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A Useful Way of Thinking About Communication

Stephen Billing, August 29, 2008


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



  1. Mr.Billing, I find your article on Communication to be most useful as it is a reference to my problem in communication with another. I admit that during conversations, I inevitably confuse people with incorrect responses and gestures. This is a problem I find in myself to be most “annoying” and I believe it may well effect my efforts in communication period. Though I must add, that I’ve always felt more comfortable listening rather than answering or responding to people’s ideas. I thank you rather much for writing this topic as it has brung my research closer on discovering my issues with responses and gestures. Please feel free to contact me if possible.

    -Z. Matthews

    Comment by Zena Matthews — February 24, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

  2. Hi Stephen,

    I was drawn, rather belatedly, to this post by following the link to Zena’s comment.

    I think that one of the reasons that the responses of staff are framed by managers as “resistance” is that, typically, those responses are not made directly to the original ‘gesturer’ (the managers themselves). It is rare for people openly to query managers’ statements at road shows and the like – at least in ways that reveal the full extent of their queries or concerns. Sometimes this is because they don’t want to appear foolish, sometimes because it’s not in their nature to speak out, and sometimes because they fear that it might be “career limiting” to appear to show dissent. Sometimes it’s because …

    Whatever the reason, it seems to me that the joint enquiry you are advocating rarely gets the chance to emerge in the context of the usual suite of formal ‘communication’ approaches that managers typically adopt. As soon as the formal presentation is over, though, these same people who had remained silent in the meeting become very animated in their gesturing and responding to each other over coffee, in the car park or in the privacy of their own offices. And, as you suggest here and in other posts, it is through these ‘local’ conversations that meaning is co-created and actions emerge.

    As a result of this, any contrary action (or inaction) that follows makes no sense to managers from their partial, ‘disenfranchised’ perspective. Labelling it as “resistance” then flows from the established management discourse, as managers respond via their own, local, peer-group conversations to this perceived ‘gesture’ from staff.

    Managers need to recognise that their one-to-many ‘communications’ can never communicate with people in a meaning-ful way. As Stacey would say, these can only serve as gestures to which others may or may not respond. The informal, one-to-one and one-to-few conversations (of gestures and responses) that are triggered by these formal inputs will go on with or without managers’ active involvement. The only meaningful choice they have, therefore, is whether or not to engage with this ongoing sense-making process in a deliberate way. If they choose to do so, then the possibilities for joint enquiry that you outline will open up for them. And they might come to see so-called “resistance” in a different light.

    Comment by Chris Rodgers — March 1, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

  3. Hi Zena, I am pleased you have found this post to be useful.

    Comment by Stephen — March 10, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

  4. Hi Chris,
    Once again you have framed the issue magnificently. My point is that so often the road shows do not allow any opportunity for joint enquiry that the senior managers can be part of. Then the informal conversations take place and people make sense of what happened at the roadshow. Their subsequent actions are then a mystery to the senior people who call it resistance.

    I want to advocate building these opportunities for informal conversation into the road show in a way that the senior people become aware of the responses of the troops, without judging those responses.

    You are also making another good point that all of us can only have one-to-one or one-to-few interactions. One-to-many communications are inevitable one way and the senior person does not get to understand how people have responded. And that is the subject of another post…

    Comment by Stephen — March 10, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

  5. Hi , i live in sweden and i’m studying about G.H. MEAD right now, im suppose to explain Meads theory about how people nationalize in a community or a group. and i have been reading in like forever and i’ve been having truoble understanding his theory, the lyrics is in swedish but yet i feel sometimes like it makes no sence, tho i have 2 say that this i understood well and it makes it easier for me to understand my swedish homework.

    hopefully i can now understand my swedish book and start writing on my essay (about meads theory )

    tnx for posting !

    Comment by Mendi — February 15, 2010 @ 7:35 am

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