One way to think of communication

5 July, 2013 — 12 Comments

In its most basic form communication is the establishment of common ground in terms of shared understanding. If there is no common ground, there is an inability to reach shared understanding, which means there will be an inability to communicate effectively. Akaroa, New Zealand

When I think of any communication process as an attempt to gain shared understanding about something, it helps me to think of those who are receiving or sharing in my communication, as well as the context in which the communication is occurring.

Good relationships

Think now of a really good long-term relationship you have with someone, perhaps a spouse, parent or sibling. You might not have seen them for a while, but when you do, you’re able to launch into a conversation with a bunch of assumptions knowing that this other person shares with you a whole lot of knowledge, history, and experience. In other words, there is common ground in terms of shared understanding that enables effective communication. In-jokes are an overt example of this: perhaps you only need to say one word in a certain place at a certain time and your spouse/parent/sibling knows immediately that you are recalling some funny story from the past.

Blue crayons

Imagine you have a child at the stage of teaching them what different colours are, such as the sky is blue. But imagine being this child’s parent, and teaching her that the colour of the sky is actually the colour called orange. Eventually, so long as this child experiences normal socialization, this anomaly will be discovered. Perhaps another child at kindergarten will ask her for the orange crayon and she gives him the blue one. At its best, peer pressure might re-educate, at its worst, the result could be bullying. The teacher may suspect the child is colour-blind, and this could be tested and proven incorrect. Your child may experience confusion and distrust, or perhaps the parental bond is strong enough to continue the belief that the colour of the sky is in fact called orange.

Put aside the ethics of this example and focus on the child having different understanding. What I’m trying to illustrate is a lack of common ground in terms of shared understanding between your child and the other children, about what the colour blue is named. If real, this scenario may have resulted in frustration, anger, distrust, harassment, confusion, incorrect or lack of action, etc, for all of the children involved, especially for your innocent child who simply has different knowledge than the other children: a different and incorrect colour name for blue.

No common ground

Can you think of interactions you have had with individuals or groups of people, where frustration, anger, distrust, harassment, confusion, incorrect or lack of action, etc have occurred? Did you figure out why? Perhaps there is a lack of common ground, perhaps there is no shared understanding. Perhaps time needs to be spent on something far more elementary in order to gain common ground.

If shared understanding doesn’t exist, or if we find our communication has not been effective, we perhaps need to go back a few steps to unpack some assumptions, or attempt to get a grasp of a bigger picture of the situation.

If we ever feel there are communication problems, pondering the issues around common ground and shared understanding may help us make our communication more effective. For the church I think this is especially important when any engagement beyond the church is considered, because of the increasing lack of common ground between the in-house church world and wider society.

What’s your experience?

Do you have any current examples within your church where a lack of shared understanding is effecting your communication?

What about current examples of communication between church and society where perhaps a lack of shared understanding has resulted in an inability to communicate effectively?

Image: Blue sky over Akaroa, New Zealand, Mike Crudge.

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  • JOhnB

    thanx for the invitation to ponder these issues mike …

  • Sharon

    Thanks Mike, I enjoyed reading this. I’ve done a little bit of study and facilitated the odd workshop in recent years on communication, culture, group dynamics etc, and I like the lens of common ground and shared understanding that you’ve conveyed here.

    I think much communication between church and society around ‘moral’ issues suffers from absence of common ground, resulting in polarity of opinion and a lack of ability to even begin to understand or identify with the other party. For example, I have Facebook friends who post passionately at the extreme ends of the same-sex-relationship-debate continuum. As someone who has a strong understanding of both perspectives, I find it fascinating (and sad) looking on, while the debate divides and wounds people.

    Oh and I had to giggle about your use of ‘effecting’ rather than ‘affecting’, given your disclaimer in your introductory blog post.

    po marie

    • Hi Sharon!
      Yes! Your example of the same-sex-relationship-debate continuum is a really good case of there being a lack of common ground in the communication process. However passionate, educated, theological, scientific, speaking-from-experiance, etc either of the parties are, we have seen communication fail to be effective.

      Over the last 12 months in New Zealand I have thought this example you raise has shown a disconnect between church and society, and more so in the younger demographics. Imagine a diverse discussion on same-sex-relationships that had as the initial task meeting at a point of common ground and shared understanding, and progressing from there in order to explain and understand the differences people have. I have not yet seen that.

