Having done a share of academic writing in my time, and having trained in the crafts of performance storytelling, I’m very interested in what good communication ‘is’ and what it entails in practice.
What follows are some theoretical reflections based on my research into how people and organisations change for the better.
For one reason or another, many of us carry the assumption that communication is a simple process. We have a message, we transfer it, and someone else picks it up. There’s a sender, a signal, and a receiver – as in the following diagram:
And when it comes to a conversation, this transfer of a message is merely reciprocated – as in this diagram:
It’s as if all that takes place in communication is the encoding of a message, its transfer via a medium of some kind – for example, email, published book, or spoken word – and then the decoding of the message by the receiver. The assumption has its roots in twentieth century information theory, devised in the context of the development of communication technologies, such as tv or radio broadcasting. It assumes the rules for understanding – for coding and decoding messages – are independent of a context.
Many would propose that communication between people just doesn’t work this way. Rules for decoding language that are independent either of a context, of someone with a perspective, or of a prior conversation do not exist. (Examples of influencing contexts would be being on public transport or in a university seminar room – both places with their own norms of behaviour and discourse.) Meaning is not something determined from beyond my cognitive system, but is self-generated (and self-generated in relation to a context, but this is beyond the scope of this article), as in this diagram:
If I understand Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela‘s theory of cognition sufficiently, then something is meaningful to me because I have the neurobiological predisposition that distinguishes it as meaningful. For Maturana and Varela, human cognition is more a self-referential process than a process that transfers ‘meaning’ from outside the nervous system to in. This doesn’t mean we’re enclosed in our own subjective, solipsistic worlds, ‘beyond reach’ when it comes to communication. Indeed, Maturana and Varela argue that we’re structurally coupled to, and co-evolve with, our environments. Check out Maturana and Varela’s book, the Tree of Knowledge for their take on how we learn and evolve. Yes, our environments jostle up alongside our ‘sense making’ apparatus, but our experiences and understandings are necessarily limited and dependent on – in Maturana and Varela’s terms – personal histories of biological ‘structural couplings’.
Rather than being a transfer of information, communication is then better regarded in quite open-ended, conversational terms. Communication is better understood as a process that invites constant interpretation, whereby unexpected and hopefully welcome possibilities present themselves as participants in a conversation negotiate their future together, as with this diagram:
Communication is more like a dance – an ‘inter-acting’, and a ‘turning together’, the literal translation of conversation from the latin, con-versare. It entails a coordination of behaviours, emotions and languages.
This more conversational, self-referential understanding of communication has, I think, profound implications for our relationships and dealings with every person we meet. Just because we speak the same language, it doesn’t mean we’ll understand each other.
I believe it is then possible to define what a conversation – and what good communication – is in terms of a specific process involving a series of four logically-dependent dispositions that somebody would have toward another. The basic steps are:
- inviting another to express themselves;
- expressing oneself to the other;
- checking out one’s comprehension of what the other has expressed; and,
- confirming the other’s understanding.
A conversation develops when these steps are reciprocated.
The following diagram presents the above elements of a conversation (the orange arrows denote the flow of conversation, whilst the grey arrows denote where and how the conversation and the relationship are threatened):
[The diagram is derived from the work of Bob Zimmer, at the UK's Open University, in which he has developed an understanding of collaborative communication and what he calls 'autonomy-supporting conversations'. The phrase, 'the conversation is the relationship', comes from S. Scott's book, 'Fierce Conversations - Achieving Success in Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time', published in 2002.]
A conversation that can continue indefinitely (i.e. one that is tolerant, supportive and sustainable) is one in which there is a flow of invitations, expressions, and the checking out and confirmation of understanding. Whilst we may not follow the above steps systematically (it would be tedious if we did), an understanding of these steps has certainly helped me in picturing healthy dynamics.
I’ve also found this understanding useful for diagnosing organisational issues. On the basis that organisatoins consist of legacies of past conversations, and dispositions towards particular conversational dynamics, understanding these steps can help in discerning where and how organisational dynamics can be improved. This understanding helped me to evaluate organisational-change-for-the-better with a number of UK sector-leading companies, which I wrote up as a doctoral thesis, Awakening Giants.
So I would suggest good communication is
- conversational, in that communication always occurs in a context that cannot be separated from the thing communicated;
- invitational, in that possibilities for behaviour and ongoing relationship are present;
- authentic, in that we communicate from our experience and take responsibility for our perspectives;
- humble, in that we acknowledge the inevitability that we each have our own perspective and our own approach to language – this is being what is called ‘epistemologically aware‘;
- reassuring, in that we affirm when and how our perspectives are both aligned and distinct; and
- open-ended, in that we allow for the possibility for the conversation to continue and evolve – rather than try to shut it down or provide the definitive statement, which could be regarded as intolerance!
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