Communication breakdowns happen everywhere in life: at home, at work, even on vacation. One of the reasons for this is that what someone says and what the other person hears a lot of times are different. Part of it is because who we think we are is different than the person talking to us thinks we are, and consequently, reads things into what we say based upon their different interpretation of us.
Another part of this communication breakdown is that we only “know in part”. At any given time, with our limited human faculties, even enhanced by supercomputer technologies at times we simply cannot know everything involved. At best we try to determine what the relevant things are with a particular issue but even that is subject to our own personal biases and limited experience.
Three Blind Men and an Elephant
There is a parable that is repeated in churches in every place I’ve lived as well as that I’ve heard on TV. It is the story of three blind men and elephant. It goes something like this, although there are varying numbers of men describing various parts of the animal in the different versions that I’ve heard.
Three blind men are walking and they run across this elephant and the first one says the second, “What is this?” The second answers, “Well, it’s round and thick and goes up and down, it must be a tree.” He was touching the leg. The third one jumps in, “No, it’s flexible and strong, it must be a rope.” He was touching the tail. The first one responds, “You are both wrong, it’s flat and smooth, and it feels muddy, someone must’ve put a wall across the road.” He was touching the side of the elephant.
Finally, the sighted man comes along, and corrects them all. He simply tells them, “you all are touching the same thing; you are all touching an elephant!” Of course, the blind men are amazed.
The point of the parable is that all the blind men, of course, made reasonable deductions based on their experiences, but, of course, all the men were wrong. It was only the man that had the perspective of the entire object that had it right.
Of course, we want to think that we are the man with the sight. But no one on earth has the complete picture. Every one of us down here is partially blind:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1Cor 13:12
This verse says that there will come a glorious day when we will no longer walking in the darkly lit paths of this world, but we will be living in a reality where we will genuinely know fully and completely. The expression used is to know as we are known.
So while we have the hope that at that great future time we are going to have this enhanced perception to really understand what is going on, the reality is that now, here on Earth, we simply can’t understand what’s going on that well.
Know as we are known?
Dalton Kehoe is a senior Scholar of Communications at York University as well a senior partner is a consulting firm dedicated to improving communication in organizations. Professor Kehoe teaches a class called “Effective Communication Skills”[i] and dedicates a significant part of the class to helping students understand what goes on in them in order for communication to happen effectively, and why so much of our communication is ineffective.
Professor Kehoe points out that most conversation is nonverbal even to the point where occasionally we have conversations that have no words in them at all. In fact, I am sure you can remember a lot of nonverbal communications you have had when someone gave you a look that you completely understood without a word.
Meanings of Words
Second, there is a problem with words. The problem is that they have multiple meanings often, and unless you are very careful you will miss the right meaning. For examples, look at the words “charge”, “set”, “make”, “stand”, and “read” in the dictionary. Each of these common words has numerous meanings. Or, look at the word “rock”. If I say “he was rocking” do I mean that he was using a rocking chair, singing in a rock band, doing a great job or something else?
Professor Kehoe points out that meanings of words can vary greatly from person to person. In fact, he quotes David Berlo:
“Meanings are in people, not in words.” David Berlo
This saying refers to the fact that words really mean what each individual person takes it to mean in communication. This is important to realize because so often we think that the words we are saying are clear, not understanding that the person looking at us may have different meanings for some of the words that we are saying.
Reality is that words mean different things to different people at times. How can this be? The color “red” must be the same for everyone, isn’t it? Let’s use that example. Frank and Mary are married. Frank tells Mary that he’d like red to be the color of their new car. Because they’re both so busy and they both agree what model they want Mary trusts Frank just to go pick out the car. He drives up in the car, and instant disapproval flashes onto Mary’s face. Frank says, “What’s wrong?” Mary says, “When you said red I didn’t realize you were going to get something that bright. I thought you meant the red like the wine red on your father’s car.” Frank says, “No, I always wanted a bright red car. This is candy apple red. I love it, don’t you?” See the point?
The above example just uses a color. Think about the differences that people have when they try to communicate things like the love, trust, faith, and spirit.
When someone talks about love they may be defining love as more of a feeling whereas another person may be defining it as a commitment to another person, and a third person may be defining it as the the parental instinct to care for her young children.
From this we can see that just saying a word does not necessarily communicate what you think it means, it communicates more what the other person defines the word to be. If we don’t know what that other person defines that word to be we could be expressing something totally different from what we intended, despite our best intentions.
The Six People in a Conversation
Professor Kehoe talks about how what we previously may have considered to be a simple two person communication is in reality interaction of six different people. How can that be? Because the truth is that you have a perception of who you are (one), who you are is different from whom you project yourself to be (two), and is also different from the other person’s perception of who you are (three). Then there is the other person’s understanding of themselves (four), which is different from who they project themselves to be (five), which can be radically different from whom you perceive them to be (six).
