There is a surfeit of advice out there on how to communicate successfully, effectively, persuasively. Some of it is even useful. But maybe we should lower our expectations a little: how about we start by trying to avoid the most frequent and predictable screw-ups?
(Although I’ve framed much of what follows in terms of person-to-person conversation, it applies to other forms of human communication too).
Believing you have communicated. In 1990, a Stanford psychologist called Elizabeth Newton divided participants into two groups: Tappers and Listeners. The Tappers were asked to tap out a familiar tune (like Happy Birthday) on the table. The Listeners’ job was to guess the tune, based on the taps. As you’ll see if you try it, that’s hard. Out of 120 tapped renditions, Listeners guessed right only 3 times (2.5%). After the tapping but before the Listeners guessed, Newton asked Tappers the odds that the Listener would guess correctly. They predicted 50%! In other words, they vastly over-estimated the likelihood that Listeners had understood their message. Tappers were amazed when Listeners didn’t get it: it seemed so obvious to them. At least the Tappers found out the truth; in our normal lives we blithely tap away while assuming our message has landed. William Whyte, an astute observer of post-war corporate life, put it this way: “The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.”
Talking without listening. The ur-mistake. When we talk, we can hear ourselves, which is enough for us to convince ourselves that someone else has heard us. But much of the time, they are not even hearing our beautifully crafted eloquence, let alone absorbing it. Either they are oblivious or they are aware of what we say only as a stream of noise, like Gary Larson’s dog. The fundamental reason for this is that we haven’t engaged their attention. The only way to do that is to figure out what they’re interested in, what they care about, and speak to it. It’s so much easier and more pleasurable to focus on what we’re saying rather than on what the other person is taking out.
Failing to connect. As the saying goes, I don’t care what you know until I know you care. Communication scientists identify two fundamental levels operating in every conversation. There’s the content level - ‘what we’re talking about’. Then there is the relationship level - a subterranean, emotion-driven, inarticulate conversation about whether you and I like and respect each other. Success at the relationship level is a precondition of success at the content level; if no mutually satisfactory connection has been made, then no matter how eloquent and clever you are being, the conversation is guaranteed to go badly.
Trying to convince. Paradoxically, the worst way to convince someone of anything they don’t already believe is to make a confident argument for it. Instead of communicating I want you to understand or I want you to see what’s best for you, it actually communicates I want to push you over. The other person stops listening to us because they feel threatened, and they push back with whatever weapons are at hand - irrationality, aggression, silence. They do anything except concede they’re wrong. Psychologists call this “reactance”. Reactance is generated when the persuader hasn’t made the other side feel that they are being treated as an equal - only then will people lay down their arms and listen.
Second-guessing. Sometimes we make no effort to understand what our audience is thinking and feeling, and that’s not good, but it’s probably better than making an over-confident guess. There are few things more annoying than a person who seems to believe they know exactly what’s in your mind when they really have no idea.
Saying too much. A book about writing bears the excellent title, Nobody Wants To Read Your Shit. People have an overload of inputs and limited time. You have to assume that they would rather be doing many, many other things other than listening to you. We easily forget that, because we’re so focused on transmitting all the things we want to say. When the receiver feels that their time is being wasted they opt out of the communication at the first opportunity - or, if they’re trapped, nurture a simmering grievance against you.
Saying too little. A certain narcissism is built into the structure of human communication. When you’re talking to someone there is at least one thing that’s more salient to you than to them: your thoughts. Although we mentally compensate for the fact that we have better access to our inner states than others do, we find it hard to compensate enough. Psychologists call this the “curse of knowledge”. You say too little and explain yourself poorly because some part of you stubbornly assumes they must already know what you mean. You’re like the actor in a game of charades who can’t believe her teammates could be so dim not to see that you waving your arms around signifies Top Gun.
Talking down. Conversations often include an unspoken contest over relative status. Whether it’s a conversation between colleagues at work, or partners in a relationship, one side can feel patronised or implicitly insulted. More often that not, the offender has no idea. Since people’s doubts and fears do not always manifest themselves in obvious ways we can assume that the conversation is going fine until it’s suddenly it’s not and we have no idea why. That goes back to the asymmetry problem - our innate difficulty in recognising that other people have inner lives as rich as our own. The model we tend to work with is something like this: I am infinitely subtle, complex and hard to read; you are simple and predictable. “I suppose no one truly admits the existence of another person”, sighs the narrator of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet.
Lack of attention to tone. Tone is the music of communication; it is everything that isn’t explicitly articulated. It is multi-channel: it can manifest itself in the pitch of a voice, in a particular choice of words, in punctuation, in an emoji. We often talk about tone as if it is something superficial, secondary to the substance of the communication - to the message - so we neglect to give it serious thought. We should, because it is paramount. It tells the listener how you want this exchange to feel - playful or urgent or grave. It also conveys a lot of highly compressed information about what you think of me - whether you think I’m stupid, or powerful, or sensitive. When you first start speaking, most people aren’t listening to what you’re saying; they’re listening to your tone and figuring out what it means.
Being boring. To return to where we began, the most frequent cause of a communication failure is that no communication has taken place - and a common reason for that is the communicator fails to say anything interesting, or fails to say it in an interesting way. In general, we care too much about being right and not enough about not being boring.
Of course, this list is far from comprehensive. What others are there? Comments open.
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