Communication Is Not Conversation

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

One mouth and two ears.

There is a saying we have one mouth and two ears which should be used in proportion.

Here in North America, communication seems to be a big issue and I’ve attended many courses about it which were all the same kind. Oddly enough, none of them paid any attention to listening.

A good communicator, supposedly sends a clear message in such a way the receiver will know exactly what was meant and will act on it; a model based on the discovery of the telegraph. Communication breaks down if there is a poor message, something went wrong with, or the wrong medium of transmission was used, or if the receiver misunderstood. If someone misunderstand, we can repeat the communication, communicate more loudly, change the communication, change the medium, or blame the receiver. All of these can be identified, fixed, or improved; hence communication is a clearly identifiable thing, with parts that may be analyzed and improved through education, training, and practice. That assumes a clockwork model of reality.

The engine driving a complex social world on the other hand is conversation. This means we communicate via our bodies through gestures, sounds as language, or both, and the recipient listens to what we say and respond to that. As Korzybski said, the map is not the territory and what we communicate not an accurate picture of the reality we wish to represent, hence a receiver is likely to understand the meaning of the communication in general, but may also understand it differently, and the way it responds becomes the meaning of the message expressed in a counter gesture, which we in turn interpret and respond to. That means conversation, unlike communication, is not a straight arrow, it’s an ongoing cycle of gesture, interpretation, and action, in which listening plays a crucial role.

We know a great deal about the anatomy and physiology of hearing, but very little about listening. Before we had language, we communicated like other species with our bodies, which still makes up the bulk of communication, albeit unconsciously, but it is not enough; losing your hearing leads to social isolation. In our modern world, both may be present, but research in the US suggests half of people feel they lack meaningful social interaction and therefore conversation.

Today’s world of electronic communication disrupts conversation. Not only does it remove the 80% non-verbal component providing important cues, anyone can express an opinion without caring how others may interpret it. That is neither meaningful communication nor conversation.

Speaking is easy, listening and trying to understand what someone is saying is difficult. We speak faster than we listen, worry we will be misunderstood, and start preparing a counter argument while talking, hence lose track of what others say in a conversation and unconsciously fill in the gaps. Consequently, a big part of relationships involves repairing misunderstandings.

We want to be understood, and know when someone is condescending or not really listening. We live in a world with many distractions which makes it easy to shut out people disagreeing with us. On the other hand, truly listening signals recognition and caring about what a person thinks and feel, which makes not listening an act of exclusion and dehumanization. It also acknowledges the difficulty of understanding, and the need for conversation to bridge that gap. We think we know what others say and where a conversation is going to fulfill our need for certainty, while the reality is the nature of communication is uncertain and unpredictable; listening open us to that uncertainty and unpredictability.

The same need for certainty drives us to order our social world around generalizations becoming stereotypes, prejudices, assumptions, and beliefs, pigeonholing people and their experiences, which in turn shuts down the openness needed for listening. True listening requires interaction and interpretation. People talk about what is meaningful to them, and to relate to them, we must understand what they mean. We think others think and reason like us, which they don’t, and listening means paying attention so you can ask questions that keep a conversation going.

Our modern world is frenetic, which makes attention a commodity competing with many distractions, which leaves little time for listening. Another consequence is it makes us intolerant of silence, which in turn culturally becomes a sign of disapproval, yet listening means accepting those silences. Talking just fills the void with noise.

We have expectations about conversations, and stop listening if they are unmet, and there are no conversations if others won’t reciprocate. Listening means listening to ourselves as well as others, and listening with attention is exhausting and can’t be sustained for long.

I believe, like others, change comes about through conversation, not communicating what is already decided. In the health care world, there is a great deal of communication and very little conversation, and if that remains the case, very little will change in a meaningful way. Communicating down disrespects what is meaningful to those who live the consequences of top-down decisions and must be undone by attentive listening.