The Communication Process

What’s Actionable in this section?

  • Help you understand the basics of interpersonal communication 
  • Help you improve your own communication by helping you understand the basic elements of communication and how each of the elements impacts communication.
  • Help you overcome some of the most frequent barriers to effective communication. 



“What we have here is a failure to communicate” – Movie Cool Hand Luke 1967


Other Quotes

  • No one would talk much in society if they knew how often they misunderstood others. – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
  • Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. — Mark Twain
  • To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others. Anthony Robbins
  • We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Epictetu
  • He, who knows, does not speak. He, who speaks, does not know. Lao Tzu
  • But when it comes to “communication,” we call it too messy to play with and leave it up to Chomsky, Pinker, and others to write about so that we can read about it. Yet we all communicate almost every single day of our lives, which is much more than we will ever do with learning or leadership. Paul Ekman


Communication is about getting what you want 

Those that communicate better are more successful because they’re better at getting good information.

You may think you’re a good communicator.  It may feel to you like you’re a good communicator.  That’s perfectly normal.  We tend to overlook our own problems.  And tend to blame others when there are problems.

My fundamental goal in this section is to convince you that even though you may think you’re a good communicator you can get better at it by not blaming others and by looking at what you can do to be a better communicator.  In fact everyone, including me (perhaps especially me) can get better at communication.  And getting better at it should be part of your lifelong learning plans.

I was watching a history show the other night and it talked about how George Washington labored getting supplies to Valley Forge.  The show said that Washington applied himself to “a vigorous letter writing campaign to the get supplies for his beleaguered troops.”  And it got me thinking about the possibility that one of things that made Washington great was that he was a great communicator.  His ability to get people to send supplies based purely on his letters speaks volumes to his ability to communicate.[1]

I imagine that Alexander the Great struggled with communication too.  I imagine Anthony and Cleopatra struggled with communication.  I imagine Napoleon struggled with communication.  I imagine that everyone everywhere struggles with communication.  I also imagine that Alexander the Great was a great communicator.  I imagine Napoleon was a great communicator.  In fact, I suspect great communication skills are what set the great leaders apart from their peers.  I suspect the great leaders are better communicators than those around them.  While they still struggle, it’s just they’re relatively better than their contemporaries.

I wonder in fact, if Alexander, Anthony and Cleopatra, or George Washington became great not because they were the smartest (they were probably very smart, but I’m sure there were other very smart people at the time), but rather they were great because they were the best communicators of their day.


Good communication creates success.  Poor communication guarantees failure.


Other things contribute to success, of course.  Having the right resources and skills will contribute to success.   Clearly, if you live in a farming community and there’s a drought, the problem is water, not communication.  If you live in the Caribbean and there’s a hurricane coming, the problem is wind and rain, not communication.  Nevertheless, good communication between the members of the farming community could help the community find ways to survive the drought.  And good communication as a hurricane approaches could help the community deal with the wind and rain.

While most of us intuitively understand getting better at communication would be a good thing, we never seem to get better at it.  We seem to make the same communication mistakes over and over again.  The reason; we tend to think it’s always someone else’s fault.  George Carlin[2] pointed out that most of us think that those that drive faster than us are maniacs and those that drive slower are idiots.  His point is that we tend to think that what we do and the way we do it’s the best way and everyone else is either a maniac or an idiot.  This is particularly true when it comes to communication.

If people around you will not hear you, fall down before them and beg their forgiveness, for in truth you are to blame.”  Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Good communication is difficult.  Perfect communication is impossible.

I want you take away from this section that communication is difficult and perfect communication is impossible.  I want you to understand how difficult good communication is so that you don’t blame others or yourself when you find it difficult to communicate.  When communication problems occur I want you to see it as an opportunity to improve not an excuse to walk away.

When you feel that people don’t understand you, you’re probably right, and I’ll explain why that is later in this section.  But, rather than give up and just agree to disagree,[3] I’m going to provide some tools to help you get better at communication.

I’d like you to be different as a result of reading this.  I’d like you to be more patient, tolerant, nicer, and charitable with others.  Communication is difficult and no one is perfect.  Including you!  After reading this I would hope you recognize that misunderstanding is more likely than understanding because we are not communicating as effectively as possible.

Communication is one of those things that everyone thinks they are good at, but that few people truly are.  I’ll try to present compelling evidence why communication is so difficult.  I’ll present technical and biological reasons why communication is so difficult.

