2.1 The communication process
Figure 3 shows a simple model of the communication process. The model comes from engineering, where engineers were concerned with how to transmit a message so that when it is received it approximates as closely as possible the message that was sent.
To use the jargon of communications theory, there is a sender and a receiver. The sender encodes the message and sends it through a channel so that it can be decoded by the receiver. The aim is for the message ‘received’ to be the same as the message ‘sent’.
In practice, there will be some noise, which tends to distort the message. Noise may be generated because the transmission system does not work perfectly (for example, a poor mobile phone signal), because of mistakes during encoding and decoding, or because of outside interference.
While this classic model of communication and the concept of noise are useful in explaining some of the ways in which messages can get distorted, they are limited for explaining human communication. The main differences arise because people are not machines: they do not just encode and decode messages, they actively select and interpret them, try to make sense of them and strive to give expression to their thoughts.
Activity 3 Communicating messages
Imagine you are a volunteer coordinator in a voluntary organisation and you’ve been asked to brief the other volunteers about a change in how rotas will be organised. What might you do to prepare and communicate this message to these people?
The message that we intend to communicate is rarely self-evident – it often consists of half-formed thoughts and ideas. In order to communicate, we have to give expression to those thoughts and ideas by putting them into acceptable words. It is often only in the process of expressing our ideas that we clarify our thoughts.
This has implications if your message is at all complex. You will need to express, clarify and polish up your ideas before communicating them. For written communication this usually involves a process of drafting and redrafting. Even for verbal communication you might want to make notes of the main points you want to communicate and, if your message is important, practise saying them.
You also need to think through how your message will be transmitted. Will it be via a medium such as an email, a mobile phone text, a phone call, a Facebook message or a newsletter?
The medium constrains and shapes the message that can be sent. For example, what you can say in a text can be very different from what you can say face to face. The medium can also give authority to your message or undermine it. For example, a confident, well-delivered presentation may add weight to your message, whereas a poor presentation may undermine it.
Even after you have delivered your message, you cannot just assume it has been received in the way you intended. People don’t just passively receive messages: they actively select, filter and interpret them. If people do not think a message is likely to be interesting or important they may ignore it altogether, their minds may wander or they may switch their attention elsewhere.
The way people think about and decide to respond to a particular message depends in part on their existing values, beliefs and understanding. As a result, different people may make sense of and act on the same message in different ways. For example, a person who believes passionately that there is an environmental crisis is likely to understand and respond to a campaigning leaflet from Friends of the Earth differently than someone who is highly sceptical.
Figure 4 presents a model of human communication that tries to depict these differences.
Activity 4 Thinking about communication
- Using the model of human communication in Figure 4 to help you, list some of the reasons why misunderstandings might occur when one person is trying to communicate with another.
- How can you tell whether your message has been understood or whether it has been misunderstood? What are the problems in deciding?
Here are some of the main reasons why misunderstandings might occur:
- The sender might not have expressed his or her thoughts very clearly so the message does not really reflect what the sender thinks.
- The medium used for communication might distort the message in some way – for example, a poor telephone connection might mean that what the speaker says is misheard, or a journalist might misrepresent what the person they are quoting was saying.
- The person to whom the communication is directed might not receive it. For example, an email may be misaddressed, a letter might get lost in the post, or what you say might not be heard above the noise of a crowd.
- The person to whom the communication is directed might not give it much attention: they might not think it interesting or important enough, they might be interrupted, and so on.
- The person receiving the communication might interpret the message in a different way from that intended.
You may have been able to think of other reasons, too.
You can try to check if someone has understood you by getting feedback; for example, by listening to what they have to say, or seeing what they do, in response to your communication. This is much easier to do if you are communicating directly one-to-one with someone. It is much more difficult if you are communicating with many people at the same time.
Feedback is a form of communication, so the various reasons for misunderstanding listed above can also apply. In addition, people do not always say what they think – for example, they may feel that it is not polite, or too risky or too difficult, to disagree in public.
So the potential for non-communication or misunderstanding is great. This is why great care needs to be exercised when communicating.
In the technical model of communication (Figure 3), the problem of transmitting the message accurately is very important. Human communication is more complex – the sender, the message, the medium, the audience receiving the message and the context in which the message is sent are all important.
Preparing a compelling message often needs careful thought and crafting:
- What do you want to say and why?
- How is your audience likely to understand your message and respond?
- How can you get your message noticed and acted on?
- What are the secrets of clear communication that make the difference between being understood and being discarded?