By Gerrit Van Wyk.

A map is not the territory.

Korzybski said a map is not the territory. What did he mean by that? Maps are representations of physical areas but never perfect copies of it. Despite that they are useful for travel.

Before humans had speech, like other animals we experienced what’s around us by smelling it, feeling it, tasting it, hearing it, etc. We then started making sounds to draw others’ attention to our experience and eventually the human speech apparatus evolved to such an extent it could produce an array of sounds other animals can’t. That enabled us to attach sound patterns, or words as we call them today, to our experiences and by agreement name them. That had two important consequences.

The words we use to name something we experience, before naming it, is not that experience, and sound is gibberish until we agree on what it means. No-one will understand if you make your own words. The sounds babies make are meaningless until they learn from those around them how to produce the right sound to attach to the right item or experience. Initially the sound is the same as the thing, but they learn words are just representations and can be used generically. Table is not just that table, it can be any kind of table, hence we developed language to be able to describe which table we talk about. Finally, infants learn we can talk symbolically about things not present or around us.

There is a saying it takes a village to raise a child. Without people around us we can’t learn language and without language the actions and customs expected of us as members of the metaphoric village.

Korzybski also said we use the word “is” with confidence, but if you hear that word, you can be certain something isn’t quite that. When a dog barks it sends a signal that can mean several things, and when we say something, the same thing happens. The person we talk to must interpret what we say means, and if we share the same language and cultural background, or map, we’ll arrive at the same place, but not in a precise and accurate way.

Communication is a great deal more complex than that. Before we had speech we communicated with gestures and our bodies and learned to interpret the gestures and look for bodily cues which we still unconsciously do. Non-speech communication still makes up about 80% of our communication and it plays a critical role in understanding speech and language without us being aware of it.

Autistic people have difficulty reading and interpreting social cues, and through electronic media we created a generation of communicatively autistic people. All you can see on your computer, tablet, or phone is words and language without the 80% of non-speech cues to make sense of it. Secondly, if you text and not look at someone, the same thing happens. No wonder today there is constant miscommunication; our communication suffers from communicative anorexia. More importantly under these conditions is the fact we draw the conclusion words are the things they represent; the map is the territory, and we revert to the infantile state of communication.

Communication is not conversation, and dialogue is not a debate. Conversation means we take communication as a social mechanism seriously. It means we know what we say is open to interpretation and people don’t deliberately misinterpret what we say; their understanding is based on their interpretation. Their interpretation invites us to respond with an interpretation of their interpretation and this back and forth of speaking, listening, and interpreting is conversation. Unlike communication which goes one way, conversation is an ongoing process of meaning making.

The purpose of a debate is presenting an argument in such a way it becomes the winner in a race with many participants. It’s a zero-sum game; someone wins, someone else loses. A dialogue on the other hand is an ongoing process for reaching a shared understanding of what’s going on, what we need to do, etc.

If you think about it, conversation is what makes us human. It is the bedrock of shared understanding, cooperation, culture, etc. Another consequence is organizations only exist because of conversation and dialogue. If you want to stop an organization or company dead in its tracks, ban conversation and dialogue.

Now one can see a dilemma. We live in the era of communication, regulation, memo, instruction, etc., in our organizations; leaders speak, workers must listen. It’s what we teach in business school. Organizational terms like participation and voice are not about conversation and dialogue, it’s about making us feel as if a conversation and dialogue took place. When that happens, we withhold our voice and don’t speak which means a lot of a conversation is not about what we say or are allowed to say, but about what we don’t say to maintain a relationship, its taboo, its unsafe, out of fear, etc. When that happens, we can surface the real conversation by carefully listening to the words people use and how, and by looking around the room for non-verbal cues.

Sadly, in Canada health care is a bureaucratic monolith which discourages conversation and dialogue and promotes communication and debate. Patients still receive decent care because workers in the trenches talk to each other and make things work. If we were to have any hope to meaningfully change health care, we must take that lesson to heart; the bedrock of change in organizations is conversation and dialogue.