In my last post I described the sender receiver model of communication and said that thinking this way about communication was a reason why we have communication breakdowns, and why, when they occur, they are so hard to repair. I said that when you see communication as a sender and a receiver in this way, a misunderstanding can only be resolved by identifying which party made a mistake, or which parties made which mistakes. Admission of mistakes like this is hard for people to do, which means it is hard to resolve breakdowns in communication.
What is the alternative?
Ralph Stacey introduced me to the thinking of George Herbert Mead, who, early in the twentieth century pointed out what I have found to be a very useful alternative to seeing communication as a message transmitted between sender and receiver. Mead talks about meaning in interaction as being co-created through a process of gesture and response. Gesture means words, actions, facial expressions and so on, and the response to the gesture creates the meaning of that gesture, at the same time as it is being generated by the gesture.
How is this different from sender / receiver? Well, one difference is that the message has no intrinsic meaning of itself.
If I yell at you, you could take it as a warning that a car is coming and thank me, or as an insult and yell back at me. There is no intrinsic meaning held in the yell itself, and neither of us knows the meaning of it until you respond. Of course, I have intention in yelling, but the meaning we make of it together is not known until the response is given. And of course the response itself is also a gesture calling forth its own response. So, communication can be seen as a continuing process of making meaning through these gestures and responses.
Rather than transmitting meaning from one person to another we are jointly communicating meaning. The response gives the gesture meaning – there is no inherent meaning in the gesture alone.
In this way of thinking, you have to consider both the gesture and the response together as the unit of communication. Thinking this way, your attention is drawn to the meaning made of the gesture/response together, not how the sender’s intention differed from the message decoded by the receiver.
Here’s another example.
The statement “the cost is $10,000” is a very familiar occurrence in a range of settings, from financial (e.g. budgeting or financial reporting), to sales (negotiating a price). A response of “That’s too much” gives a very different meaning to the interaction compared to a response of “Should we accrue that amount?”
When I was first introduced to Mead’s notion of the conversation of gesture / response, I thought it was an academic concept of not much value. In fact I thought it was quite a difficult concept to grasp of extremely questionable value. I have now changed my tune completely.
So why is this such a useful way of viewing communication?
It is useful because it completely transforms the nature of what you think communication is. Instead of looking at the sender or receiver as being at fault, our attention is drawn to the meaning that we are making together in this situation. Communication becomes a process of joint inquiry in which we are both, together, making meaning of our situation, drawing on your unique background and understanding, and my unique background and understanding.
For leaders, taking this perspective completely eliminates the need to see employees as expressing resistance to change when they question a change initiative. Why? Because when employees ask questions, they are responding to gestures made by the leader, perhaps at a roadshow presentation, perhaps in a company newsletter or any other setting. This does not mean that the leaders have given the message poorly, or that the employees are resistant. The questions from the employees are the responses to the gestures made by the leaders, which lead to further gestures and responses in a never-ending process out of which meaning is constantly emerging.
When you take this perspective, communication is seen as a joint inquiry, in which both parties are accountable to each other for the meaning they are taking from the interaction. Meaning is constantly evolving through the conversation of gestures and responses. Each response is itself a gesture that calls forth a response. In this process the views of both parties can change.
And that is the exciting thing – it helps you avoid getting stuck blaming each other when communication doesn’t seem to be going the way you would like it to.
This view of communication has been very significant for me and others who have explored it. I would be very interested in your response to this gesture. That will enable us to make meaning together.
So please feel free to post questions or comments.
Illustration by Martin Coates