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A Better Model Of Communication

August 15, 2019

Status: work in progress

The goal of communication is to change the recipient’s internal state. That could mean giving them information, motivating them to do something, triggering their emotions, etc.

To improve at this goal, we need a model of how communcation works and a way to tell if we’re doing it right.

A Naive Model

Our instinct is that communication works like this:

1. the words you say/type
2. their internal state

This is the naive model. It exists because it’s how we experience communication when we’re the recipient. We hear something, and it affects us. We don’t know what they intended, only what we got.

That’s also the model when we talk to ourselves. We know what we intended, so we get it exactly.

A Better Model

If you’re serious about improving your communication, you have to adopt a more nuanced model. When you talk to other people, it’s closer to this:

1. your internal state
  [[ black box 1 ]]
2. your actions (the message you send)
   - content: the words you say/type
   - manner: tone of voice, body language, etc
   - context: location, relationship, what's happened recently, etc
  [[ black box 2 ]]
3. their perceptions (the message they receive)
  [[ black box 3 ]]
4. their internal state

First, notice the extra steps. Each side (sender and recipient) has two steps instead of one. One step is mental, the other is physical. Turning your thoughts into words is a step in itself, and vice versa on the receiving side. Noticing the difference will help you find sources of error.

Next, look at those black boxes. They are filters that transform your message. You don’t really know what’s inside them or how they work. They don’t work exactly the same way every time. The best you can do is put something in and see what comes out the other side. Box 1 is the easiest to reverse-engineer because it’s all yours. The second box is shared between you and the recipient. You don’t have full control and it’s harder to tell what the output is. Box 3 is the hardest. Each person has their own and neither the inputs nor the outputs are visible to you (though you can get some clues from their behavior).

Now What

Using this model, we can define the hard problem of communication: How do you create the desired state at step 4?. It also offers a process: learn how the black boxes work.