Communication isn’t like turning on a light switch or turning on a faucet.  When you turn on a light or a faucet you get light or water.  Every time!  There’s no chance that the light will decide it doesn’t want to turn on because you didn’t ask it nicely or because it had a bad day.

In this way human communication is unique.  Most other things will end in the same result if you do everything the same way, but not communication.  In cooking if you add the exact same ingredients in the exact same way, you usually get the same result.  But communication is not like that.

Communication is more like waves hitting the beach.  No two waves are the same and each wave changes the beach so that the beach itself is always different.  There are many variables that influence the waves: wind speed and direction, air pressure, air and water temperature, beach composition, and beach topography.

Another analogy is that communication is like sailing.  Every time you sail the wind is different, the ocean currents are different.  Even the sails are “trimmed”[4] different.  Each time a sailor wants to go from point A to point B it’s a new experience; even if they have sailed it hundreds of times.

Or if you prefer, communication is like golf in that every time you hit the ball it’s different.  The wind is different, the hole placement is different, the grass is different, your swing is different, and your focus is different.  The top golfers have mastered the sport enough so that most of the time the ball goes where they generally want it to go.  But for most of us, that’s not the case.  So to with communication!

There are many variables with communication and the act of communication itself changes the variables.  So, just as sailors learn they have to work with the wind and the currents, so too communicators that want to get their point across have to work with the physical and biological winds and currents of human interaction.

And just as sailors have to study and understand the natural laws of water, wind, and motion to master sailing, so too should you study and understand the natural laws of communication to master it.

I’m not the only one that thinks communication is critical to success.  I just read about a Wall Street Journal survey that said, “”Communication and interpersonal skills remain at the top of the list of what matters most to recruiters.”[5]



Communication is a Team Sport

I was watching the sports news and they showed a great play where the 3rd baseman made a running barehanded catch, threw it to the first baseman, who in turn made a great catch by stretching out and short hopping the ball in the dirt.  And it occurred to me that’s a lot like communication.[6]  Not only does someone have to send a message, but someone has to receive a message.

Communication is a team sport.  And as in any team sport not only do the individual team members have to work on their own skills, they have to work on those skills together.  It’s one thing to be able to throw the ball, or catch the ball.  It is another thing to be able to do this in harmony and synchronization with the other players on the team.  Communication is about teamwork.

The challenge with communication is that it’s common for people to be out of synch and in disharmony.  When you go into a store to buy something, the sales clerk is on the stores team, which means they have a different goal than you, which could cause disharmony.  When you go to the mechanic to get your car fixed, the mechanic is on the repair shop’s team not your team, which could put you out of synch.  When you call the insurance company to make a claim, the insurance agent is on the insurance company’s team not your team.  Hopefully you get my point.



You can get better at communication

What I’m going to say now is one of the most important things in the book.  Remember in Chapter 1 where I talked about how difficult change is.  Well, even though change in general is difficult and changing your communication is even more difficult, it’s not impossible to improve your communication.  By working on a few simple skills you CAN change your communication enough to be worth the effort.


The key to remember; you have a lot of power over your communication.  You can get better at it.  I understand you don’t have the power over a lot of things, but you do have power over your communication.  I understand you don’t have power over the economy, war and peace, or weather.  But you do have power over your communication.


You have the power over your communication!


The way to improve your communication is to look at communication as a “Skill.”  And like any skill there are ways to get better at it.


I’ve found there are four steps to get better at something:

Practice, Practice, Practice

Understand the natural laws of the thing you want to get better at

Watch and copy others you think are good at the thing you want to get better at

Be honest about your abilities and weakness


So let’s take this out for a spin and apply these 4 things to a few examples:


EffortBecoming a Better CookBecoming a Better Sailor
Practice, Practice, PracticeYou need to cook a lot.  The more you cook the better.You need to sail a lot.  The more you sail the more you learn about sailing
Understand the natural lawsYou need to study up on things like why do you add yeast to bread, or why does salt bring out the flavor of meat..  You need to understand how a sail works (Bernoulli’s principle of lift).  Understand how ocean currents work.  Understand what drag does.
Watch and copy othersYou need to pay attention to other cooks and see what they are doing.Sail with experienced sailors
Be Honest with YourselfYou need to recognize what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.You need to understand what you don’t know so you can learn it.



Now let’s apply this to communication.

 Practice:  The good thing about communication is that you do it all the time, so it’s easy to practice all the time.

