How to Peel Back the Layers of Communication
How many conversations have you been in today?
If you are reading this at the beginning of the day, you have likely only had a few. But if it is at the end of the day, you might have trouble remembering all the conversations you had.
And in how many of those conversations did you translate or interpret what was being said?
Unless you work multi-lingually, your initial reaction was likely "None!".
But each time we engage in conversation, our brains translate and interpret.
You see, each of us carries around a personalised dictionary in our minds. These dictionaries build over our lifetimes. What makes it personalised is our unique life experiences. Each experience contributes to our dictionary, adding deeper meanings and new associations.
For example, say you grew up in a household that had a full schedule. To make things easier, your parents used daily checklists for organisation. There was one for the morning routine, and one for items you needed to take to school. You saw how it relieved your parents' stress. You learned these checklists and realised their effectiveness. Your personalised dictionary has an entry for “checklist". It means positivity, efficiency, stress-reduction, and organisation.
Now pretend you grew up in a household where organisation was more relaxed. Your parents liked to go with the flow, getting things done when the need arrived. One day your parents were talking, and you overheard an angry comment. "I know there's a lot of renovations still to do, I don't need you standing over me with a checklist!" You never used a formal checklist, and you saw your parents get things done without one. You learnt to trust that you would get things done by focusing on the next thing. Your personal dictionary has an entry for "checklist". It means overbearing, too structured, and stressful.
Imagine those two people working alongside each other. The first, using their dictionary, suggests using a short checklist. For "daily tasks" and "to improve efficiency". The second person responds, using their personalised dictionary. "That's a bit much, don't start over-complicating it!" Both walk away from the conversation feeling judged for their work methods. Both feel justified in their position and neither learns from the other.
While this is a practical and simple example, the principle stands. Each word we use has a cluster of meanings attached to it. Sometimes we are aware of our own meanings, and sometimes they are subtle and unconscious. Almost all the time, we are unaware of the associations that a word has in someone else's dictionary. These associations can be emotional, expectations, or hold behavioural or situational information.
What I mean when I say something, and what you hear when I do, are two very different things. Misunderstandings are common because of this truth.
Even when we talk about simple topics, our definitions need to align. When they align we can cooperate and move forward together. As we talk about more complex topics, the need for our definitions to align increases. Without common definitions and associations, we are likely to pull in different directions. Pulling in different directions can look like conflicts, misunderstandings, miscommunications, frustration, and stagnation. Aligned definitions allow us to understand details with accuracy. Agreed upon definitions help creativity, problem-solving, progress, and feeling connected to the community.
When we talk about meaningful topics, we need to uncover our associations. This allows us to understand the emotions at play.
Clear communication happens when we compare our personal dictionaries. Then we can begin to communicate with shared understanding.
Translation and interpretation are skills. How might you develop your skills?
Here are three things to try:
Compare meanings Start a conversation with someone you know quite well. Ask them something simple, like how their day was, and listen to their answer. When they begin to talk about something and begin to use a certain word, ask them about what that word means to them. Adopt a posture of curiosity, not judgement. Like the word "checklist", consider what the word means to you and compare that with what it means to them. Ask about underlying associations, expectations, emotions, and personal history.
Make note of miscommunication We all experience miscommunication. But do you try to work out why that miscommunication has happened? Next time there is a breakdown of communication consider the dictionaries. Which words were used? What might the other person have meant? What words would you have used to mean that? How might you prevent that miscommunication in the future?
Notice your reactions Often, it is easier to start with our reactions. Sometimes we walk away from a conversation in a different mood than when we started. Sometimes it is obvious why our mood shifted - the content of the conversation affected us. Sometimes our moods shift subtly. Subtle shifts can indicate subtle miscommunication or the use of different dictionaries. When you notice this, consider the words that were spoken. Consider differences in meanings, expectations, associations, and personal history.
Clear communication can be very difficult. Learning translation and interpretation takes time. Each conversation is dynamic and unique. And our dictionaries are mostly unconscious. So, give yourself time to learn. Give yourself time to peel back those layers of conversation and get clarity. Clear communication is worth it!
Clear communication is a skill I talk about and practice with my counselling clients. To book a session, for yourself or for relationship counselling, head to the services page. Also check out the Relationship Package, for discounted sessions.
And don't forget to download the calendar and note pages for this month - it's a communication practice!