Updated: Jul 12
One of the hardest things in life is communication. Yet every day we need to communicate with others. We need to provide information, seek solutions, discuss ideas or ask for advice or direction. We all think that we are good communicators, yet misunderstandings abound in even the most mundane of conversations. Partly, this is a fault of human experience, partly of the language itself and partly the fault of the conversationalists themselves who seek to convince instead of seeking to understand.
The problem with language is that it is an imperfect medium for the exchange of ideas. Words and all forms of expression are translations or representations of wordless ideas or feelings. As such, each thought expressed in words captures only part of the essence of the conception. Added to this difficulty is the fact that most words have multiple meanings. These meanings are contextual in nature and may change depending on the field of knowledge discussed, the social class, the generation, the educational attainment, the cultural background, the philosophical ideas they attest or even the books the conversationalist has read. This makes effective communication extremely hard.
When we talk to a friend or a colleague, we assume that as they speak English, they speak our language. Yet how often is it that when we engage in discussion with them on ideas, we discover that our languages differ greatly? Words that may carry a positive connotation to us may carry a negative one to them and vice versa. Terms like public and private can be understood differently depending on a multitude of factors, as can almost any other word. As such, it is impossible to ever be sure that your meaning is being accurately conveyed as you intend it unless you adopt methods such as the language simplicity amendments suggested in Part 4 of the Democracy of the Hundreds Series, which indicates the intended definition of each word.
Of course, this method is hardly practicable for general communication. Thus, we must accept the inherent weakness of all forms of communication. We must understand that we form our conceptions and our understanding of language based on a myriad of biases, experiences and the summation of our learning. These inputs are developed over our entire lives and create what amounts to a psychological prism through which we view and interpret the world around us. These prisms are unique to each one of us, and when we communicate, we communicate our unique ideas using a language that is at least partly ours alone. In this uniqueness of perspective and language lies the problem and the benefit of communication. Our differences make communication hard and fraught with misunderstanding, yet it is those same differences that make the effort worthwhile if we can converse properly.
Too often, when we talk to others, we forget that the purpose of conversation is not to ‘win’ and convince the other person that you are right, but merely to understand the other person’s position and to be understood in turn. As a speaker, writer, or painter, etc. we should wish to express our ideas to our audience as clearly and concisely as we can. As a listener, we should want to understand what the speaker is trying to express. This is only possible when we first accept that our perspective is just one of many possibly valid ones, and secondly, that no one holds a position that they know to be false.
Once we realise that no matter how obviously wrong a belief seems to us, that it was formed by the other person for what seemed to them to be a good reason. Instead of assuming that they are ignorant or unintelligent, we should seek to understand why they hold the views they do. We can do this by listening actively and not merely waiting to say our piece. Ask questions to clarify what you think they have said even if you are confident that you have understood them. Focus on what they have said and ask them to go deeper and follow the logical conclusions from the positions they occupy, but don’t force your conclusions on them. By doing this, we allow ourselves to listen to what they have to say and be open to changing our opinions if they raise points we had not considered. Furthermore, by giving the other person the time and respect needed to talk out their position, we assist them to explore their own beliefs and to discover for themselves the weak points in their own beliefs.
Similarly, if we want to share our views with others, we should adopt a respectful tact. It is not our job as a speaker to convince others to accept our conclusions but only to express them clearly in a way that allows the listener to grasp them. If they can understand what you have said, they will think on it. If they think on it and it seems right to them, they will accept it. If not, they will reject it. The big secret is that nobody changes anybody else’s mind, they change their own or not at all.
If we want to communicate better, we need to understand and accept the limitations of language and human nature. What you say might be understood quite differently from what you meant it to be. What you hear might not mean what you think it does. Accept this and take the time to confirm it. Language is imperfect, but by taking the time to double-check, you will reduce the number of mistakes and misunderstandings you will endure. Secondly, we need to give up on arguing the point or trying to make someone see ‘it’ your way. Instead, we need to listen more carefully, and when we do offer our views, try only to express them as clearly as we can without seeking to convince. By doing these two things, we will both hear and learn more while counterintuitively winning more people over to our argument as they will come to our conclusions on their own.
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