The Biggest Problem with Communication

The British literary critic George Bernard Shaw aptly noted that ''the greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished''. This is one of, if not the most, insightful statements regarding the human experience ever uttered. Most all of the problems we have as individuals, families, and societies can be characterized to a certain extent as a failure to communicate. I said it clearly. They were within the sound of my voice. What's the problem? Human communication is a multifaceted, complex, and dynamic process which connects and carries us all. Learning more about it teaches us not only about others, but also more about ourselves.

1. Multifaceted: Communication is the process of creating a picture in another mind that is the same as that which is in yours. I know clearly (sometimes) what I think and see in my own mind. But getting the information that is required to define and characterize it in yours is a multifaceted process. For example, in the world, we have what is known as low context and high context cultures. In a low context culture like the United States, the majority, though not the entirety, of what an American means is contained in the words the American speaks. ''I will be there at 7:00 am.'' The American might fail to hear his alarm clock, get stuck in traffic, or have a heart-attack, but you can rest assured that at the moment of speech, his intent is to be ''there at 7:00''. In a high context culture, the majority, though not the entirety, of what the individual from an eastern culture does not reside in the words used. Far more of the meaning rests in the social position of the speaker, the tone of the voice, and even the time of day of the moment of speech. Understanding details like this is especially key to cross-cultural communication.

2. Complex: Assuming for argument's sake, you know exactly what you mean when you open your mouth (a very big and mostly unfounded assumption), you are only 50% of the equation, at best. The hearer must clearly listen, decode the phonemes into language, retrieve the relevant information from various parts of the brain, and construct that picture in their mind. This is an extremely complex neurological and psychological process affected by diet, genetics, past experience, social context, volume, and the expression on the speaker's face, to name a few.

3. Dynamic: The factors affecting communication are as solid as the tides and as predictable as the waves hitting the beach. It's feasible to predict waves but not to predict the specific height of any particular one. I can give you an idea about what sorts of issues come about with communication but cannot predict in any specific instance what might cause miscommunication. Tangential factors such as barometric pressure can lead to communication problems as such pressure changes affect human metabolism, mood, and physiological processes. The only constant in communication is change.

Can it even be done? Can the picture in my mind and even a bit of the emotion I am feeling ever be successfully transmitted to another human being? Thankfully, yes it can. If not, we are but isolated bits of consciousness floating alone in a sea of energy. The key is to remember that communication is not an event...it's a process. It is an iterative process. ''Hearer and speaker'' are roles which are played, in turn, by each individual. Combined, the roles produce the ''play'' known as communication.

To send a message, whether verbally or graphically, is one step in the process. The next is to listen, hear, and decode that message and send back a message adding to the first as understood, asking for clarification, or simply acknowledging receipt. But communication only occurs when both speaker and listener continue to ''hone the message'' to clarify greater detail. This allows for the picture in the minds of both the speaker and hearer to become more accurate in detail and resonate in meaning.

Think you heard what she said? You probably did. But do you have any idea what she was actually saying? Those are two different questions.


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