The Illusion of Communication

by Jonathan Eisler

Illusion pic 2George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Recently, I was reminded of how frustrating this illusion can really be.

Last week, my wife and I were vacationing in South America and due to our adventurous spirits, we found ourselves in an anxiety producing situation one day. It started when we decided to head out to a village in the mountains that we had read about in National Geographic where a school was located that taught local women the trade of weaving, using local Alpaca wool. We hopped in the first taxi that stopped because he nodded when we mentioned the name of the village and he quoted us a very reasonable price. However, we quickly realized that the limited amount of Spanish that my wife speaks was no help in communicating with our driver because he spoke zero English and his Spanish was heavily influenced with a local dialect. What this meant for us was that there was no way to confirm understanding of what either party was communicating. However, this did not stop attempts at dialogue from continually being made. There were lots of head nods, “yeses” and “síes” but no one knew if the other understood. This frustration was exacerbated after twice the amount of time passed that our hotel said it would take to reach the village and we were still winding through the mountains.

As I was observing attempts at communication by both parties, I thought about what happens in the hectic corporate world that many of us spend 1/3rd of our lives in….and that I was currently enjoying being “unplugged” from. I realized that thankfully, time or personal agenda constraints can be easier to overcome than language barriers when it comes to checking for and confirming understanding of what is communicated. I am not saying that it is “easy” to do this at work, but if we neglect to confirm understanding, either by the sender or receiver of the communication, not only do we risk accomplishing nothing, but we also risk undesired impacts or outcomes…like potentially being lost in the mountains of the southern hemisphere, or worse!

As I was analyzing the situation, I was reminded of the Transactional Model of Communication (see below).

Communication Blog

 (the above picture is from the National Communication Association )

As this model shows, messages are defined by the meaning the recipient adds to them when decoding what has been communicated by the sender. This points to the need to make the extra effort to validate or check for understanding of what is being communicated in all aspects of our daily lives. Of course, with the limited time in our schedules, brevity is of paramount importance…so remember to choose your words wisely  to reduce the time needed for validation!

I quickly snapped back to reality as our taxi came to a stop directly in front of the school we saw in National Geographic. While I was grateful for the opportunity this experience gave me to reflect on Transactional Communication, I was even more delighted that somehow in this situation, the illusion Shaw spoke of in communication actually turned out to be reality…though if asked to explain how, I wouldn’t know how to answer!

QUESTION: What have you found to help or hinder clarifying/validating understanding in communication? Let us know be leaving a “reply” below.

Written by Jonathan Eisler, Director of Organizational Services.

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  • Katie Valentino

    There are two things that I have found very helpful: body language and follow up. I ask people to put their phones down, face me, make eye contact, etc. to ensure that they have given us the best chance of successful communication as possible. If one is only half engaged in a conversation, one will be lucky to get 1/10th of the message.

    It’s also key to follow-up on important conversations. Our mind continues to work on our interactions for a long time after our meeting. Sometimes, we suddenly realize something new or we have a new understanding of what might have been said. What may have appeared quite obvious in the moment, may not be so obvious a few hours or a day later. I am forever finding myself not saying what my mind is thinking, though I could have sworn I said it. How could the person I’m speaking with not have understood exactly what I am saying? Well, they can’t read my mind and I can’t read theirs. Something happens from the brain to the mouth and while it makes perfect sense in the brain, the mouth has a hard time explaining it in a manner which is understandable to others. Make sense?

    I have been in many parts of the world in which I had no knowledge of the language. When I visited a small mountain village in then Yugoslavia, the energy and body language needed to converse with the family we stayed with was incredible. But, because we all focused on one another and engaged fully, we eventually got the messages across. It took hours to discuss our day, the foods we were eating, music, etc but it was great fun.

    I revisited that village last year in what is now Bosnia. The change has been phenominal and while I could converse much more freely as there were many English and Italian speakers, I found myself not engaging as deeply as I had during that first trip.

    When my family from Italy first visited, no one in my U.S. family knew Italian. At the time I was working with severly traumatized children and often dealt with kids who had incredible tantrums, but then went into a deep calm stage or sleep. They were in an opiate stupor. Their brains were so overloaded with stimuli and trying to comprehend the world around them that their bodies released a high level of opiates to ensure survival.

    I mention that as during my family’s visit, I often felt I was in an opiate stupor as we tried to converse. We would all just go to our own corners for a bit before coming back together. Conversing takes energy and focus, no matter if you speak the same language or not. What we put in is what we get out. And we have to know when we’ve reached a point in which we won’t understand each other because our brains physiologically can’t handle any more input.

    On my last trip to Italy, by the time my nephew and I reached Venice, I was so exhausted I could hardly speak English or Italian. Plus, Venitians speak a dialogue (though they deny doing so). Fortunately, our waiter was very forgiving and was able to understand me despite my stuttering. Within moments, my nephew had his succo d’orancia (orange drink) and I had my Merlot. We were all good.

    So, in a very long manner of speaking, body language, focus, energy and follow-up are key to understanding one another. Forgiveness is another key element.