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.
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.
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.
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.