Secure communications during wartime are critical. You never want your enemy to know your plans. The element of surprise can offer enormous advantages. So it has long been routine to encode military communications in order to deprive the enemy of critical knowledge. It follows that code-breaking is a big part of military intelligence. Just as you want your codes to be secure, you want to be able to read an enemy’s coded messages. During WWII the British were second to none in the art of code breaking. Bletchley Park was the home of Britain's codebreakers. The “boffins” at Bletchley regularly penetrated German codes, thereby shortening the war by years.
What is less obvious is that ALL of our communication is coded. Language is a form of code: an agreed upon way of communicating ideas via symbols from one brain to another. If you doubt this, just try reading Sanskrit. You’ll instantly realize that you don’t know the code. And what is true of verbal communication is just as true of nonverbal forms. In one culture failure to make eye contact is viewed with suspicion. We think the person is lying. In another culture to look another in the eyes is a sign of hostility and aggression. And that OK sign that Americans use? In Brazil that’s the equivalent of the raised middle finger so popular with some Beltway drivers.
Communication is difficult and imperfect, even assuming that all parties are honestly trying to communicate—something that’s not always the case. When you examine what’s involved in this surprisingly complex process, you will wonder how we ever accurately get our ideas across to another.
The woman on the left has an idea that she is trying to communicate to the man on the right. The process begins in the privacy of her brain where her feelings, intentions, attitudes, and thoughts give form and shape to an idea that she then encodes into language.
At this point her private thoughts become public behavior, a combination of verbal and nonverbal communication. It’s important to realize that in face-to-face communication as much as 93% of the communication is nonverbal. This reminds us of why, when dealing with an emotionally charged issue, a phone call—or worse, an email—is such a poor way to communicate. When there is a lot at stake in getting your message across accurately, there is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue.
Back to our diagram, the man must now decode—interpret—what he has just seen and heard. This happens in the privacy of his brain. And it all runs through a filter, the existence of which he is probably not even aware. It is a filter made up of his feelings, inferences, attitudes, and thoughts. And there is no reason to assume—in fact there is every reason NOT to assume—that her feelings, intentions, attitudes, and thoughts are the same or even comparable with the feelings, inferences, attitudes, and thoughts of the man. Our language, both verbal and nonverbal, picks up all kinds of subtle and highly personalized connotations during our lives, much of which we are not even conscious.
C.S. Lewis touched on this in The Screwtape Letters, in which the senior demon, Screwtape is instructing his junior tempter, Wormwood, in the fine art of ensnaring a human soul: “When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother's eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy—if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her . . . . In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face.”
So how do we reduce the likelihood of a breakdown in communication? There are many techniques that can come into play. Here are a couple basic ones:
1. Paraphrase – Restate in your own words (not parroting) the content (words) of the other person’s verbal communication. You say something like, “Let me see if I understand what you just said…” Then you paraphrase. You then ask the other person to confirm that you got it right. It may take several cycles before both parties agree that accurate communication has taken place.
2. Perception Check – A perception check is a guess at the emotional inner state of another person. It is guessing about another’s feelings based on what you have inferred from their body language, tone of voice, and choice of vocabulary. You are not TELLING the other person what they are feeling. That can be highly insulting. You are asking, in very tentative language, if you are correctly interpreting their feelings. A perception check would be something like this: “I am wondering if you might be upset about that. Am I right?” Done in a careful and sensitive way, a perception check is a very caring and loving think to do. It communicates that you are really listening and that it is important to you that you truly understand what the other person is trying to say.
Where paraphrasing focuses on the verbal component of communication, the perception check deals primarily with the 93% that is nonverbal. You need both. This closes the communication cycle, thus assuring the speaker that she is being heard and understood.
We live in a world where communication, particularly online communication, is devolving. Increasingly we seem to be expressing ourselves with little more than grunts, gestures, and the occasional blow to the head. As Christians, let’s take the lead in caring for others by actively listening; hearing what they are trying to say.
I am indebted to the work of Dr. John S. Savage, founder of L.E.A.D. Consultants, for much of this essay.