On Communication

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It’s scary how frequently interpersonal communication — the ability to communicate a simple idea from one person to another — fails.

The most obvious cases are when we see someone say X, mean Y, and the other person hears Z. It can be quite amazing to witness.

It underscores the fact that communication — even between two people who generally agree or perhaps are on the same side of a contentious issue — is really, really hard.

The classic reason is that we listen not to understand but rather to respond. We hear just enough to form a half-baked idea about what the other is saying, and then our brain is off to the races, formulating a response.

There’s lots of advice on the topic. It’s literally one of the “7 habits of highly effective people”: listen first to understand, then be understood. I suspect it’s advice as old as time.

And yet it’s not enough.

People seem to be more and more unable to express themselves properly or clearly. Be it a misuse of language, or an incomplete formulation of thought, people often have an idea they want to express but lack the tools to express it clearly or completely. It doesn’t matter what the other person hears or reacts to if the first person can’t articulate an idea clearly in the first place.

Yes, part of it is language skill. People don’t know how to use language. I’d claim this is in part because it’s not being taught as it once was.

It’s also an undervaluing of language skills in favor of sexier topics like STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). While it includes “arts”, basic communication skills rarely qualify, and are often left by the wayside.

In my own case, my communication skills, such as they are, result from decades of work and practice, often unfocussed on the skill, just doing a job. I’ve written before about how the one thing I would do differently would be to spend more time in English classes. In updated retrospect, debate class might also have been a good addition.

I suspect this same emphasis would serve many people well, and result in better communication skills overall.

Given how poorly we seem to communicate, sometimes it seems a miracle the species survives.

1 thought on “On Communication”

  1. An inability to get to an agreement while being on the same side is a dangerous thing indeed! It breaks cooperation hugely.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Leo! Very well formulated.

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