Understand the natural laws: I’ll present an overview of the natural laws of communication below for you to study.  But there are any number of other places to learn about what is communication and how it works so you can get better at it.

Watch others:  Find people you think are good communicators and copy them.  Listen to their pacing and how they interact.

Be honest: don’t immediately blame others when your communication fails.  You might want to look in the mirror and see what you did to contribute to the failure.


While I’ll go into a lot of detail about how to improve specific communication skills later in this Chapter, I’ll provide a little preview here to give you a taste of what I’m talking about.  One important skill to “get better at” is listening.  It’s important that you listen to what others are saying.  Not just to hear them but to understand them.  People want to be listened to.  And the more they think you understand them, the greater your chances of getting what you want.


Here are a couple of exercises you can do to help you listen better.  Speak one or two sentences only, then stop and wait for that person to speak.  Do not interrupt the person who is talking.  Wait until they actually stop – even if they go on for a while! [7]  Don’t make statements, ask questions.[8]  Take notes.  Look them in the eyes.  See if you can figure out what they are saying by watching their body language.


Of course listening is just one skill.  There are others.  Here is a short list of some of the communication skills I’ll go into detail later and some exercises to improve them.

Communication SkillExercise to improve the Communication Skill
ListeningActive Listening
Speaking Dale Carnegie, Toastmasters
WritingGrammar Courses
Encoding/decoding[9]Diversity Training
ReasoningThought exercises



What is Communication?

The first thing that we need to do in order to have a discussion about communication is establish what we mean by communication.  There are many definitions and models to draw on to define communication.  One of my all time favorites is from Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver.  They open their classic work, “The Mathematical Theory of Communication,” with the statement that communication means, “all of the procedures by which one mind may affect another.”[10]  Shannon and Weaver accurately point out that his definition includes, “not only written and oral speech, but also music, pictures, videos, the theater, the ballet, and in fact all human behavior.”[11]


It probably would not surprise you to know that there are many more definitions of communications, some helpful, some not so helpful.  However, having studied many of them, I decided to come up with my own (or I would like to think it’s my own.  It might be that I just think it’s my own.)


Here is my definition of Communication:  Communication is the process by which people exchange information to achieve some purpose.




The big difference between my definition and Shannon/Weaver is the inclusion of “purpose” or “Intent.”  My thinking is, of all the things in communication we can improve on, focusing on “Intent” will be the most helpful for you.


Let me briefly go over the four key terms in this definition:








Communication is the PROCESS by which people exchange information to achieve some purpose.


There are a lot of definitions of “Process.”  The one I’ll use here is; Process is “a series of actions or operations directed toward a specific aim”[12] Or said another way, process is a sequence of operations or events that produce some outcome.


In terms of “The Communication Process”, the two key points are; 1) Communication is a sequence of events and 2) Communication should produce some outcome.


First, in terms of communication being a sequence, it’s critical to note that rarely does important communication happen in isolation.  Communication happens as part of dance between the parties.  One communicator does one thing then the other communicators do other things in response.  Back and forth!  Like dancers.  And just like dancers, there is a lot going on besides just the dancers.  There is the music, the dance floor, and the other dancers.


Second, in terms of communication producing some outcome, the more people agree on the intent of the communication the more likely there will be a successful outcome.  Because this is so important, I’ll discuss “Intention” in greater detail below when I talk about “purpose.”


Also, seeing communication as a “process” is important because you coach, coordinate, counsel, evaluate, and supervise through communication.  Communication is the “chain of interactions” that integrates the members of an organization from top to bottom, bottom to top, and side to side.  Understanding how you fit into these “chains or interactions” will help you improve your communication.



Communication is the process by which PEOPLE exchange information to achieve some purpose.


This piece of my Communication model is the easiest to describe and understand.  Some[13] call this element the “Source” and the “Destination.” It’s sometimes also called the “Sender” and the “Receiver.”  In a simplistic or mechanistic view the Source would be the beginning of communication.  But most normal human communication is neither simplistic nor mechanistic.  Communication is dynamic and complex.  With human communication it’s very difficult to determine where communication starts and where it ends.


I’ve been in the telecommunications industry for a while.  In the telecommunications industry we have a thing called “Machine to Machine” (M2M) communication.  That is like your thermostat telling your heater to go on because it’s cold.  M2M communication has all the elements of human communication; however it tends to function in a one way and singular fashion.  With M2M it’s easy to tell where a communication event starts and stops.  Human communication tends to me more ongoing and it’s often difficult to determine the beginning and end of the communication event.




