There is very little that is natural about communication. Word associations. Metaphors. Our vision of the world is like a kaleidoscope of moving bits of glass, settling in a slightly different configuration every time we pause to ponder.
In fact, most of concepts, symbols and metaphors that we process as we communicate are of a conventional nature. This means that, for example, the word “cat” is not intrinsically linked to what it represents – the furry, meowing creature that sleeps 18 hours per day. Rather, the string of sounds, “k a t” is a symbol that we have arrived at arbitrarily: as a speech community of anglophones, we agreed conventionally that it should be understood to mean what it means. In fact, if we all decided tomorrow to change our interpretation, we could call cats by another name – fripples, or sniggles or whatever.
So words are pretty arbitrary. Famous Swiss professor and founder of the field of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, called this the arbitrary nature of the sign. This concept has huge implications for the field of communications.
Let’s think about this for a second.
If all signs (words) are arbitrary, then there are very few natural readings of what we are saying. Hmmm. The implications of this are powerful. This means that to truly understand what others mean, we have to be very conscious of several things:
- Our co-communicator’s personal history and experiences;
- The dialect or variety of English that she uses;
- The person’s socio-economic station;
- The person’s experiences with people who look and feel like us.
Think of how complicated this process is. We all have a wealth of experiences that we had stockpiled. Some of them are simple, like what our favourite foods are or the colours that make us feel happy and cheerful. Others are very deep and complicated – the mixed feelings we have about failed relationships, the sadness we have experienced at the loss of a loved one, the conflicted feelings of guilt at things we have done that we now regret.
These deep feelings and ideas are very difficult to communicate to others. Often we do not have enough of a grasp of our own perspective on them to put them into words. Nonetheless, these deeply-seated thoughts shape and colour our interpretations of the world. They influence our reactions to other people. They trigger fear or trust responses in us.
Now imagine how challenging it would be to take that kaleidoscope of tumbling and rolling personal experiences in your mind and fit it onto the jigsaw puzzle of language and language and words. It’s tough – it requires many many words to paint an adequate picture. Honesty is key, because once you introduce a lie into that stormy ocean of words, it has to be true forever and that can become exhausting and very, very complicated.
So what does this mean for effective communicators? Several big points:
- Honesty is the best policy. It will make you feel solid and authentic to others, if your language is always consistent.
- Self-knowledge and self-reflection is key. Tell yourself the story of yourself. Evaluate your many experiences and how they fit in with one another.
- Listen carefully to what others are saying. Keep the big picture of what they are saying your mind – it will allow you to understand communication that may seem unusual.
- Be a compassionate listener – remember that everyone says everything for a reason. That reason may come from their experiences, from their state of mind, from how they feel that day.
- Remember that words are arbitrary and reductive. Even in the mouth of an expert communicator, they are an impoverished representation of the complexity of what is going on in that person’s mind.
Keep these things in mind as you develop your skills as a communicator. They will deepen your understanding of others and enrich your life and practice.