Excerpts from Harvard Business Review, Vol. XXX No 4
Gateways to Communication
I want to present two ideas:
(1) I wish to
state what I believe is one of the major factors in blocking or impeding
communication, and then (2) I wish to present what in our experience has
proved to be a very important way of improving or facilitating communication.
Barrier: The Tendency to Evaluate
I should like
to propose, as a hypothesis for consideration, that the major barrier to
mutual interpersonal communication is our very natural tendency to judge,
to evaluate, to approve (or disapprove) the statement of the other person
or group. Let me illustrate my meaning with some very simple examples.
Suppose someone, commenting on this discussion makes the statement I didnt
like what that man said. What will you respond? Almost invariably your
reply will be either approval or disapproval of the attitude expressed.
Either you respond, I didnt either; I thought it was terrible, or else
you tend to reply, oh, I thought it was really good. In other words,
your primary reaction is to evaluate it from your point of view,
your own frame of reference.
. Although the
tendency to make evaluations is common in almost all interchange of language,
it is very much heightened in those situations where feelings and emotions
are deeply involved. So the stronger our feelings, the more likely it is
that there will be no mutual element in the communication. There will be
just two ideas, two feelings, two judgements, missing each other in psychological
I am sure you
recognise this from your own experience. When you have not been emotionally
involved yourself and have listened to a heated discussion, you often go
away thinking, Well, they actually werent talking about the same thing.
And they were not. Each was making a judgement, an evaluation, from his
own frame of reference. There was really nothing which could be called
communication in any genuine sense. This tendency to react to any emotionally
meaningful statement by forming an evaluation of it from our own point
of view, is, I repeat, the major barrier to interpersonal communication.
Gateway: Listening with Understanding
Is there any way of solving this problem, of avoiding this barrier? I feel that we are making exciting progress toward this goal and I should like to present it as simply as I can. Real communication occurs, and this evaluative tendency is avoided, when we listen with understanding. What does this mean? It means to see the expressed idea and attitude form the other persons point of view, to sense how it feels to him, to achieve his frame of reference in regard to the thing he is talking about.
Stated so briefly, this may sound absurdly simple, but it is not. It is an approach which we have found extremely potent in the field of psychotherapy. It is the most effective agent we know for altering the basic personality structure of an individual and for improving his relationships and his communications with others. If I can listen to what he tells me, if I can understand how it seems to him, if I can see its personal meaning for him, if I sense the emotional flavour which it has for him, then I will be releasing potent forces of change in him.
Some of you may be feeling that you listen well to people and yet you have never seen such results. The chances are great indeed the your listening has not been of the type I have described. Fortunately, I can suggest a little laboratory experiment which you can try to test the quality of your understanding. The next time you get into an argument with your wife, or your friend, or with a small group of friends, just stop the discussion for a moment and, for an experiment, institute this rule;
" Each person can speak up for himself only after he has restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately and to that persons satisfaction."
You see what this would mean. It would simply mean that before presenting your own point of view, it would be necessary for you to achieve the other speakers frame of reference to understand his thoughts and feelings so well that you could summarise them for him. Sounds simple doesnt it? But if you try it, you will discover that it is one of the most difficult things you have ever tried to do. However, once you have been able to see the others point of view, your own comments will have to be drastically revised. You will also find the emotion going out of the discussion, the differences being reduced, and those differences which remain being of a rational and understandable sort.
Can you imagine what this kind of approach would mean if it were projected into larger areas It would mean that real communication was established, and one could practically guarantee that some reasonable solution would be reached.
If, then this way of approach is an effective avenue to good communication and good relationships, as I am quite sure you will agree if you try the experiment I have mentioned, why is it not more widely tried and used? I will try and list the difficulties which keep it from being utilised.
Need for Courage. In the first place it takes courage, a quality which is not too widespread. I am indebted to Dr. S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist, for pointing out that to carry on psychotherapy in this fashion is to take a very real risk, and that courage is required. If you really understand a another person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgements, you might run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way; you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or your personality.
The risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospect many of us can face.
Heightened Emotions. But there is a second obstacle. It is just when emotions are strongest that it is most difficult to achieve the frame of reference of the other person or group. Yet it is then that the attitude is most needed if communication is to be established. We have not found this to be an insuperable obstacle in our experiences in psychotherapy. A third party, who is able to lay aside his own feelings and evaluations, can assist greatly by listening with understanding to each person or group and clarifying the views and attitudes each holds.
We have found this effective in small groups in which contradictory or antagonistic attitudes exist. When the parties to a dispute realise that they are being understood, that someone sees how the situation seems to them, the statements grow less exaggerated and less defensive, and it is no longer necessary to maintain the attitude, I am 100% right and you are 100% wrong. The influence of such an understanding catalyst in the group permits members to come closer and closer to the objective truth involved in the relationship. In this way mutual communication is established, and some type of agreement becomes much more possible.
So we may say
that though heightened emotions make it much more difficult to understand
with an opponent, our experience makes it clear that a neutral, understanding,
catalyst type of leader or therapist can overcome this obstacle in a small
I have said that our research and experience to date would make it appear that breakdowns in communication, and the evaluative tendency which is the major barrier to communication, can be avoided. The solution provided is by creating a situation in which each of the different parties comes to understand the other from each others point of view. This has been achieved, in practice, even when feelings run high, by the influence of a person who is willing to understand each point of view empathically, and who thus acts a s a catalyst to precipitate further understanding.
This procedure has important characteristics. It can be initiated by one party, without waiting for the other to be ready. It can even be initiated by a neutral third person, provided he can gain a minimum of co-operation from one of the parties.
This procedure can deal with the insincerities, the defensive exaggerations, the lies, the false front which characterise almost every failure in communication. These defensive distortions drop away with astonishing speed as people find that the only intent is to understand, not to judge.
This approach leads steadily and rapidly toward the discovery of the truth, toward a realistic appraisal of the objective barriers to communication. The dropping of some defensiveness by one party leads to further dropping of defensiveness by the other party, and truth is thus approached.
This procedure gradually achieves mutual communication. Mutual communication tends to be pointed toward solving a problem rather than toward attacking a person or group. It leads to a situation in which I see how the problem appears to you as well as to me, and you see how it appears to me as well as to you. Thus accurately and realistically defined, the problem is almost certain to yield to intelligent attack; or if it is in part insoluble, it will be comfortably accepted as such.
This then appears to be a test-tube solution to the breakdown of communication as it occurs in small groups. Can we take this small scale answer, investigate it further, refine it, develop it, and apply it to the tragic and well-nigh fatal failures of communication which threaten the very existence of our modern world? It seems to me that this is a possibility and a challenge which we should explore.
Lee Field, Great Britain
Sam Evans, U.S.A.