Communication is the process by which people EXCHANGE information to achieve some purpose.


Exchange is classically called transmission.  This is where all the real work is done.  The exchange can take many different forms and can be classified in many different ways.  It can be verbal or non-verbal.  It can be audio or textual.  It can be electronic or face-to-face.  It can be mediated or non-mediated.  It can be Synchronous or Asynchronous.



Communication is the process by which people exchange INFORMATION to achieve some purpose.


Information is the fundamental element of currency in communication.  I’ll talk a lot more about information in the next chapter and I’ll make an important distinction between actionable and non-actionable information.


It’s critical to note, as I’ll talk about later, the value of information is determined by the receiver of the information not the sender.  Just because I think a piece of information is valuable does not mean you’ll agree.  A key point I’ll make numerous times and in numerous ways is the information should not be measured by what it’s, it should be measured by what it does.




Communication is the process by which people exchange information to achieve some PURPOSE


Almost all communication has – at its roots – an attempt to achieve some purpose.  When you go to a restaurant and order you are communicating in an attempt to get something to eat.  When your manager asks you to do something she’s expecting you to do it.


The purpose, intent, and/or goal is the most important element of communication.  My experience is that in many cases where there is a communication problem, the problem can be directly linked to a lack of shared intent of the parties.



Goal of the Next Section

The goal of the next section is to provide a foundation that will help you develop the skills necessary to improve your communication.


Natural Laws of Communication

As I said a couple of times before; an important step in learning anything is to understand the natural laws that affect that thing.  If you are going to learn about sailing you need to learn about the physics of wind, water, and movement of an object in water.  If you are going to learn to cook you need to learn the physics of the way different foods combine, like why you need to add baking powder to pancakes or yeast to bread.[14]  If you are going to learn about the Internet you need to understand how Internet Addresses work and how networks work.


By understanding the dynamics of how a thing works, we can develop strategies for effective management of that thing.  In everything we do, the more we know about the natural laws that affect a thing, the better we can manage it.  This is true for everything, be it sports, childrearing, or communication.


While it is clearly possible for pilots to fly a plane without understanding climate science or Bernoulli’s   principle[15] or how jet engines work, it would be better if they did understand those things.  While it would be possible for surgeon to operate without understanding chemistry or biology, clearly it would be better if they did.  And while it would be possible for generals to fight a war without understanding military science, it is better if they do.


The Natural laws of communication are studied in a number of disciplines; Physics, Electronics, Mathematics, Physiology, Psychology, Biology, Linguistics, Neuro-linguistics, Neuro-science, and of course Communication Studies.   When I was in college I studied Psycho-Linguists.  Psycho-linguistics looks at how the brain processes communication.  We looked at speech abnormalities like stuttering.  And we looked at how the brain recognizes letters.  However, that was in the 70s, and back then we didn’t have an important tool for understanding how the brain works: brain scanners.  Today we can use brain scanners to see what is happening in the brain real time.  And just as the telescope provided important evidence about the cosmos, brain scanners are providing valuable insight into the natural laws of communication.




Two Broad Categories of the Natural Laws of Communication

The natural laws of communication can be best studied by dividing them into two broad categories: the physical/technical aspects and the human aspects.


Of the two I find the human aspects much more interesting than the technical aspects.  This is mainly because the technical aspects are fairly well known and there isn’t a whole lot of new actionable learning about the technical aspects of communication.  Whereas, new things about the human aspects of communication are being discovered every day, mostly as a result of recent advances in noninvasive brain scanners like functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI).  As a result I’ll spend more time on the physiology of human communication.[16]


However, having said that I find the human aspects more interesting, we still need to spend some time talking about the technical aspects of communication.  So, let’s do that now.


—  Physical Aspects of Communication

While there are a lot of physical aspects I could talk about, I’ll focus on a few key things.  They are:

Analog vs. Digital – Continuous vs. Discrete


Restricted Codes and Elaborated Codes

Mediated and Non-Mediated Communication

Waves/Vibrations/Rhythms and Resonance



Analog vs. Digital – Continuous vs. discrete

The most important physical aspect of human communication is that human communication fundamentally uses a lot more analog and continuous signals than digital and discrete signals[17].  I suspect that you have no idea what that means and are hopefully going to your favorite search engine to find out.


In communication, the difference between analog and digital is significant for a lot reasons, but for our purposes[18] the reason it’s significant is because there are “orders of magnitude”[19] more opportunities for problems with analog communication than with digital communication.  Thus, to truly understand the skills you need to improve communication it’s critical to understand why analog is more prone to problems than digital.


