Communication is not just a here and now conversation, or you reading this. Communication is built from a lifetime of interactions and learnings.
I feel like I have written on this before but can’t seem to find it quickly. Maybe an old thought never shared, a repeat, or something building and new.
If you ever deep dive a little on the theory and practice of communication, one of the interesting bits of learning is around the components and lifetime of its elements. I think it’s an important dynamic to keep in mind for day to day life because it helps us keep in mind that how we speak, here, interpret and react is often more to do with history than the actual communication itself.
If your focus is on reflection, learning and growth. If changing old patterns is important then this may be a great area of focus for you.
So how it landed for me… in basic terms. In every verbal and non-verbal bit of communication we have a sender, a receiver and a medium on which it travels. And let’s pretend for a second that there is absolutely zero history of communication ever. Our new sender has never before sent any message. Our receiver has never ever received. If you can picture this and then picture the first message, you may be able to imagine an absolute purity of the message. “Hello” has no meaning, no intent, no purpose. It is just a sound right. We understand that sound due to our own individual history of what “Hello” means. Think as far back as you can on all the times someone said “Hello” to you. Are they all feeling/seeming the same? Probably not. And then think about how you may have come first to learn what “Hello” meant. Perhaps parents/carer/family? Then it was re-enforced in children’s books? And perhaps characters in books and even people around us started to use “Hello” with subtle differences in meaning; tone and even the perception of the character/person now carried different meanings.
So far this is all just one word, one direction – us as the receiver of a simple word. But hopefully I’ve set a base for you. Now let us throw in an extra person next to you that also receives “Hello”. From the first time to now they have had different environments, different people and experiences to interpret and give meaning to the word. Easy to see already that two people hearing hello from the same sender can now have different interpretations of what that word means.
Let’s throw in a significant event – That for one person, “Hello” in a certain tone was used by a bully, or very close to a traumatic event, or by an abuser. This new sender has nothing to do with that history but something relates/triggers for the receiver that had that experience. This might seem extreme but it is very real in how what we all think is simple communication can leave a sender with one intent and land with a receiver in a very different way. All unknown to at least the sender, but sometimes even to the receiver. Even if not significant events, cultural, age, gender etc differences can all kick in in similar ways.
So let’s recap. The meaning of all forms of communication can only come from our past learning and experience. That since none of us have the same life it is unlikely we have the exact same meanings associated with a word. You may be able to expand on this yourself, things like full sentences spoken verbally; even more opportunity for sender and receiver to have different intent across all the words.
I mentioned medium near the start. Now this applies to all the combinations and concepts I will mention in this article. We know 70% of communication is in body language. We also know that verbal communication contains other forms of communication like tone, speed and the use of pauses etc. These subtle verbal and non-verbal bits of communication are all lost in written communication, so tend to fill the gaps with what we have learnt and how we might expect the communication to be.
One more complexity kicks in when you think about replies and multiple back-and-forth communication. At each point we have a message said with one meaning, potentially received with another meaning, which now prompts a response based on the receiver’s interpretation. That response is sent back to the original sender, who expects to receive a response based on the intent they sent the original message. And now they interpret not only the response in context of what they think should have been heard PLUS their own interpretation of the response. Your head exploded yet?
One more. Communication that evolves in that learnt send and response forms over time. It’s a little different tonrhe above in that we adjust ourselves because of the response and then end up landing in challenges because we hit autopilot, thinking we know the way something is going to go. Let’s say you are used to asking for help and your partner ignores it, or even makes a joke. Over time we naturally adjust to protect ourselves. You learn to never ask maybe, or prepare to protest and demand to make sure help is given, or martyr yourself to get it. When we take these to new relationships the intent or neglect we learnt is on autopilot for a situation/person that is likely completely different. Even if the response you are used to isn’t there you subconsciously play out the scenario that this new person doesn’t care either.
Real life. This most often creates challenges in relationships where we are a little more exposed in our needs of safety and security, where our expectations are likely deeper and more important. These are also the same relationships where more history is formed. And it’s also the place where good and bad history can follow us. And this is the crux of the article; if you can track back through the concepts of communication I hope you can also see that the way family, friends and intimate partners have communicated with us (all forms) has a history. And we as individuals always send or receive messages based on what we have learnt historically. It is part of our ‘filters’ through which we view the world. These communication interpretations and learnings aren’t always compatible, or even healthy for today. Right or wrong, good or bad is not the point here as you will need to discover that for yourself. But keeping in mind that it exists helps stay open. It helps us stay inquisitive and check meaning, form fewer assumptions, come at things from a positive perspective. It also helps us to continue to learn, find new and better ways of communicating, break down meaning and styles that don’t serve us.
And I hope you find people able to join you in that space – understand that sometimes communication is flawed, that is comes from the only learning you have. And I hope they grow with you to open, supportive and loving communication.