Charlotte and Steve are shopping. They probably have been already for a couple of hours. Steve is sitting with his smartphone on a chair in one of the hundred apparel shops he’s seen today while his girlfriend is trying on something in the dressing room. Finally, she appears in front of him, asking the question that makes almost every man shiver to the bones: “Does that dress make me look fat?“
Definitely a tricky situation. In a moment like this, you can famously only give a wrong answer. For sure you can see a conflict arising from both “Yes” and “No” as the answer of your choice. Well, I’m here to tell you that there probably is a right answer to Charlotte’s question. And if you give me 15 minutes of your time, I’ll let both you and Steve know how to find out, what that might be.
Before we can fully understand how to answer this tricky question properly, we need to understand the core problem in this situation. And no, this core problem most probably is neither if Steve should answer with “Yes” or “No” or if Charlotte is actually looking fat in that dress. The core problem lies within Communication in general. So before we go deeper into Steve’s options, we can look at how communication works on the most basic level. For this, let’s first deconstruct the concept a little:
Communication is about making your thoughts, ideas, emotions (etc.) accessible to others. In many cases, with the purpose of exchanging information of that kind with others.
In every process where you communicate, this holds true. If you’re giving a speech in front of 10000 people, if you’re telling a joke or if you’re listening to someone’s story, in all cases you receive or exchange information. And unless we find a way to read minds, we need to find a practical way to get a message from our head to someone else’s. You need a medium to transport your message, for example speech (or a book, a blog post, …). So what we’re doing is encoding our thoughts (for example into spoken words). That’s a message.
Now whoever is on the other end of the line needs to reconstruct some information out of the received message. That is decoding.
So in order to communicate our information travels through coding and decoding. Looking at this, of course, it seems obvious that errors happen all the time. For sure you can think of situations where A /= B /= C. If not, here’s a hint: Steve and Charlotte seem to suffer from a little conflict like this right now.
Generally, these errors happen because of noise: factors, that make interpreting a message hard for us. Generally, there are four different big types of noise:
What most of us consider noise anyways. This type of noise comes from the physical environment, e.g. through a loud car passing by or a music playing in the background.
When our body is simply distracted at the moment, e.g. by hunger, a really bad mood or lack of sleep.
When the sender is using language that the receiver cannot understand.
This is the most challenging, nuanced and interesting type of noise. It’s all just in our heads: In almost all cases we have certain expectations towards the person we’re talking to. Those can come from stereotypes, someone’s reputation or simply assumptions we’re making. Noise of this kind is probably the most difficult to overcome, as most of the time we’re not fully aware of our assumptions and expectations.
With that, we have already seen all elements of communication. We have touched all concepts we need in order to create the most general communication blueprint, The Basic Communication Model:
With that, we have a very clear idea on how to look at Charlotte’s and Steve’s situation objectively – and the words to describe it effectively. Now, we can break it down and evaluate how we could deal with the dress-question productively.
In a following blog post, I will take a look at how to practically evaluate the situation.