A good example of the difference between analog and digital is a clock.


Analog Clock                                             Digital Clock


Do you see the difference between the two?  With a digital clock you are always exactly sure of the time; with an analog clock you are never exactly sure.  If someone asks you to turn the switch at exactly 12 o’clock you can know exactly when that is with a digital clock.  However, with an analog clock you are not exactly sure what time it is.


Below is an analog watch that doesn’t even have numbers on it.  Clearly you cannot tell the exact time.  But that’s OK.  Whoever wears this watch is not wearing it for accurate time telling.  They are wearing it for appearances.[20]





Here are some other examples of analog vs. digital uses in everyday life:


Analog Thermometer          Digital Thermometer



Analog Speedometer                                    Digital Speedometer



Most natural things are analog and continuous.  The sun’s movement in the sky is continuous not discrete.  It’s not like a light switch.  It’s more like a continuous dimmer switch.


How tall you are is continuous.  You do not grow in a digital or discrete way.  You grow in an analog or continuous way.


Color is another good example.  Below is a color chart.  I should have no expectations that if I tell you to buy me a red shirt you would give me what I want.  However, if I tell you to give me a shirt with the color FF3366, I would have every expectation that I’ll get that color.  The color red is an analog and continuous term.  The color FF3366 is a digital and discrete term.





One more example, an abacus is a hand operated digital calculator and a slide rule is a hand-operated analog calculator.


Analog Calculator                                Digital Calculator



This is a bit of a tangent but it’s a good example of what I’m talking about.  Before there were CDs and DVDs there were audio and video cassettes.[21]  Audio and video cassettes are analog and CDs and DVDs are digital.




If you wanted to make a copy of a cassette, you used a machine that duplicated the tape, like the one below.  This machine had two drives one for the original and one for the copy.


The problem was that because the process is analog, the copy would not be of the same quality as the original.  And if you made a copy from the copy, the quality would be much worse.  However, using a digital format you can make exact copies every time.[22]


One final example of the differences between analog and digital is the difference between a “square” wave and a “sine” wave.


Here is a picture of the two waves:


Square Wave   Sine Wave


The difference is a square wave is discrete.  You can clearly see where one wave stops and the other starts.  A sine wave on the other hand is continuous, unbroken, and uninterrupted.  It is virtually impossible to tell exactly when one wave starts and another one stops.  A square wave is digital and discrete.  A sine wave is analog and continuous.


Oh and by the way photographs are analogs, paintings are analogs, sculptures are analogs.  Again most natural things are analog.  Sound and light, smell and touch are all analog.  The sound that we hear comes to us in analog waves.  The light we see is analog too.


I could go on listing things in nature that are analog, but I think you get the picture. [23]


The key point; whenever you use “Analog” there is a lot of room for interruption.  What is actionable about this analog vs. digital discussion?  Well that’s easy; because if communication is analog there is a lot of room for misunderstanding.  You might not get what you want if you tell someone to buy you a red skirt in an analog world.  Whereas you would get exactly what you want if you tell someone to shirt with the color FF3366.



Bandwidth is Key to Communication

Bandwidth is a telecommunication term that means the amount of information that a given channel can deliver.  The more bandwidth the more information.  Think of it like lanes on a highway.  The more lanes the more cars.[24]


Different forms of communication have different bandwidths available.  Face-to-face has the highest bandwidth.  In face-to-face we not only have the words but we have a lot of non-verbal communication available; tone, movement, smell, etc..  Video conference has a lot of bandwidth but less than face-to-face because you see what the camera is pointing at and you lose the ability to touch and smell.  A telephone has even less bandwidth since it’s voice only.  And emails and physical letters have the least bandwidth since it’s just letters.


As I mentioned, communication is analog, meaning there is a lot of potential for miscommunication.  So the more you can describe a thing the less potential for miscommunication.  That’s why bandwidth is so important.  In an analog world you need a lot of bandwidth to communicate everything you need to describe your point.[25]


So here’s an example.


Let’s say I want you to buy an Egyptian red dress for a costume party.  What I think is an Egyptian red dress and what you think is an Egyptian red dress are probably two completely different things.


So, to make it clearer I give you more information.  I say, “I want an Egyptian dress this color of red.”






That helps, but you might still not know exactly what I want.


So I get more specific.  I say, “I want an Egyptian red dress like this picture.”






