Communication and (Dis-) Agreement

Viewing communication as shared experience leads to a different approach to communication breakdown.

Communication is a tricky business. Often we think that we transmit a message and it is received by the other person (or people). This has its truth: when we ask directions we expect the person will understand us and respond accordingly. However, our situation is more complicated than this.

You reading this are decoding black squiggles on a white background. We do this so well that most of the time we forget that we are doing it…until we have those moments of, “What on earth are they talking about?” At these times, communication breaks down — no message is conveyed.

These communication breakdowns aren’t necessarily about problems with the message. I could write about the wonderful world of newts with great clarity and may not convey anything at all to you (unless you happen to be interested in newts).

Communication is linking experiences. With others that we share a history and understanding with, this can happen with great subtlety — eyes meeting across a room, a lift of the corner of the mouth, or even an expression that is blank. The message conveyed might be quite extensive, something like, “You remember Jack, they were just like this person, weren’t they? They had just this manner and voice intonation.” In these situations a message is conveyed that may be quite accurate and refer to lots of experiences, but the message itself barely exists.

In special situations, words that were otherwise nonsense can take on meaning. A love poem by e.e. cummings ends with the words, “not even the rain has such small hands”. This is nonsense, and it is not explained at all what on Earth this might mean in the poem. What it conveys at the end of the poem is a sense of preciousness and fragility.

Then there are messages that are entirely clear but which I can’t relate to — technical discussions by specialists. For instance, discussions about the states of consciousness experienced in meditation convey nothing to me — there is nothing in my experience to relate them to. The grammar might be fine, the spelling excellent, but no (or little) communication takes place.

This insight about communication being shared experience leads to a different approach to communication breakdown. Usually we concentrate on the message. At its most crass, this is saying it more distinctly and loudly so that the person will understand. (This doesn’t work. Believe me, I’ve tried it an embarrassing number of times, and it has never worked.) More subtly, we can change the words and use synonyms, find other ways of saying what we want to say. This can often work; people have different ways of understanding, and we may hook in to the way they understand if we change the words we are using. (Some people understand abstractions readily, while for others it is the details that are real. Some people ‘see what you’re saying’ while ‘others need to ‘listen to what is being said’. The other night I had tea with a musician who insisted that it was the written score which was ‘the real music’.)

Once we start changing words and so on, we have shifted our focus somewhat, from the message alone to what will be understood by the other person. There are various lists of the different ways people understand the world — Howard Gardner has 8 kinds of intelligence, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has four, and there are many others. My favourite is: head (thinking), heart (feeling), and hand (doing). This is simple, easy to remember and usually is enough to solve communication problems I have had.

To extend this further is to focus on the other person as an individual, for example to ask them about an important experience they have had and to talk about when you have had a similar experience — or an experience that has provoked thoughts and/or feelings similar to theirs. When we feel like our message isn’t getting through, we can talk about an experience: instead of talking about the excitement of blogging, I can tell the story of the time that I first realised what was exciting about blogging. In this way, I can tap my own experience, and this may make it easier for the other person to relate to their experience.

Seeing communication as linking experiences also offers a new perspective on disagreement. It allows us to distinguish two types of disagreement:

  • Where some kind of genuine argument is taking place, and,
  • Where we just seem to be talking past each other.

When there is a genuine argument taking place it may well be worth paying attention to the message — the meaning of the terms being used, the unstated assumptions, the logic or how the argument hangs together. All these may be important. Realising that the other person means something different but is using the same word as I am using can help restore communication. So can understanding the assumptions made (e.g., many people presume discipline is good, while I tend to think the reverse), or realising that a leap has been made: for example, that the experience of being betrayed by six wo/men means that all wo/men are untrustworthy.

When a genuine argument is taking place it may still be well worth exploring experience. This is especially valuable when someone’s depth of feeling about something seems strange to us. (For example, they may enjoy a particular kind of art or music because it reminds them of good times in their past.)

When we feel that we are talking past each other, it is usually pointless focussing on the message. At these times it is usually best to focus on our own and others’ experiences. We will either find common experiences or find where we don’t have experience in common. In either case we may find a way to restore communication.

Do you remember times of special communication for you? Could you say what made this communication special? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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