Communication Barriers

02 February 2020
So been having some communication breakdowns with people recently. We have spent some time over the last few weeks reflecting on it. Why did it break down, did a miscommunication happen, were words misunderstood, was body language misread. We didn’t want to just know what specifically happened with any of the breakdowns, but figure out the pattern, what connects everything.

Think of it like a math formula compared to just having some data points. If you just look at it in X1 case you do Y1, X2 case you do Y2, etc, then you might not know what X3 is. You need to know the formula. But how do you do that, you need enough data points to figure it out. In that example X3 could be Y4 or Y3, up by 1 or doubling.

The problem is, communication is a little more complicated. It’s not numbers, it’s fuzzy emotions and ideas. There are two ways to handle this complexity. Simplify parts of it, or define parts of it. Generally communication starts simplified and becomes more defined. We think it should go the other way around. But first, let’s explain what we mean by simplify and define, remember these are abstract concepts that are heavily context based. We are trying to get across a meta concept, so try to think of these definitions in a broad sense.

Simplifying could also be stated as just making things less complex. Generally some kind of assumption. Picking up on someone's body language, tone of voice, word choice. These tools reduce the complexity of communication. Being able to get a good reading on someone emotional though common forms of expression makes the feedback loop easier. An example, you bring up a topic with someone, and you can pick up that they do not want to talk about this. You can still talk about it, or drop it, but you have the understanding of where they are feeling already.

Defining is just that, explaining what something is. If someone uses a word you don’t know, and you ask them what it is, that’s defining. What’s important is that you can define other things too, and it can and should be a back and forth. So an example, you are talking to someone, and all of the sudden they say “can’t you see I don’t want to talk about this?” not only have you learned they don’t want to talk about it, but you might have picked up some more things on their tone of voice, body language, etc.

If you can’t tell, defining something is creating a simplification that has less assumptions. Or rather, correcting a simplification. Remember think of this as math formulas. Defining is getting more data points or correcting others, and simplifying is guessing what a point will be based on nearby points. So hopefully you see where we are going by saying communication generally starts simplified, and that it shouldn’t be.

Let’s give an example from our life of some communication breakdowns that was caused by starting with assumptions. There have been a few times we have had a conversation with someone, and we do not wait long enough for them to respond. We even talked with them later and at the points we said we were pausing to give them time to respond, they said we didn’t give them a chance. Both us and them had different assumptions for how long to wait after someone stops speaking for them to be offering control of the conversation back over.

One conversation kept growing out of control, they said we were not letting them talk, we kept telling them we were. Both us and them tried to correct the problem but not in ways that the other understood at the time. The whole time, both of us were miss reading each others body language and mood. It wasn’t fun, but later we both talked about it and gained a better understanding of each other. We defined things after a conflict arises while simplifying things.

So what exactly do we mean when we think communication should start defined and go towards simplified? Well you can’t exactly define everything the moment you meet someone. So instead, define things as you talk. Remember, defining is a back and forth, and communication as a whole is a two way system. There are a few ways you can define as you go, depending on various contexts.

You can try to say something made you upset right as it makes you feel upset. If you say it right as you are starting to feel upset, the other person can pick up on the small body language shifts you just made. So what if they continue talking about it after you say it’s making you upset, well it gets a little more complicated. Is this a conversation that has to happen, did they miss understand what you are upset about, how well do you know this person, etc.

If you don’t think this is a conversation that should happen, then you need to clarify further. If you ask why they keep talking about this upsetting topic, they might say, oh I thought you mean this made you upset, or I want to get this off my chest, or anything else. In order to make this style of communication work you have to be open.

Try to remember, people come from different backgrounds. Where someone grew up, what they do for work, what kind of culture, and many many more things. We think there are two solutions to handling these differences. Being open and accepting of others differences, and not getting silently upset.

Both of these go together though. Remember, any difference between both people's lives could cause a miscommunication. If you go into communications with a willingness to say how you feel, and ask for clarification, you can make a lot of conversations smoother. As we said though, communication is a two way street. And both parties need to be on board for it to work.

Both sides need to try to learn and understand the others ways of communicating. Both sides need to be willing to speak up to clarify something. Both sides need to let it be known that something is wrong before it grows out of control. We aren't saying drop all assumptions when it comes to talking to people, but when it’s someone new and a new topic, at least in terms of communication, assume that people aren't being mean. You have to be both willing to ask questions and default that someone isn’t being mean.

Please please please keep in mind, context is important to this. Someone running up to you with a knife might mean no harm to you and there is a perfectly justified reason, but we aren't saying you should stand there and get stabbed. All of the things we just talked about depend on who you are talking to, where you are, and what the conversation is about.