  • Kate

    Hi again Mike – I tried to leave a comment but, as you pointed out in your email, it’s not there! Bear with (as Miranda’s posh friend frequently calls out in that posh voice – in joke for those who watch Miranda).
    My comment related to same sex relationship which was raised as a communication and understanding issue, from my reading and understanding (!?) of the comments. And I think your blog is more focussed on trying to find church-society common ground and/or understanding but within the church surely the common ground is what the Bible says on that or any other issue? And, again (woops, my English teacher taught me decades ago that a sentence should not begin with And!!) that raises the issue of interpretation which can be another hot topic and at times can seemingly widen the gap between two extremes?
    I think I’ve written more than in my original post so perhaps time to finish my ramble! Looking forward to what your blog will include and some healthy debate :>)

    • Hi Kate
      Common ground and shared understanding are going to benefit effective communication, at least from a starting-point perspective. The point you raise is helpful, could I describe it as: does common ground mean thinking the same way? My hope is that no, there is a chance I can effectively communicate with someone who thinks differently to me, but having an appreciation of the difference will enable better communication.

      One example that comes to mind is this: I have some church friends who vote for the “National” political party (centre-right in NZ), and I also have some church friends who vote for the “Green” political party (mid-left in NZ) – two parties that are poles apart in many ways, yet my different friends believe they can embrace each party’s political policies through their Christian world view, which sometimes involves different biblical interpretation (“how could anyone vote ‘green’ and be Christian!?” or “how could anyone vote ‘blue’ and be Christian?!”…) I really enjoy talking politics with friends and learning why they view things in certain ways. I might challenge their perspective when it is different to my own, but I will only be harsh if they don’t have well thought out reasons for their bias.

      With same sex relationships and the church, I have come across three strong and varied options, all of which are supported by Bible scholarship and theological reflection, all are influenced by various historical, cultural, and traditional arguments, and all contain inconsistencies which seem to be held loosely. This shows to me that within the Christian community there is difference, therefore appreciation of this difference will aid communication.

  • Stu

    While we are all from different cultures, we assume that those similar to us are from the same culture. However, even within these similar cultural groups we have sub-cultures. These sub cultures can be family sub cultures, age group sub cultures (think youth), sport or other interest sub-cultures. These groups have their own in-house jargon, jokes, assumptions etc. Even within extended families, nuclear families can have different sub-cultures than their other family members.

    One of the major dangers in communication is assumption. We’ve all heard the old adage “If you assume, you will only make an ASS out of U and ME” To assume that someone else is the same as me is self centred and quite frankly, wrong. It is far more appropriate in communication to begin with the belief that this other person or group may NOT have the same assumptions and “culture” as me. In that case, the responsibility for communicating clearly is not with the hearer, but with the speaker.

    I am responsible to communicate clearly with the hearer what I am saying. To do this I must have the humility to accept that I have my own “cultural assumptions” as baseline for my thinking. I also have to have the humility to accept that the hearer has their own “cultural assumptions” too. So. In order to communicate clearly I must already have listened enough to the hearer to understand how they think. Then I can communicate clearly. This is why listeners make the best communicators. The antithesis of these is those who only talk. They are the direct, aggressive communicators, the monolog-ing evangelists (of anything) who always assume that it is the hearers role to understand the speaker. This selfish approach to communication underlies many of the problems we have in church, at work and everywhere, and also is one of the reasons why we as believers and churches have lost touch with world around us.

    • Hi Stu!
      Thanks for your insights into how layers of cultural differences affect the communication process.

      My take on what you’re saying is that listening and understanding is part of the process of establishing common ground. For example, I will never be a teenager again so am not part of any teenage sub-cultures, but my communication with teenagers will be enabled or enhanced by a humble approach and understanding of those cultures. This will create some of the shared understanding I’m talking about in my post.

      The things you say about assumptions, arrogance, and monologues, all contribute to the opposite of the attempt of establishing common ground.

    • disqus_aUV4kk8nVj

      Hi Stu – I just read your comment and Mike’s response. Can I suggest slight re-wording to the last sentence: “….. one of the reasons why some of us (not we) as believers and churches have lost touch with the world around us”? I try not to generalise as there are always exceptions to any generalisation. Just a thought for you to ponder …… Kate (somehow I now appear as “disqus_aUV4kk8nVj” instead of me! Mike – your blog site appeared not to allow me to leave a comment this time until I registered on Disqus; previously I had to leave a comment as a “guest” but not sure now what I did that time!! Sorry I’m not as computer savvy as you guys!)

      • Stu

        Done. Thanks for the suggestion.

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