Learning the Art of Communication

Photographs by Colin Campbell

We are all experts at communicating. The human being is designed to communicate in so many different ways that we probably take most of them for granted. 

I was fascinated to read in January's National Geographic magazine that new born babies do not learn how to recognise language so much as are pre-programmed to react to certain kinds of repetitive auditory patterns in order to kickstart the brain's language development process of understanding syntax, phonology, semantics etcetera. Learning the difference between different sounds and then how those sounds in different arrangements can mean entirely different things depending on the structure of the word or sentence. When you stop to think about all that's involved in an 'empty' new brain learning to interpret (not just a single language it's exposed to but in some cases multiple) languages - it boggles the mind! 

Using near-infrared spectroscopy, the researchers imaged the brains of babies while they heard audio sequences. In some, the sounds were repeated in an ABB structure, such as mu-ba-ba; in others, an ABC structure, such as mu-ba-ge. The researchers found that brain regions responsible for speech and audio processing responded more strongly to the ABB sequences. In a later study they found that the newborn brain was also able to distinguish between audio sequences with an AAB pattern and those with an ABB pattern. Not only could babies discern repetition, they also were sensitive to where it occurred in the sequence.

Gervain is excited by these findings because the order of sounds is the bedrock upon which words and grammar are built. “Positional information is key to language,” she says. “If something is at the beginning or at the end makes a big difference: ‘John killed the bear’ is very different from ‘The bear killed John.’ ”

That the baby brain responds from day one to the sequence in which sounds are arranged suggests that the algorithms for language learning are part of the neural fabric infants are born with. “For a long time we had this linear view. First, babies are learning sounds, then they are understanding words, then many words together,” Gervain says. “But from recent results, we know that almost everything starts to develop from the get-go. Babies are starting to learn grammatical rules from the beginning.”
— 'The First Year' by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, National Geographic January 2015

Developing the ability to communicate is a staggering feat in and of itself, but learning how to use our gift of communication well is quite another matter, and by no means automatic.

Research by Albert Mehrabian suggested that when we speak about our feelings what we communicate is only 7% what we say while 38% is through tone and an amazing 55% is through body language. Those phenomenal observational processes that helped us harness the power of communication as newborns are obviously still providing us unconscious data during communication as adults. 

So how we communicate to others and to ourselves is very important as it can work for us or against us. 

In the business world savvy companies know this. And some have become masters at crafting their brand image. They rightly expend enormous resources on communicating to their clients and staff their 'brand values', their 'unique selling proposition' and such like, through a myriad of advertising and marketing channels in order to establish an appreciation and then trust for their brand in their customers.

My university training and early career was in graphic design, which is essentially communicating a message by visual means, so I have spent years observing and shaping this kind of communication activity. 

Whether the communication achieves the company's aims of creating a favourable impression on those to whom it is communicating is, as ever, less about what they are saying as how they are saying it. 

In our personal lives too, we, and others around us, are continually informed or deceived through how we communicate and conclusions and assumptions are drawn by us all, with varying degrees of accuracy, a million times a day as we go about daily life. 

It's interesting that the amount of conscious control we exert over speech, tone and body language is in inverse proportion to their weight as carriers of truthful communication. It's like our bodies are designed for truth telling and will do their best to sabotage our attempts at deceiving ourselves and others by the subliminal means less under our conscious control. This is, of course, because deceit is bad for us in the long run - and for others. 

Eventually truth emerges and the connections based on the false information disintegrate as they adjust to the new reality. We see it happen in relationships, in business, in all areas of life - resulting in broken families, celebrity scandals, product recalls, stock market crashes…the list goes on. 

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So it's important to be honest in what we communicate but also think about the way in which we communicate that honesty that best serves our purpose. 

John Townsend gives an illustration of what healthy confrontation is like: the truth is like a car travelling across a bridge of trust between two mountains and the more serious the truth you want to transmit the stronger the trust required between you and the recipient. The weaker the trust, the more painful will be the transmission of the truth. 

Some of us withhold the truth about our feelings because we have made flawed assumptions about the bridge being too weak (I am finding I tend to err on this side of the spectrum!). Some of us are selfish and reckless with expressing true feelings because we take no thought to building a bridge to support it in the first place! 

Better out than in, yes, but some thought to the means by which we get things off our chest will mean it's better for those around us as well as us. 

So much of what we do as humans is communicate and there is no area of life where it's not used. In your family relationships, in your workplace relationships, in your organisational communication - why not take the cues from your biological wiring to learn how to tell the truth well and live more true to yourself and to others?