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  • Writer's pictureJohnny


Basic communication theory describes three steps that are involved in verbal communication: Encoding, Transmission, Decoding. Each of these steps is fraught with opportunities for communication to go awry.

The following article is a rough outline of one of the classes that I developed for teaching communication in middle schools, though the basic concepts are applicable throughout one’s development.

Come join me as we follow the journey of a thought as it gets encoded, transmitted, and decoded.

To begin with I want to introduce you to our players, Speaker and Listener.  Speaker has a thought that she is trying to communicate and Listener wants to receive this thought.  The setting that Speaker and Listener are in is a place called Space (no, not outer space).

Speaker is wanting to send a thought to Listener. The thought that Speaker wants to send is a picture of a Tree, just like the big pine tree that she used to climb when she was young.

First, Speaker must encode this thought into a word.  In this case, this is pretty simple, Speaker chooses the word “Tree” for this purpose.

Then, Speaker must transmit this thought through the Space.  She does so by speaking the word “Tree”.

The word travels through Space and enters into Listener’s ear, which is followed by Listener decoding the word “Tree” into a thought.  In this case, Listener gets a picture in his head of a small apple tree that he used to pick apples from.

As we can see, though they can both agree that they are thinking about a tree, the thought in Speaker’s head and the thought in Listener’s head are different.

This is the basis for a fundamental form of miscommunication.  The thought was lost within the encoding and the decoding process.

Now imagine that the Space is full of noise.  Speaker says “Tree” but part of the word gets lost in the noise and Listener receives “ee”.  What Listener’s brain does (often without him knowing) is try to fit “ee” into a context that makes sense.  In this case, Listener’s brain decides that “ee” must mean “Bee” and so Listener nods his head, implying that he heard Speaker and agrees that Bee’s are interesting.

Now, rather than merely two different trees in their heads, we have Speaker with a tree in her head and Listener with a bee in his head.  This can get confusing when Listener responds with how those things scare him to death.

The ability to transfer detailed thoughts to one another is a true super power that humans possess.  We often take this for granted but it can be good to take a moment and appreciate both how amazing this skill is, along with how difficult the task of communication can be.  When you sit down and think about it, it is a wonder that anyone can communicate at all.  We have whole areas of our brain dedicated to the task of verbal communication.

The best way to promote clear communication is to keep in mind that there are many ways for communication to go awry.  When we accept that what we are saying may not be what others are hearing, we will be more likely to catch miscommunications before they get us in trouble.

Finally, I want to note that this is the most basic form of communication.  I will leave for another article the intricate levels of subtext, inflection, emotion, context, and culture that are also present when we communicate

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