c). communication

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:

  1. inviting another to express themselves;
  2. expressing oneself to the other;
  3. checking out one’s comprehension of what the other has expressed; and,
  4. 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!
  • Please, be encouraged to leave a response.

6 Responses to “c). communication”

  1. rajagopal sukumar Says:

    Thanks for the comment on my blog Dr. Frank. This piece is very interesting. I really liked the “Communication is a dance” analogy.

  2. archana raghuram Says:

    Brilliant post Dr.Frank. I specially liked the good communication definitions. However I had trouble understanding/reconciling the self referential aspect of communcation and structural coupling with the enviroment.

    If something is meaningful to me only because I have the neurobiological predisposition that distinguishes it as meaningful, is not possible to aquire new meanings. Does it mean I will understand only certain type of people and certain concepts? How do I aquire the predisposition in the first place?

  3. drfrank Says:

    Thank you, Sukumar, for linking to this page from your blog.

    And thank you, Archana, for your great questions! To which I’d respond, yes, we can and do learn – but that new meanings arise as meaningful within us in coordination with our behaviours and emotions, rather than being ‘consumed’ or ‘transferred’ from outside. What I experience will be in relation to my biological structures that I inherit, and any new meanings that arise for me will be in relation to these structures. I cannot, for example, learn to see in the dark like an owl or listen to the sounds a whale hears. We are limited by our structures (I am a particular height, can hear only certain frequencies and can see only certain light waves etc.) and my history of experiences (and structural couplings) predispose me to certain experiences. I will only respond to a traffic light if the meanings of stop, wait and go associated with red, amber and green lights are already meaningul to me because my behaviour has arisen in a social context, with its traditions of behavioural and emotional coordination, for which the traffic light has these associations. There is nothing about the traffic light that determines the meaning I reach when I encounter it.

    I suspect my answer may be insufficient for you! So I’ll point you to further background, which lies in Maturana and Varela’s theory of living systems – i.e. ‘autopoiesis’; the theory proposes that a living system is self-making and self-maintaining, in terms of its organisation and structure, and that it is such always in relation to a context. I’d recommend you take a look at Maturana and Varela’s work – links above in the post – which has profound implications for how we go about enabling change in our organisations and with each other. An example of enabling change based on their work would be Ison and Russell’s Breaking out of Traditions – see

  4. archanaraghuram Says:

    Thanks for the detailed response, Dr.Frank. I will look up Maturana and Varela and Ison and Russell.

    We will discuss this further. It seems to be a very fascinating subject.

  5. Larry Petersen Says:

    Many thanks for sharing your insights on communication. I feel I have benefited from your talent and expertise.

    Comparing various definitions of “communication” with my own musings on the subject, I find myself unsatisfied by the definition of others because of a perceived lack of mention of, or even consideration of, the emotional and spiritual dimensions in the communication process. Therefore, I was pleased with your use of the word “express” under the “basic steps”. I think you chose this word well because it allows for the inclusion of the non-verbal as part of the total message.

    I’m interested in the technological world’s concept of “Unified Communication” (UC) which I assume you know about. The developers are trying to deal with the concept of “presence” and how does one get “presence” into the UC mix. The reason I am interested is because, through technology, the developers want employees to be able to work closely together even though they are miles distant from each other in different locations/branches/offices. The communication will be accomplished by using telephones and computers and screens and data and all sorts of technologies available in a “Unified” effort to simulate a one-on-one, personal meeting.

    However, there seems to be a lack of “presence” in the effort, or feeling the other person next to you. To me, this is the lack of being able to electronically carry the emotional and spiritual qualities inherent in communication. I’m not holding the view this can’t be done but I am very interested in seeing if it can be accomplished and, if so, how.

    Larry Petersen

  6. The Conversation IS the Relationship (Reprise) Says:

    […] not just romantic relationships either. “The Conversation IS the Relationship” applies to familial, professional and even cultural and community relationships. Are we able to […]

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