One of the tenets of neuro-linguistic programming is that the meaning of communication is the response you get. I’ve never studied NLP so I’m taking this at face value (a nice bit of parallel process) and I’d say it’s half right. In general, I believe both parties in a conversation share responsibility for the success of the communication. Even the best communication will fail if the recipient is not listening properly, and the knee-jerk taking of offence that is such a widespread response these days does little to move any debate forward.
As Stephen Covey points out, “most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand”: for the communication to succeed, the hearer must be really listening, with the intent to understand. When it’s our turn to listen, we need to do so with an open mind and our full attention. This help us to reach the nub of what the speaker is trying to say, even if the expression is clumsy, and to realise when what we’re hearing doesn’t make as much sense as it at first appears to.
When it’s our turn to speak, we need to think clearly about what we want to convey – and then convey it clearly, rather than assuming the listener knows what we mean even if we’re a bit vague. In everyday life, if we’re finding our communication with someone is not working, the answer is to change our approach. By simply expressing ourselves differently, we can elicit a different response.
Ambiguity can lead to all sorts of unfortunate outcomes. It may be apocryphal (that he spoke the phrase) but the story of Derek Bentley is a salutary example. He and Christopher Craig were attempting to rob a warehouse when they were caught by a policeman. The policeman told Craig to hand over his gun and Bentley is alleged to have said, “Let him have it, Chris”. If he meant Craig to give up his weapon, this is not what happened. The policeman was shot dead and Bentley ended up being hanged for murder.
In a Thought for the Day a couple of years ago, Anne Atkins discussed the consequences of inaccurate language – less disastrous than the above but more the sort of thing we all encounter on a daily basis. The relationship between language and thought is a fascinating one and I agree with what Ms Atkins says, that muddled language creates muddled thought. However, the reverse is equally true.
The success of communication is measured by the size of the gap between the message sent and the message received. Putting yourself across is all about narrowing that gap until it disappears.
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