What, exactly, is a communication?
For me, a communication is when there is a
sender and a receiver. That means, until or unless both
communication partners understand the same thing, there is not a complete
So who is responsible for making sure that happens? Those of us who like to
think we communicate effectively, and expect certain reactions or buy-in from
our communication partner, like to blame the receiver when something goes
awry. Obviously, if there is a miscommunication, the receiver heard it
But I have a different set of beliefs. I believe that each of us must take
the responsibility to ensure our communication partner hears us and receives our
message in the way we want it heard. If we want to be understood, it’s our job
to ensure we are understood.
Filters and Biases
The basic problem—besides the one of understanding that it’s the sender’s
responsibility—is the way people listen.
We actually form historic listening patterns as a result of our life
experiences. So, when I hear a young person start a sentence with “Yes, but..,” I
hear, “I don’t want to change what I’m already thinking, and will therefore
negate what you just said so I don’t have to consider changing my mind.” This
comes from years of communication with my own children, so the historic bias is
already “in there.”
But what if this person wanted to say something else to me; something that
would actually add some new thinking to my communication premise? I’d probably
not hear it, since I had listened through a biased filter to start with, and
anything this person said would be filtered according to my historic beliefs.
Because we all listen according to our historic filters and belief systems,
every communication is filtered through biases of expectations, beliefs and
misconceptions. As a result, it’s amazing that any communication happens at all.
In order to work around the filters, senders must move beyond the hope
and expectation that they are being understood. Ask the following questions:
- How will I know if I’m being understood or misunderstood?
- What will I look like/sound like when I’m being understood or not
- What about my communication patterns: am I willing to amend them to
ensure I get understood on each communication?
We never know what is going on for another person. Never. But we can
certainly enter a communication with curiosity, assuming that there is bias both
for the sender as well as the receiver, and accept the
responsibility of ensuring that the receiver receives what you intend to
The other problem when communicating is when we either believe we have an
easy message to impart and others should understand, or that we are
speaking in an easy-to-understand communication style using words and concepts
that should be understood by everyone generically.
Again, this belief makes it difficult for the sender to be willing to
consider that the receiver is the hapless victim here. Remember that the
receiver is actually listening through his/her beliefs as well! So the
message is sent with a set of hidden biases and unspoken beliefs, and the
message is received through filters that include hidden biases and unspoken
Here is a silly, simple analogy.
I say something to you that includes the word blue. As I speak with you, I
notice you get very annoyed and start speaking rudely to me, telling me not to
speak to you like that again.
I can either say, “You’re an idiot. It’s only a color! What is your problem?”
and internally call you a jerk and remind myself not to converse with you again.
Or, I can say, “Wow! I didn’t realize anyone could be so upset with the mention
of a color. What’s up with that?” And you might tell me that your favorite dog
was killed in front of you when you were eight years old, and that dog’s name
Unfortunately, we come to a communication expecting to be understood, and
when we’re not, are far too ready to blame the other person. This is especially
true when I see a response from the other person that didn’t seem to line up with what
I would have thought to be an “appropriate” response. Given I know how many
things can actually be misinterpreted, or misunderstood in a communication, I
find myself saying: “Can you say that to me in another way please?”
I also live with a primary belief that I take with me in every communication:
“The meaning of the communication is the response it elicits, separate
from my intent.” It’s a NeuroLinguistic programming saying and fits with my
beliefs quite nicely. After all, I have a choice of being right, or being in a
relationship. And being in a relationship just requires a bit more skill.
About the Author
Sharon Drew Morgen is the author of the New York Times Business Bestseller
Selling with Integrity and 5 other books and over 600 articles on a
collaborative decision making model. She is the developer of a new sales model,
Buying Facilitation, and works with global corporations as an executive coach for
change management and sales initiatives. She can be reached at: