Sometimes the best ideas don’t always win.
Whether it’s at home, at work or with friends, trying to make people understand our point of view can be a real challenge. We fret over finding the perfect combination of words, but in reality, the trick to being an effective communicator is often less about what we say and more about how we say it. To learn how to be an effective communicator, we must turn to those with decades of experience. Those whose entire lives have been spent tackling this exact problem. Philosophers.
Words Are Imperfect
Languages made up of lots of different words are the best communication tools we have ever invented. Languages have allowed us to grow into the most dominant species on our planet and ultimately master the world around us. Most of us spend on average 38% of our days talking to one another using these words, but they are far from perfect.
Words are inherently interpretive. By that, I mean that they are symbols projected onto objects in order for us to better understand.
German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is often accredited with attempting to create one of the first “perfect” logic-based languages – the ‘Universal Language‘, but ultimately failed upon realising the complexity and symbolic nature of spoken word. His work is mirrored by philosophical dialectic study; first appearing during the Classical Greek period and later the cornerstone of Hegalian Thought, dialectics is a process of reaching truth through conversation and argument. The core of this belief is in a separation of ‘truth’ from the reality we can see and comprehend.
If you take words too seriously, you are like someone that climbs a signpost instead of going where it points. – Alan Watts
In your mind, picture a cat. What colour is it?
Even though we all know what a cat is, your mental image (in this case, the colour) may differ from someone else’s.
Next, imagine a black 3-legged cat. Which leg is missing?
Different people will imagine a different leg missing.
Finally, imagine a black cat, lying down with its front right leg missing. What colour are its eyes?
Yellow, green, blue, whatever. Your visualisation may be different to other people’s, but it’s not wrong.
It’s easy to see that in using more and more words to be as precise as possible, we can never truly get to the point where the words described are visualised exactly the same for everyone hearing or reading them. Just like when your favourite book gets turned into a movie and some of the characters, places and events seem very different to how you had imagined. Neither is right or wrong, just different.
So when we are trying to share an idea with others, oftentimes we can obsess about precision through never-ending details, but more is not always better.
We Don’t Know What We Know
If words are imperfect, so are you and I!
The uniqueness of who we are as individuals directly affects how we perceive the world around us. For plainly observable things such as cats, to complex and ambiguous concepts like ‘meaning’, we all form ideas from our surrounding environment and experiences.
Let’s take a look at this diagram of layers representing the level of understanding around an idea and maybe you’ll understand better than if I were just using (inherently fuzzy) words.
Here we can see that although “what was said” is central to our understanding of an idea, it too falls within the broader scope of our “experience & prior knowledge” and “the context”.
Let’s run through a few different thought exercises and see if we can understand this idea a little better..
1. School years are the best years of your life
– Every parent and older generation ever
When told to us as children, we don’t really appreciate the truth in this statement. It’s not because we don’t believe our parents, it’s just that we don’t have anything to compare this to.
What was said: School years are the best years of your life.
The Context: An older generation talking at a child.
Experience & Prior Knowledge: School life.
Although the child understands the idea this parent is trying to portray of school life being enjoyable and carefree, they cannot understand and believe it to the depth of the parent who has experienced both school life and post-school life.
2. Drink Responsibly
– An advertisement
This word of advice appears primarily in two very different types of advertising – ads promoting alcohol and ads begging people not to drink and drive. In both instances, the message itself remains the same but the context is vastly different. For different viewers as well, prior experiences will lead to a different feeling and response.
What Was Said: Drink Responsibly
The Context: Advertising encouraging people to drink vs don’t drink alcohol
Experience & Prior Knowledge: Depending on the individual, they may have been affected by a drink driving accident.
Here we can see that the idea and its persuasiveness can be greatly impacted by the context used. People who have lost loved ones due to drink driving will also trigger an emotional response due to their prior experience and thus feel quite differently than someone who has been fortunate enough not to be affected.
Understanding different ideas is really shaped by more than just the language used to describe it. As we all have completely unique experiences and lives, our understanding of the same idea is also unique. The best part is that we have no idea how those experiences or contexts are influencing our perceptions because we don’t know what it feels to be like anything other than ourselves.
When speaking to people, we can only try our best to explain in language and phrasing that makes sense to us. Whether the other person understands or not is out of our control.
Now You’re Speaking My Language
A recent conversation with a friend of mine lead me to an observation about how people see themselves and the world around them. We worked through the layered idea of understanding an idea and narrowed it down to two fundamental differences in personality. Next, we set out to explore how, why and what these people are thinking when they say “I” and defined the two major observable ends of the spectrum.
Splitters want to split everything apart and get to the bottom of things. They can sometimes understand themselves as being the composite of millions, billions and trillions of smaller things working (mostly) harmoniously together. They think that the key to understanding problems is by diving deep into the intricate details.
Splitters split the atom (meaning “uncuttable” in Greek) into protons and neutrons, then split these into quarks and are now trying to split quarks. All of this is in order to better understand the universe and our place in it.
Splitters understand the world to be mechanical in nature, they believe that there is a quantifiable logic to everything that exists. Working from bottom up, they view our bodies, our organisations, our countries and our species as being a result of many smaller things coming together.
Stitchers understand the world by stitching things together. The view themselves as being a part of a large collective of people or groups of people. They think problems are best understood by considering broader context and trends.
Stitchers look to intangible, instinctive (sometimes referred to as spiritual) and timeless principles to better understand our place and role in the universe.
Stitchers do not reject the idea of the mechanical world, they just do not believe it adequately explains everything. Working from top down, they understand influence as being from big to small.
As we observed in the previous section, people are predisposed to understanding ideas as within the context of idea itself and their own personal experiences and knowledge. Understanding which of these two archetypes we are dealing with and then tailoring the language and context we use to communicate will increase how receptive these people are to our ideas.
Isn’t it Ironic
In discussing how everyone will perceive every input of information differently, this piece of writing will, too, be inferred differently by every reader. That’s the magic of language. Through its imprecision, we have room for new ideas and innovations. It also means that although a topic as seemingly cut and dry as “communication” can have an enormous amount of thought, research, content and an entire industry attached to it, there seems to be no magic formula in sight.
With $billions spent on corporate communication workshops racking up billions of hours in meetings, reading books about communication and listening to the hundreds of TED talks that give all the secrets for “Being an effective communicator”, it’s no wonder people haven’t cracked the code yet. No one can tell us how to be better communicators by sharing their tips and advice because that advice will ALWAYS be interpreted differently for each person.
As someone who enjoys floating ideas around, this for me is the magic of language. Who cares if I you understood my ideas? I just hope there is something in here that gives you a spark of clarity. Just like the numerous I had when putting this down in writing.
There’s no secret formula, there’s just an understanding that everything is and always has been grey and fuzzy.