The more information I can give you the more likely I’ll get what I want.


Hopefully, you see how bandwidth is critical to getting what you want!



Restricted Codes and Elaborated Codes

What do long term cellmates in prison and married couples share in common?  Restricted Codes!  (I know you were thinking of a lot of other things, but I won’t go there.)


In understanding the natural laws of communication one of the important things you should understand is the concept of “Codes” – and more specifically the concept of “Restricted Codes” and “Elaborated Codes.”


Communication is based on “codes.”  English is a code.  French is a code.  Hebrew is a code.  In telecommunications ASCII[26] is a code and EBCDIC[27] is a code.  Programming languages are codes.  There are all kinds of codes.  Mathematics is a code.  Chemistry is a code.


The language used by pilots and air traffic controllers is a code.  And a football quarterback uses codes to describe the plays he wants to run.  For people to communicate they need to understand the code.  And the better they understand the code they’re using the greater the likelihood for effective communication.


Normally we take codes for granted.  I take for granted that you can read English.  I take for granted that you understand grammar and know what a period does and what a question mark means.[28]


In many cases we go to school to learn new specific job related codes.  Accountants, lawyers and doctors go to school to learn financial, legal and medical codes.  Part of learning a new job is learning the specific codes used in that company. [29]  In football the “playbook” is the code that everyone has to learn so they know what to do.


In order to communicate effectively we need to understand the same codes.  The more we can be confident that we understand each other’s codes the better the chance for effective communication.


The actionable point I want to make here is that there are two types of codes within any code; Restricted and Elaborated.  Restricted code is what communicators that have a great deal of shared experience and understanding use.  Elaborated code is used when the communicators don’t have a lot of shared experiences and lack shared understanding.


Restricted code works well because it is economical.  One word can communicate a great deal of meaning.  Communicators using restricted code rely on shared backgrounds and knowledge.  Restricted codes communicate a sense of belonging to the group.


This goes back to my cellmates and married couples question.  The longer communicators spend together the more then can restrict their codes.  Restricted codes are found among co-workers, families, religious groups and scientific groups.


Elaborated codes are used by communicators that don’t have a lot in common.  Everything is spelled out because there is no assumption that the other communicators share any similar experience.  Elaborated code is not efficient or economical because everything has to be explained in detail.


Here’s an example.  You go into a restaurant and say to the waiter, “I would like a ham and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread without any mayonnaise.”  The waiter then yells to the cook, “Number 4 on wheat, no mayo.”  You used 15 words to get what you want.  The waiter used 6 words.  See how restricted code is more economical.  Or let’s say you order the same thing every day.  Then the waiter simply asks, “The usual?”  Now you can get what you want with just 2 words.


An elaborated code must stand on its own.  It has to be complete.  All necessary information to achieve the purpose of the communication must be present.  It has to have sufficient detail so that anyone that speaks the same language would be able to figure it out.  It is actionable in and of itself.


Restricted code, however, uses fewer words.  Often one word may carry substantial meaning.  To understand restricted code the communicators must have some shared backgrounds.


The reason this is important is that in order to ensure you have effective communication you need to understand the proper code to use for a specific situation.  If you are using a restricted code in a situation that actually requires an elaborated code, or vice versa, there is a likelihood miscommunication will occur.



Mediated and Non-Mediated Communication

We participate in 2 broad categories of communication; non-mediated and mediated.  Non-mediated is what we do in person when there is nothing between the people involved in the communication.  Mediated is when we put some person or technology in between the communication participants.[30]


The technical definitions are:

Mediated communication is communication that involves a process by which a message or communication is transmitted via some form of medium.[31]

Mon-mediated communication is communication with no intervening agency.[32]


The advantages of mediated communication are that it allows us to separate the sender of a message from the receiver in both time and distance.  But the disadvantages are we lose bandwidth and increase the potential for errors.


Animals mostly use non-mediated forms of communication[33].  Early humans also mostly used non-mediated communication.  One of the first documented forms of mediated communication were cave paintings.  Cave paintings allowed the painter (the sender) to be separated by time to the viewer (the receiver).[34]






Another early form of mediated communication was hieroglyphics.  Many early societies (Aztecs, Egyptians) used hieroglyphics.




Hieroglyphics were a great advance, because it increased the amount of information that could be sent and you could separate the sender and receiver in time.  But these early hieroglyphics could only be put on cave walls or pyramids.  So while you could separate the sender and receiver in time, you could not separate them in place.


