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Communication Failures - Transmission Vs Reception

April 15, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 176

Have you ever played the children's game Whisper Down the Alley? In this game one person starts by whispering something to the next person, who then whispers it to the next person, and so on. The fun part is how mangled the original transmission becomes by the time it gets to the last person, who says it out loud. So, for example, a statement like, "I like peanut butter and jelly on toast", becomes, "Peanuts can butter up your toes."

Although the mangling becomes all the more bizarre the more people are involved in the game, the truth is that any time a message goes from even one person to another person there is the potential for message mangling.

Communication requires a minimum of two people. But as soon as there are two people involved we have the opportunity for a failure of communication. As soon as there are two people involved there is the chance that the intended transmission from Person 1 will not match the actual reception by Person 2.

A recent comic strip, The Born Loser, had a husband saying to his wife, "I know you believe you understand what you think I meant by what I said... but what you don't realize is that what you think you heard me say is not what I meant to mean!" That's a breakdown between transmission (what he meant to mean) and reception (what she thinks she heard him say).

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual real life event between people. It can be difficult to articulate what it is that you want the other person to understand. And the other person can only understand you based on his or her interpretation of your words. You may think that you've articulated your message clearly. The other person may believe that he or she has interpreted your meaning accurately. Yet it can end up being a case of peanuts buttering your toes.

Here's how it went for Malcolm and Nadia-

"Hey, Nadia, I'm heading downtown to pick up the dry cleaning. Be back in time for dinner."

"Okay, Mal, don't forget the suit."

One hour later Mal returns home and he's carrying his two work shirts, his blue suit, and Chinese take-out. Nadia greets him and frowns when she sees what he's carrying.

"Mal, what in the world? Where's my suit? And why are you carrying food? You know we have dinner plans with the Roykos."

"Nadia, what are you talking about? You reminded me to pick up my suit and I did. And we have plans for dinner?"

"Mal, really, I reminded you to pick up MY suit. And you specifically said you'd be home in time for dinner, which obviously meant our pre-existing dinner plans."

A clear case of Whisper Down the Alley. Mal thought he'd been clear in his communication about his plans; Nadia thought she'd understood his intentions and had made her request clear. Frustratingly for both of them, they were both mistaken. Obviously there'd been no intention to frustrate the other. It's just what happens between people.

In practical terms it's not really possible to avoid all such communication failures. Probably the most important quality to bring to the situation is a good sense of humor, remembering that we used to play this game for kicks and giggles.

The second thing to bring to the quest for successful communication is a willingness to work at clarifying and confirming messages in service of avoiding message mangling.

For conversations where the content is more complex and more important than dry cleaning, it can be productive to practice the "what I heard you say was..." technique. The receiver paraphrases back to the transmitter his or her interpretation of the transmission. That way if there's a mangling going on in the reception it can be identified and corrected right away.

To use our fairly trivial dry cleaning scenario, it might have gone like this-

"Hey, Nadia, I'm heading downtown to pick up the dry cleaning. Be back in time for dinner."

"I hear you say that you're picking up the dry cleaning. You mean yours and mine?"

"Oh, you want me to pick up your dry cleaning too?"

"Yes, please. And you said you'll be home in time for dinner. You mean that you'll be home in time to go out with the Roykos?"

"Oh, wow, is that tonight? Okay."

There's no way to prevent all breakdowns between transmission and reception. And there's no way that every communication between partners is going to get the whole "what I heard you say" treatment. But when the communication is more important or more sensitive or just more complex, it serves both partners to take the time and make the effort to ensure that intended transmission matches actual reception. It shows commitment to your partner and feels affirming of the relationship. Also, then nobody has to fear that peanuts will butter their toes.

Dr. Benna Sherman has been a Licensed Psychologist in private practice in Severna Park, Maryland, for over 20 years. She has a specialty in Marriage/Relationship Counseling and writes a biweekly newspaper column on relationships. Her book, "How to Get and Give Love - Relationship Maps", is about to be published and will be available on Learn more about Dr. Sherman, subscribe to her free newsletter, and read more of her articles at

Source: EzineArticles
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