Unambiguous communication: the key to understanding


Various factors can influence the communication process.

In many previous posts (e.g. here, here, here), I have written about understanding, but a key part for effectively achieving understanding is clear communication. Every day we interact and communicate with family, friends, colleagues, students, and people on the street (e.g. giving a direction). However many of these interactions may not result in the way we intended. In some cases, we realise that there has been ‘noise’ in the communication and actively try to make the message clearer, but in other cases we just keep going with what ever we are doing without realising that the message has not been properly received. Particularly, as information designers, we must ensure that the understanding piece is always present from our first interaction with clients and colleagues to the final outcome we designed.

To shed light into all forms of communication (personal and work-related), this post discusses ways to improve the quality of interactions with people.

‘All communication involves translating from one person’s understanding to another’s.’ Wurman (1992) describes communication as a translation process in which a person [message-giver] translates ideas, needs, concepts into words [the message] to achieve something from another person [message-taker]: a favour, learn a new concept, response to a question, deliver a letter, etc. When we communicate a message, we translate information that is in our minds (and that we understand in a certain way) to a language that the message-taker can understand, and that is different from our ‘language’. When we have known the message-taker for a long time, we are highly familiar with their ‘own language’ (e.g. the way they interpret words, the lens through which they see concepts, etc.). Conversely, when we interact with a message-taker for the first time, all that learning does not exit, and we need to learn how to ‘speak’ their ‘language’:

“People must learn to think, speak, and listen in what might be viewed as a foreign language: the language of the [other] person” (Wurman, 1992)

Misunderstandings arise when we skip steps throughout the translation process or fail to speak the message-taker’s language, producing gaps in the communication. Similarly, Shannon and Weaver’s model introduced in the 40s describes these gaps as ‘noises’ in the transmission of the message that interfere with the decoding process of the message-taker. Part of the communication problem is also not being aware that there are many factors that can influence the process.

Previous information, feelings and emotions play a key role in the understanding process. We filter, interpret and attach meaning to what we hear based on our perceptions, experiences, and prior knowledge. Incoming information [the message] fits within our internal ‘web of stored knowledge’ or frame structure (using Klein’s words) containing previous information. Initially, all communication evokes a chain of frames or memories which is connected to some past experience or piece of knowledge (frame) that helps make sense of the incoming information. Completely new information is harder to digest, because these connections are difficult to find or do not exist and we need to create the frame or ‘space’ for that new information.

Wurman explains that ‘we can assimilate information only in manageable proportions relevant to our own capacity to understand’. This means that from a cognitive point of view, when we are familiar with a topic or the topic is directly relevant to our interests, the communication process is perceived as less demanding and more straightforward. While, when the topic is new, or is unrelated to our interests, or touches on sensitive information, the process demands high cognitive load. In any of these cases, communication can be challenging and our capacity to assimilate information can decrease, because emotions and past experiences can hinder the process.
However, if we are fully aware of the message-giver’s intentions, we may be able to detach content from form, and remove or minimise the emotional layer. This is specially true when the message-giver is a member of our family or a very closed friend, and are familiar with their experiences and purposes of their actions.

7 Steps to translate our own language into understanding

1. Deliver messages in context. The first step when communicating a message is to describe the big picture; this is the context in which the message is immersed (what: e.g. work, pleasure, hobby, family) and the purpose of our communication (why: e.g. end result of a project we are working towards, reasons for why a task has to be done). This information helps the message-taker make the connections with previous experiences, and understand where the message-giver is coming from.

2. Use concrete language. By definition, words are a representation of things, ideas, feelings, but not the thing itself. Each person interprets this representation differently, based on their own experiences. The use of abstract words, such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘happiness’, are most likely to connote an ambiguous message. To minimise the inherent ambiguity on abstract words in communications, we should use concrete words and anchor these words with examples. Moreover, if the examples are related to a topic familiar to the message-taker, they are more likely to be fully understood and enhance the overall communication.

3. Use positive words. We are less receptive to negative words than we are to positive words. When we phrase a message starting with ‘No’, ‘Unfortunately’, ‘Sadly’ we are giving the whole message a negative tone that does not necessarily provide a clear understanding of the message. Trying to phrase messages using positive words (even if the message is negative) will put the message-taker in a more receptive state of mind, and therefore increase understanding.

4. Assess understanding: Teachers often stop their lectures and ask their students if everyone has understood or if there are any questions. While this is the right approach, there is a difference between asking message-takers whether they have understood and actually making sure of that. One way of making sure our message has come across in the intended way is asking the message-taker to repeat what we have said with their own words. Equally valid, of course, would be to ask them to make a drawing of their understanding. For Wurman, this step as essential, stressing that ‘unless [we] take into account how much someone can understand, [our] messages are meaningless’ (162).

5. Practice conscious listening. To me listening is the most important step in the communication process. As message-takers, while someone is talking to us, we should assess if we are understanding the message or receiving it with ‘wariness, reluctance, or irritation’. We should also pay attention to whether we are thinking about or preparing our response at the same time than the message-giver is talking. This is a common example of not being genuinely listening. Sometimes, this is caused by external (noises, visuals, etc.) and internal distractions (thoughts, feelings, past experiences), trigger words, vocabulary (unknown terms and words), lack of interest in topic, multitasking. As message-takers, we should commit to fully engage with our message-giver, or otherwise find a better moment to have the conversation in which we would be able to do that.

6. Pause, breathe, think, respond. When we do not take the time to reflect and process what the message-giver is saying, we can react emotionally, either because we are connecting the words to a unpleasant past experience or misunderstanding parts of the message. When we pause and take the time to assimilate the words in the actual context in which they are being said, we are paying attention to the content itself and not the form of the content (message-giver’s style, accent, interjections, etc.). If we know the message-giver, we can use that information about them to enrich the message (e.g. intentions, lens, approach, perspective, experience, etc.). This way we avoid jumping to erroneous conclusions or reacting emotionally.

7. Reclaim children’s inquisitiveness. Both parties involved in a communication process [1) message-giver and 2) message-taker] should ask questions: 1) to ensure the message is getting across as intended and 2) to express those parts of the message that are not well-understood. We all think twice before asking a ‘basic’ question, however any question (basic or complex) aimed at eliciting information of or clarifying a problem is a question ‘that produce[s] solutions’. On the other hand, questions aimed at ‘show[ing] off one’s own erudition or prov[ing] someone else in error are destroyers of learning’. Asking questions in response to ‘original curiosity will serve one well in almost any circumstance’. (154)

Following these seven steps to improve communication and achieve understanding can initially be seen as overwhelming or ‘artificial’, and we may think: Do I really need to pay attention to all those steps every time I am trying to communicate something to someone? The short answer is yes —if you would like to develop communication skills that facilitate reaching a clear understanding in most interactions. Like with any other task we have consciously learnt (driving is the perfect example here), it becomes more natural with practice. After a while, we will internalise each of the steps and go through them without noticing. To me, the results are worth making the effort to rethink my communication skills and habits.

‘There are no misunderstandings; there are only failures to communicate’ Senegalese proverb (in Wurman, 1992)

– Weaver, W. & Shannon, C.E. (1963) The mathematical theory of communication. Univiversity of Illinois Press
– Wurman, R.S. (1992) Follow the yellow brick road: Learning to give, take, and use instructions. Bantam

One comment

  1. Grace Salerno


    > El 04/08/2015, a las 14:18, “Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice” escribió: > > >

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