The next huge innovation was the ability to put these hieroglyphics on something that moved.  The first mobile mediated communications were probably clay tablets.  They were probably invented by the Sumerians around 3,500 B.C.  An example is the Phaistos Disk from the Minoans.




This was fine for Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, but could you imagine carrying a copy of War and Peace around on Stone tablets.  So the whole world cheered when they started to use paper, parchment, or something similar to move information around.  And, for what it’s worth, this has worked very well, even to this day.


Another huge advance in mediated communication was the development of an alphabet.  Using an alphabet to transmit information was great advance over hieroglyphs because you could communicate much more information in a given amount of space.[35]


Writing not only allowed the separation of time between the sender and receiver, but writing also allowed for a separation in place.  With writing you are able to communicate with people over great distances and over great times.  While writing was a huge advance in mediated communication, it had one fundamental problem.  Sending writing communication on paper over great distances takes a great time.  The further the distance the longer it takes.


The time handicap of sending letters was overcome when we harnessed electricity[36] and we figured out a way to send message at the speed of light[37]  First it was Samuel Morse with the telegraph and then Alexander Graham Bell with the phone.  Both used wires to send messages.  And in both cases we solved the time problem; messages could be sent between people at the speed of light.  Then Marconi advanced the art of sending messages electronically by developing a way to send messages wirelessly.[38]


But while the telegraph provided speed to mediated communication over long distances and wireless removed the requirement to be connected to a wire, they all were greatly limited in terms of bandwidth.  The nature of the technology resulted in messages that were brief and cryptic.


Today we use mediated networks that much greater bandwidth than ever before.  We call these networks, “Broadband” networks.  Coax, wireless, and Fiber now deliver bandwidths that approach face-to-face bandwidths.[39]


To make this concept of mediated communication actionable you must understand a key element of mediated communication.  The key thing to understand is that with any mediated communications the mediation, in and of itself, changes the message.  In person to person communication, live, non-mediated interactions, we use all our senses.  We hear, we see, we can touch, we can smell, and if we are talking about cooking, we can taste.  In mediated communication you lose some senses completely – the sense of touch, smell and taste.  In addition, some mediated communication is bandwidth restricted; email uses sight, the telephone uses sound.


Video Conferencing is a tremendous step forward in overcoming the problems with mediated communication because it combines, for the first time, two channels of communication; sight and sound.   That is why Skype is so popular.



Waves/Vibrations/Rhythms and Resonance

There is a great song by the Beach Boys[40] called Good Vibrations.  It goes like this:


I, I love the colorful clothes she wears
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair
I hear the sound of a gentle word
On the wind that lifts her perfume through the air

I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations
I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations

Close my eyes
She’s somehow closer now
Softly smile, I know she must be kind
When I look in her eyes
She goes with me to a blossom world

I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations
I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations

Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations
A happenin’ with her
Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations
A happenin’ with her
Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations
A happenin’

This song encapsulates the key points of this section.  Look at some of the words: “colorful clothes”, “the way sunlight plays upon her hair,” “the sound of her voice,” and “the perfume coming through the air.”  All those are stimuli.  In fact other than taste they hit all the senses, sight, sound, touch, and smell.


The Beach Boys figured out that stimuli cause “vibrations” and “excitations.”  This is exactly what happens in communication, both physically and biologically.  When we communicate with someone they cause our bodies to vibrate and excite neurons that generate bioelectrochemical signals that our brain processes.  In the case of the Beach Boys in this song, the vibrations and excitations are positive and as they say, they “gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations happenin.”


Of course, not all stimuli cause good vibrations.  Some vibrations can case bad vibrations, like the sound of nails on a chalkboard or the sight of an accident.  And while some smells, like the smell of perfume or as the Eagles said in Hotel California, the “warm smell of colitis, rising up through the air” can cause good vibrations, some smells can create very bad vibrations.


Communication is all about vibrations.  These vibrations over a period of time tend to have rhythms.  And those rhythms can resonate with others.


Now I want to go into more detail about waves, rhythms, and resonance.




In the world there exist all kinds of Waves.  Some waves are electromagnetic like light and radio waves.  Some waves are mechanical like sound waves.  There are also pressure waves.


Some of these waves have always been around like sound and light waves and life has evolved to be sensitive to these waves.  Other waves, like radio and electrical waves are new to us and have only been around for a few hundred years.


In some ways we know a lot about how these waves affect us.  But in as many ways we don’t know how they affect us.


