Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Getting Through To Each Other

Communication is a very human process.

A quick model

Every being has its own mental model of a domain

Connected to it is a hearing/understanding apparatus. When you tell me the sky is beautiful, my mental model suggests it is a nice shade of blue and had some light, interesting clouds. But it could be that we don't share a model, and you meant really intense lightning and fast-moving thunderheads.

Provided that there are not too many great disconnects, though, what you tell me may provide information that I can add to my mental model. This is true whether I understand the words I heard in the same way that you meant them or not.

Recognize there is a difference between what I hear, and what I understand. It is sometimes said that "memory is the residue of thought" so my memory of our conversation may not be my memory of the sounds and words used, but of my thoughts/interpretation of the sentences as they occurred. I probably remember what I was thinking while you were talking, rather than remembering what you were saying.

Here's a quick picture:









Also connected are the meaning/saying side of things. From within my model is a thought I want to share with you. To communicate that I have to pick the words that I use to say it. Each of those words is a citizen of my mental model that may not fill the same role in yours.

Think about the process of a thought I think translating to words I say, translated while listening or reading into the thought you are thinking, to what you assimilate into your memory.

This is an amazing, fragile, and vulnerable act.

If our models are not too disconnected, then you may apprehend a reasonably close interpretation of the same thought I'm expressing, and you can add it to your model. Then you will repeat the entire process from thought to words to my mind via the same lossy process.

Of course, we're built for it. Even in our first months of life we develop this process, and we continue to improve or degrade it through our lives. Still we feel a little thrill when we reach alignment and each enrich our mental models through conversation or written word. It is an accomplishment!

And of course, it's no wonder we reach a state of frustration when we have overly high expectations of other people to interpret our words in light of our mental model and apprehend our meanings instead of constructing their own.

What if we're disconnected?


What if I tell you things that contradict your mental model? It is uncomfortable. It unsettles our ability to communicate and share. Do we need to start all over? Did we never understand each other?

What are the options?
  • Perhaps I'm being ironic. 
  • Maybe I'm wrong. 
  • Maybe I'm lying to you. 
  • Maybe I have different meanings for the words I'm using.  
  • Maybe there is something wrong with at least one of our mental models. 

It's unsure, complicated, and fairly deep. We feel frustration, and confusion. Some people would break off the conversation. This is why a mentor of mine once told me "never tell anyone something that they cannot hear." He advised instead, bridging the gap first -- and taking the time to do that well.


We get cognitive dissonance if we assume neither of is ill-intentioned. It's easier to write the other off as a liar or kook or moron. But those are the easy, value-less way out of the bind. Better that we try to understand the other person's mental model.

Most people are mis-trained to shy away from upset and frustration that would possibly help them understand another person's model. They likewise avoid the opportunities to improve or correct their own mental models.

Add to that the old Left Brain Interpreter, whose job it is to interpret our memories of ourselves in the most flattering and heroic terms possible. It tells us we're right and that it's wrong of people to make us feel confused or upset.

I suspect this is one of the reasons that programmers tend to plateau and quit learning after their fifth year of experience; they have enough of a model built up, and believe strongly enough in it, that they are able to easily reject anything that doesn't clearly agree with what they already know.

Conversations need to focus compassionately on the differences we have in our terminology or mental model.

It's hard to be human, and it's not something that we can do alone.

What I'm learning from this:
  • Every skull is a cultural boundary. 
  • Frustration exists to help me; I should learn from it instead of avoiding it 
  • Using words in a straight-forward way is a kindness 
  • Using pictures will get us past many of our terminology issues 
  • Recognizing a mismatch in terminology v. model is hard, and important 
  • Avery's Responsibility Process is a helpful mental model to help me adjust my terminology and mental model. 
  • We all live far beneath the endowments given to us mentally, and walk past dozens of lessons every day that could enrich our lives.
If you find the model flawed, or incomprehensible, or not particularly useful please join in conversation with me here. I'm happy to explain, rephrase, or even rebuild the whole model if it helps us communicate more clearly and freely. After all, you have a lot of information I could use.