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The Problem With Our Thinking About Communication

Stephen Billing, August 28, 2008


Shannon and Weaver’s influential formulation in 1949 of the conduit or sender receiver model of communication constitutes the dominant model of communication. The sender encodes a message which is sent to the receiver who decodes the message. If the sender has encoded accurately, and the receiver has decoded accurately, then clear communication is said to have taken place.

Other factors that can be considered include the channel of communication – face to face, telephone, email etc, and also environmental factors which are considered as noise, and can detract from the clarity of transmission of the message. In this way of thinking about communication, the meaning of it is understood to be held in the message, and is to be decoded by the receiver.

It is known as the conduit metaphor because of the focus on the successful transmission of a message, almost like it was going down a pipe.

This way of looking at communication pervades our thinking on the topic in most areas of organisational life, from information technology and its evolution into knowledge management which concentrates on how these messages can be stored, accessed and decoded at a later date, to cybernetic and computer based models of how humans store, access and extract meaning from these messages.

The goal of communication is understood to be the transfer of meaning from the sender to the receiver with minimum spillage  in the process, to use Eisenberg’s term from his 2007 book Strategic Ambiguities.

The problems of communication are understood to be accurate coding and decoding by the sender and receiver respectively, limitations in the channel of communication, and problems with noise from the environment contaminating the communication. In practical terms, this means that when something goes wrong with face to face communication then we have no alternative but to consider either the sender as having erred in the encoding or else the receiver to have misunderstood the message. Either way one party is at fault.

I believe that this is one of the reasons that breakdowns in communication are so difficult to resolve. For there to be resolution, then one party or the other has to admit that they did something wrong, and this is hard to do.

The sender receiver model of communication is pervasive throughout the western business world. It seems to make logical sense. It fits with our view of ourselves as autonomous individuals making rational choices to bring about our intentions – if we can communicate our intentions clearly as senders, then we will be better leaders and get what we want in the world.

I have come to the belief that one of the reasons communication breakdowns occur is because of our faulty way of seeing communication as the transmission of meaning. And the sender receiver model is also a large part of the reason that we find it hard to repair communication breakdowns. In other words, our very way of thinking about communication in terms of sender and receiver is responsible for miscommunication and the difficulty in resolving miscommunication.

But what is the alternative? For years there seemed to me to be no satisfactory alternative, until Ralph Stacey introduced me to the work of George Herbert Mead, an American philosopher writing in the early twentieth century.

More about this in the next post.



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