.” Newlyweds eating by candlelight might see that request with the rose hue of love, while feuding co-workers at a mandatory company dinner might see it with the red fire of anger or the blue ice of bitterness.
Talking with someone new may be exciting, but it also generates fear. The same is true of talking to a person of a different age, sex, religion, culture, nationality, race, or political persuasion. Discourse with those who are different from ourselves is imperative, but the emotions involved often make it more difficult.
Emotions amplify or deaden the importance of communication. When a rigorous teacher in an important class says, “the test is tomorrow”, students will color and amplify the statement based on their perceived readiness. Prepared students will feel satisfied in their work and a readiness to get the exam over with, and unprepared students will feel dread about their anticipated grade and shame for not working harder. The words “the test is tomorrow” will pound in the unready student’s head all day long, while the ready student will hardly give them a second thought.
I was standing near a military medical tent in Washington DC during Barak Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. The Presidential motorcade was approaching, and several black women were chattering wildly in anticipation of seeing America’s first black president. Their emotions were high, and from the tenor and text of their conversation, had been for days. It was hard to know which black limousine the President was in, and hard to see anyone inside the vehicles due to their dark, tinted windows. Nonetheless, everyone found him and in the few seconds that he passed by, studied his every move. One woman shouted, “he looked at me!” while another exclaimed “he smiled at me!” Watching the same scene, I could not be sure that the President had done either. He could have scowled, or more likely not noticed them at all given the tens of thousands of people on the parade route, but it didn’t matter. Those women will stick to their stories and tell them to their friends and family all of their lives.
Perceptions are mental impressions or intuitive insight. In day to day life, what we perceive is often more important to our understanding and our actions than the truth. A look, body position, or tone of voice perceived as threatening, unkind, or even uncaring will undo the best of words. Similarly, favorable perceptions can make the communicating parties feel better about themselves and each other. Regardless of what Barak Obama actually did, the perceptions of these women at the Inauguration made them like him more.
Everyone who communicates does so to gain something:
- Esteem in the eyes of others
- A chance to do good, whether by advancing their business or some other cause
- Specific, personal goals
While everyone more or less shares general goals, communicators are not likely to share specific goals. A boss might want to get his employee to do a task, while the employee might want to shift that work to someone else. A politician may want each person in the audience to vote for her, while listeners might want free food, a good time, and a chance to have an interesting experience with an important person that they can share with their friends. A man may want a date, but the woman he is talking to may simply want to escape from a “creepy” situation.
Real communication will be much harder to achieve if the parties don’t know what motivates others. If they know what the other person is thinking, the boss might emphasize the benefits of doing this particular job, the politician might design a rally to provide an exciting experience, and the suitor might learn more about the object of his affection to avoid making her uncomfortable. If the boss knows that nothing he can do will make the employee do the work, if the politician has no chance of getting certain votes, and if the man’s amorous advances are dead in the water, each would drastically change their tactics, or give up communicating all together.
People generally believe that they are communicating in facts, those objective truths upon which life is based. Because each party feels that he is dealing only in irrefutable facts, he may have trouble understanding how anyone could disagree. When we are not careful, this opinion leads to dismissing other opinions as stupid, or even evil. We demonize those with whom we disagree, and they demonize us. Our assumptions, emotions, and perceptions align against our opponents, and our desired outcome is no longer understanding or compromise, it is victory. Crushing the hated enemy, not understanding each other and accomplishing mutual objectives, becomes the goal.
Actually, facts can be challenged, debated, and seen from different perspectives. Truths are still objective – a person with colon cancer has colon cancer regardless of what they, their friends, or all the doctors in the world think. But finding the objective truth can be extremely difficult – much harder than we assume. No one has a monopoly on truth, but some do understand reality better than others – at least in certain fields. By comparing facts, acknowledging other opinions, being humble enough to learn, and keeping all participants’ best interests at heart, we all can get closer to the truth, and closer to solving the problems that vex our world.
It is hard to communicate effectively. If communication is an iceberg, facts are the visible part above the waterline, and assumptions, emotions, perceptions, and conditions are the barely visible parts below the surface. Just as the Titanic never would have foundered if it had hit only the top of the iceberg, so communication rarely founders on the facts. Rather, it founders because the parties don’t understand and sometimes don’t trust each other. Anyone who wants to communicate will take the time to ponder the assumptions, emotions, perceptions, conditions, and facts of others. These people will communicate better and have success.