Most of us have learned how to communicate through a process of trial and error. We have developed our communication styles and skills primarily through the interactions we have had with our family and friends. Few of us have received formal communication training to develop our skills.
When we think of communication, ordinarily we think of it as a process in which someone speaks and someone listens. In normal communication, we wait politely for the other person to finish what they are saying so we can take our turn to talk. This model of communication places great value on speaking and little value on listening. Some of us may even have taken a speech class so that we could learn how to speak more effectively and be better understood.
Communication is the successful conveying and sharing of ideas and feelings. Each person who sends a message needs to know, not only that their message was received but that the other person understands what we mean. We all have a need to have our meaning understood. But because communication is context bound this is often problematic. The listener my hear something entirely different from what was intended in the communication. A crude example of this is, if I say, bark, you could think I was talking about the bark of a dog. But what I really was talking about was the bark of a tree. While this is a simple example, this level of misunderstanding often occurs in our communications.
An often missed element in communication is to find out how successful we are in sharing our thoughts and ideas. A simple way to do this is by inserting a feedback loop into our conversations, to ensure that the listener has received the true intention of our communication. Adding a simple feedback loop can avoid misunderstanding and confusion. A feedback loop consists of the listener giving the speaker feedback about what he or she has heard them say. In all communications we need at least two feedback loops because there are at least two people involved.
Because each person needs their meaning understood, we usually feel a disconnect when the other person mistakes what we have said. It can be confusing to say something and receive a response that seems to have nothing to do with what you meant. To further complicate matters, we may be confronted with all sorts of feelings and conclusions from the other person's reaction to what they thought we said. This can make the communication more difficult, as the person who has heard a different meaning and is reacting to it needs to be understood as well. Even though they did not understand your meaning, their meaning brings with it feelings that are now being communicated back to you, for you to receive and understand.
How incorporating feedback loops helps us communicate successfully
With awareness of the feedback model, you may, as a speaker ask the other person to say back to you what you just said. Asking them for their feedback in the interest of ensuring that you have spoken clearly, will give you an opportunity to correct anything that was inaccurately heard or misinterpreted.
If the person listening has already reacted strongly to what you have said, a second feedback loop can be introduced. You can say, "I think you may have misunderstood what I said, but now I want to see if I can understand what your reaction is about." Once you have given them feedback and shown them that you understand what they are saying or feeling, the possibility of your original message being received and understood increases.
You can then return to the original message and introduce the first feedback loop. If the other person has realized that their reaction was to some meaning other than what you had originally intended, they will now more likely be able to understand your original meaning. With the use of the double feedback model it is much more possible to achieve mutual understanding.
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