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Communication Gap

Author: Joel Hardman
Date: July 27, 2016
Category: Commentary, General


Continuing the communication theme of our last blog, this month’s focus is on the “communication gap.” Language is an imperfect mechanism for moving the contents of one human mind to another. There will always be some gap – perhaps small, perhaps large – between one speaker’s intentions and the meaning a listener constructs. This gap can be caused by simple mishearing, by slight mismatches in the meanings of words, by ambiguous syntax, or by different cultural norms for the use and interpretation of language.

Gaps can also be caused by different interpretations of actions. Imagine a colleague asks you, “why did you put that book in my mailbox?” That could be a simple question of fact, or perhaps the prelude to an expression of gratitude. However, in a certain context, it could be an accusation of malicious intent. If you were to respond, “it looked like something you’d like,” you might be expecting in return an honest “thank you so much,” but if the colleague was implying that the book was an insult of some kind, or offensive, your statement might prompt an unexpected response. 

A second type of “gap problem” is how we internally narrate our relationships with others, who are simultaneously narrating their relationships with us. These narratives do not always align – the characters we play in each other’s stories are not the same. We almost always play the role of protagonist/hero in our own narratives, motivated by high principle and the common good. If our story is one of conflict with someone else, they become a villain. Unfortunately, this other person is doing the same thing: if in conflict with us, we are the villains in their stories, in their heroic attempts to abide by high principles and protect the common good. 

So, what can be done to remedy these types of gaps in communication? Most recommendations focus on the use of communicative feedback to close the gap. Most obviously, we need to provide receivers of our messages the opportunity to ask questions and clarify their understanding. When we are the receiver, we need to make sure of our own understanding by actively checking and confirming our interpretation of the message. A common technique for such clarification/confirmation is to regularly summarize or reflect back what we understand someone to be saying. For a speaker, it’s important to check comprehension not with a simple “do you get what I’m saying?” but with a deeper type of question, such as “what do you think about that idea?” or “can you think of another solution to that problem?”

Above all, keep in mind that others will interpret what we have to say to them based on their own experiences and life stories. When we wish to be understood as accurately as possible we need to attempt to see how our words and actions can be interpreted by others who don’t share our rules for the use and interpretation of language.

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