Confusion is Information

Language Log is one of my favorite blogs. Today Geoffrey K. Pullum posted "Get Your Boyfriend to Move It," a marvelous case study of communication gone awry. Read it now, before reading my analysis below.

When I teach communication, I use Virginia Satir's Ingredients of an Interaction as my foundational model. The Ingredients model describes the process by which we receive messages and respond to them. First we take in information through our five senses (the Intake step). Next we make meaning of the information we receive (the Meaning step). Then we gauge the significance of the message (the Significance step). Finally, we respond outwardly (the Response step).

Pullam's "boyfriend" story is a wonderful example of what can happen when we make mistakes in one of the steps.

Early in the phone call, the animal rescue officer makes a mistake in Intake: she hears "feline" instead of "sea lion." The subsequent conversation, which I'm sure seemed bizarre to each of the women as it was happening, validates a key principle of communication: If you get the Intake wrong, you're certain to get the Meaning wrong.

When the animal rescue officer suggests that the resident ask her boyfriend to move the animal, the resident interprets that as sexism and lack of concern. That seems like a reasonable interpretation to me, given the conversation up to that point. Reasonable, but mistaken, and the mistake exacerbates the confusion.

When the officer suggests that the resident ask her father for help, the resident, even more puzzled than before, says, "Umm, my father?" It's possible that the resident is testing whether she heard the officer's words correctly, but I suspect that this is more a test of Meaning than of Intake. Not, "Did you say, father?" but, "What does my father have to do with this?"

The officer explains her meaning, and the conversation continues, each person working from a mistaken interpretation of what the other is talking about. This exemplifies another principle of communication: If you get the Meaning wrong, you're certain to get the Significance wrong. The resident increasingly believes that the animal rescue officer doesn't care about her plight, or even understand it. The significance is that she fears that she will not get the help she needs. She expresses her incredulity through her increasingly annoyed tone of voice.

Eventually the resident says that the animal weighs three or four hundred pounds. Well, clearly, pussy cats do not weigh three or four hundred pounds, so the officer can't make sense of this. What she's hearing is so nonsensical that she knows she's getting the meaning wrong. So she checks her Intake by repeating the non-sequiturial phrase, adding emphasis to express her confusion. "Three or four hundred pounds?"

Yep, she heard right. Then the resident repeats the words that the officer misheard the first time: "sea lion."

It's challenging to notice these communication errors. It's challenging to notice Intake and Meaning errors before they've escalated into feelings and Significance. How can we notice these errors in our own conversations?

What were the clues in this story that something was going wrong? The strongest clue is confusion. Each woman, at several points in the conversation, is stunned. Being stunned is a darned good clue that communication has gone off the rails somewhere. And that's a good time to stop, step back, take a breath, and walk slowly through the Ingredients of an Interaction one step at a time.

Upon being stunned by the officer's initial suggestion, the resident could check her Intake. "Did you say that my boyfriend could move it for me?"

When the officer confirms that she indeed said that, the resident might then check the Meaning she's making. She might say something like, "Do you mean that this seems like a small problem, and that you do not want to help me?"

That may or may not clear things up. If not, the resident (the only one who knows, at this point, that the communication is tangled), might check the officer's Intake. "What did you hear me say?"

The resident may also choose to express her confusion. "I don't understand why you would suggest that I ask my boyfriend (if I had one) to help me move a dead sea lion."

Any of these ideas might help to untangle the communication. None of these ideas is hard to do. What's hard, for me at least, and perhaps for these two women, is to notice the confusion rather than simply acting out of confusion. When I'm stunned in a conversation, I'm as likely as the next person to continue as if it all makes some sort of sense, and to stumble from one non-sequitur to the next, utterly failing to notice that confusion is important information about the quality of our communication.

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