Change Work April 2006


What's the objective of a communication process?

For our purposes, let's take the objective as being the transmission of an idea or thought from one person's mind to that of another. So, I have a thought and I decide that I want to share it with you. If we're face-to-face or on the 'phone I'll put my thought into words and say them. Now we both have the same thought in our minds, right?If only it were that simple!

Let's take an example: I have a conversation with a mutual acquaintance and sometime later I relate the conversation to you.

What happens first is that I receive sensory data during the conversation. This would be through sight, hearing and touch. And, if we're chatting over a coffee, then smell and taste also. This information is processed in my brain and I experience the conversation. The experience is stored as my memory of the event - but is it the same as what actually happened?

Well, the raw, sensory data has already been filtered by comparison with my existing memories, my values and my beliefs. It has undergone one or more of the following transformations:

  • deletion - part of the data is omitted
  • distortion - some of the content is altered
  • generalisation - one instance is taken to apply in all cases.

To put it another way, I have unconsciously forced the data to fit my existing model of the world by leaving some out, changing some of what remains and assigning wider meaning to some of that. What I now have is a representation of the conversation. It is what I experienced, not what actually happened "in reality". (And, of course, the other party received somewhat different data because they were looking at me rather than themselves, they might have more or less acute hearing and vision than me, they may have been able to feel a draught that I couldn't feel, etc. They then filtered the data to fit their own model, which of course is different from mine. So, their representation of the conversation is different.)

Now, I talk to you.

I have my representation of the past conversation in my conscious awareness and I attempt to communicate it to you through words, tonality, gestures and expressions. What comes out is a transformed version of my experience. It has been subjected to further deletion, distortion and generalisation purely through the process of translating it into the various communication channels (words, gestures etc.).

This communication "material" is your sensory data! You transform it to generate your own representation.

It's not surprising then that after all of this we probably have very different understandings of what happened. The best we can do, as trained communicators, is for you to feed your understanding back to me (unavoidably changing it as you do so) for me to transform it a bit more. Then I can compare the resulting version of your representation with my original. Then we repeat the process until we think we're close enough!

Imagine the effect of all of this in a debate or argument. One of us is trying to change the other's opinion about something and that opinion is a component of the holder's model of the world. Our mental filters are very effective at making data fit the model - so we literally don't see, hear or feel contradictory elements. So, I can confidently make statements that you perceive as completely illogical, because our basic assumptions (our world models) are different, and stubbornly remain different!

Now, our ability to edit sensory information very rapidly, and to infer meaning from it, is extremely useful in most other situations. It's just unfortunate that it gets in the way of our minds meeting. So, we have to learn how to compensate for this by using deliberate strategies:

  • respecting other people's models of the world ("reality" is different for each of us)
  • seeking to understand rather than to persuade
  • taking the other person's perceptual position ("standing in their shoes")
  • using "clean" language (perhaps the subject of another article!).

Being aware of these factors will help you in all of your communications. Please contact me if you're interested in the tools and techniques that can help even more.