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Communcation: It's about state of mind, not ideas. - The Desian Universe
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Wed, Sep. 2nd, 2009 10:36 pm
Communcation: It's about state of mind, not ideas.

It dawned on me last week--and I can't shake the feeling that I knew this already, but what the hell, I'll write about it anyway--that communication isn't so much about presenting ideas or abstractions to other people, as it is about creating a certain desired state in their minds. Effective communication is inherently persuasive; not only does the recipient understand the idea, he groks it -- the idea, and the reasoning supporting it, become intuitively obvious.

I stumbled on this at work, actually. Without going into too much detail, we regularly have group meetings in which we come together and discuss our ideas for designing and implementing whatever the hell it is we're working on. In those meetings, there are often several competing ideas on the table. The result, while often a synthesis of all of them, is usually heavily influenced by one "primary" idea.

I'm going to ignore, for the moment, the cases where I'm wrong because they're much less interesting. :D In cases where my idea turns out to be the "right" one, however, one of three things usually happens: (A) we spend a lot of time arguing back and forth, passionately stating our positions and poking holes in others', until finally they all give up and admit I'm right; (B) rather than stating my position outright, I just start asking questions until the others arrive at my idea on their own; or (C) the idea is so simple and obviously correct there's not that much discussion about it.

[Just in case anyone missed it, there are plenty of times when I'm wrong. But, well, this is my journal and my thoughts, so. Substitute "person X, where person X is right" for "me" if you like.]

If it wasn't immediately obvious, options (B) and (C) are far less painful (and shorter!) than option (A). In the past, I've rather cynically posed option (B) as, "Slip them the idea, and let them think they thought it up." But I got to wondering, why does that work so well?

Obviously, being less confrontational allows the other party to be more receptive to my ideas. But it's just as obviously more than that, because even in a non-confrontational educational setting, asking (sometimes-leading) questions allows the student to attain a greater understanding than simply presenting information or requiring memorization. (Indeed, this is why homework exists, and why good teachers ask questions during class.)

So there's something more to it, even beyond how one presents the information, and I think it has to do with the end goal.

If my goal in communicating is to get someone to agree with me that assertion X is true but assertion Y is not, I will inevitably wind up in situation (A). That's because from the very beginning, my motivation is confrontational -- I've already set up the conditions for the confrontation in my mind, and all that remains is to act them out. If I'm lucky, the person will get dragged, kicking and screaming, into begrudgingly agreeing with me. Even if they agree, they may not fully understand the reasoning or the perspective behind my position.

If, however, my goal is to demonstrate my reasoning, and to provide the same context and conditions under which I arrived at my position, the atmosphere of confrontation is much less pronounced. By posing the right questions--sometimes the very questions I wrangled with in reaching my position--I'm posing a challenge they will naturally try to meet. I'm giving them an opportunity to reach a conclusion, possibly different from and maybe even better than mine, without forcing one upon them. They will naturally walk through the same or a similar thought process, and arrive at or near my position almost as a side effect.

By changing my goal--my own internal motivator--I've altered the thrust of my own action, which in turn alters the other's response, leading to an overall more favorable outcome. It's a neat little bit of karma.

Now that I've figured this out, I intuitively know how to apply it, but I'm not sure how to distill it into something simple. Maybe I can't. (But that's the other thing -- simple, clear communication is often more effective than long-winded, rambling LJ posts. ;P)

What's your experience? Got any good examples? (Maybe I'll post a contrived one later, hands permitting.)

-- Des

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I.M. Weasel
Thu, Sep. 3rd, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC)

Where I work -- in a print shop -- communication is everything, because if one thing on (for example) a business card is wrong, the entire piece is wrong and needs to be redone. There is no 95% right.

Unfortunately for me, there are still a lot of barriers. Sometimes for me its just finding the right words to get out, other times its knowing when to listen and what to listen for -- and likewise which questions to ask.