For example, let’s look at a couple who is struggling in their relationship. Harry thinks of himself as a loving, caring guy who is also often just a little tired and needs to get more rest (one). What Harry projects because of his “little” tiredness is a cranky guy (two). Because one of the things that is uppermost in her mind is the remembrance of Harry having been out of work for 18 months only a few years ago Kelly perceives Harry as a cranky guy who is too selfish about his own needs and is also lazy (three). Kelly perceives herself to be a loving and caring person with a great need to be recognized for her ideas (four). What Kelly projects because of her need for recognition is someone that’s pushy (five). Harry perceives Kelly as someone that is only concerned for their own agenda, and won’t listen(6).
When Harry and Kelly have a conversation all of these perceptions are in play besides all the verbal and nonverbal cues they give at the time, and add to that their relationship history. Both people think of themselves as good, hard-working, well-intentioned people. Both have real issues with the other person. Each person’s history; every communication, every event, every relationship, everything in their lives has brought them to the point to where they are now and is a factor in their communication.
This illustrates the difference between how each of us in a single relationship perceives ourselves versus how we are known to the other person in the relationship.
The Scope of the Problem Worldwide
Now, multiply those differences in perception by the number of people who have any idea, however remote, about Harry or Kelly. Because the sum of all those perceptions is how Harry or Kelly is known.
How We Are Known Is Way More Than Our Reputation
Reputation is defined as the common way that people think about someone or something. Because it is so difficult to really know someone you just met a common thing to do is to seek out other people who know this person and get a sense of their reputation. If 100 people know somebody, and the general opinion is that he’s a good guy, it’s a safer bet. Likewise if someone has a reputation for being a crook, we all want to take advantage of that knowledge.
But, of course, the problem is that reputations are not always reliable either. Bernie Madoff had a great reputation, which he manipulated into building the huge Ponzi scheme that robbed so many people.
On the other hand there are good people who wind up being scapegoats or whose reputations aren’t good because of misunderstanding or even malicious gossip. Or perhaps they did do something wrong years ago and they matured but people have never given them a chance after that. Maybe it is a combination of these factors.
How we are known, then, is way more than just our reputation. A better example than the reputation of Bernie Madoff is the version determined by the detectives who investigated Bernie Madoff. After an exhaustive search of Bernie’s history and dealings they had a much better idea of who Bernie really was.
But even that body of work is still not what it means in the verse above. How we are known is not a summary, it is an exhaustive compilation of all there is to know.
The Caveat in Communication
In talking about effective communication Professor Kehoe taught one more very important observation: People punctuate the flow of talk to serve themselves. Others do it. We do it. We emphasize the facts that present us the way we want to be seen and de-emphacize or omit the facts that don’t present us the way we want. Even people who think they are “perfectly honest” do it.
The Speed of Judgment
Another important factor Professor Kehoe points out is the alarming reality that people make snap judgments in communication as a rule. When people are talking to each other at a good clip there simply isn’t time to weigh everything involved with every statement and so people make decisions, judgments, conclusions all too quickly. You can see this at work when somebody gets a bad reputation because of the “rumor mill.” One person talks to another and says some negative thing about a person and the receiver of that communication really doesn’t have time to investigated fully but makes a snap judgment that that person being talking about is “bad” or not to be trusted. Then the second person communicates to a third, and then a fourth, and so forth and somebody has a bad reputation basically because of snap judgments based on communications that were not well thought out.
Hopefully there are several things that we can glean from this lesson. First, we have a great hope. We have all hope of walking in an eternity with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And in that eternity we also have a relationship with others where there are no misunderstandings.
Secondly, we can take heed of the wisdom of how we do not know as we are known and use it to modify our response to others. This can help us become closer to people and communicate effectively and lovingly. We can seek to see the six different people involved in every conversation and relationship. We can look to see how much differently we project ourselves from who we really are. We can look to see how people perceive us differently from whom we really are. We can look to see how differently people perceive themselves to be and how they project themselves and how differently that is from what we held as our perception of them.
To answer before listening– that is folly and shame. Prov 18:13 NIV
We need to listen when people speak, and listen to the whole person, not just the person we have perceived them to be or the person they might negatively be projecting.
In the here and now it is important that we realize that communication is a process of exchanges and adjustments to our perceptions as we get closer to learning who the other person is and the other person doing the same. Either person not willing to do this for whatever reason is blocking the process. This process is done differently by everyone.
Even if the other person is not willing, you can improve yourself and your life by recognizing what is going on and learning who you and others really are and how that differs from whom is projected and how we all are perceived. We can start by watching how we talk about ourselves and stop manipulating the details to present us in a better light. On the other side, we can stop being too down on ourselves when that is appropriate too.
[i] The Great Courses, Effective Communication Skills, http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=9331&ai=70110&cm_mmc=youtube-_-brand-_-video-_-9331