If you are reading this you’re being influenced by the light waves of the letters on the page.  If you’re hearing this via an audio book you are being influenced by the sound waves coming from the speaker.[41]


The various wave lengths of color and shape, pressure and smell, and sound travel though through our environment and influence us.  What’s actionable with this discussion is to understand how we are influenced by all these waves being constantly presented to us so that you can maximize the good waves and minimize the bad waves.  The real actionable things I want you to understand are how the body does this and why it’s important in communication.  I’ll talk about the biological responses to all these waves in the next section.  What I’m going to do now is talk about the physics of different kinds of waves so you will have a foundation for understanding how our body reacts to them.




Rhythms are very important in our lives.  From a communication viewpoint, rhythms are foundational.


Rhythms surround us and are within us.  They are a fundamental part of lives.  There is a different rhythm in the city than in the country.  There is a different rhythm in a home full of children than a home of an elderly couple.


I would love to get into a discussion of “beats,” “measure,” and “meter.”  But, while I find it interesting I’m not sure it’s very actionable for you, so let it be said that these things exist and they impact your communication.


The rhythms inside of us include our heartbeat, breathing, and movement cadences.  We even have a thing called “circadian rhythms, which are our internal 24 hour biological rhythms.  Our internal rhythms have a profound effect upon our behavior and influence our emotional, spiritual, cognitive, and physical lives.


External rhythms surround us and exert profound pressures on us.  The rhythms of the city or the country, of the mountains or sea shore, of fast paced or slow.  The rhythms can be short lived like the ebb and flow of traffic on our way to work.  Or the rhythms can be seasonal or longitudinal as we slow down as we age.


Getting back to communication, rhythms are generated by our actions and the actions of those around us.  We, our family, our work group, and our community generate communication patterns that permeate our lives.  These rhythms shape us positively and negatively.


In order to maximize our communication we need to become aware of all the rhythms surrounding us and emanating from us.  We need to structure our communication to take advantage of the rhythms around us.


I was at Stonehenge and they say that it was an attempt to understand the rhythm of the seasons.  Apparently we have always tied to understand the natural rhythms around us.  Learning when it was best to plant or when it was best to hunt required understanding the natural rhythms of the world.




All this technical discussion of waves is intended to lead to this specific point.  That point is “Resonance.”


While there are many technical descriptions of resonance, the one way I’m using it here is as in musical resonance where the vibration of one thing can cause a vibration in something else.  The more the match each other, the more the things are said to be in resonance.




Communication is all about resonance.  Do the communication vibrations initiated by one person “resonate” with the other person?  The goal of communication should be resonance among the parties.  You want communication to achieve an intent, and the best way to ensure that happens is to make sure your communication “resonates” with the other communicators.




Summary of the Physical/Technical Aspects of Communication

I talked about Analog vs. Digital because it is important to understand that analog communication is more prone to miscommunication than digital communication.  I talked about Bandwidth because the more bandwidth you have to communicate the more likely you will reduce miscommunication. I talked about mediated communication because anytime you put something between the sender and the receiver you increase the chances of miscommunication.  And I talked about waves because the waves that we perceive, both consciously and unconsciously, affect our behavior and our ability to manage our reactions to those waves can help us improve our communication.



—  Human Aspects of Communications

One way you know something is “alive” is see if it reacts to stimuli.  Flowers bend toward the sun, bears hibernate in the winter, and humans shiver when cold.[42]


I see this process as a simple equation: Stimulus + (Communication + Processing + Communication) = Action.  Or said another way, Stimulus +(Perception + Thinking + Direction) = Action






We are presented with a stimulus, we process that stimulus, and we direct action based on that stimulus.  Notice the brackets.  The brackets are very important because they point out that the CPC or PTD occur within an entity.  That entity could be a body, or a cell, or even a company or family unit.


I consider a “Stimulus” to be anything that might cause a change in state.  It’s important to keep the idea of a stimulus very broad because it is very difficult to put a fence around what is or is not a stimulus.  Just because something is a stimulus for one does not mean it is a stimulus to another.  And just because something is a stimulus now does not mean it will be a stimulus at some point in the future.  There are definite, specific, explicit, and mostly understood stimuli and then there are indefinite, indistinct, and mysterious stimuli.


Someone that is blind may not react to light waves in the same way as someone not blind.  And someone with hearing loss doesn’t react to sound waves the same way as someone without hearing loss.  Hopefully you get the point.


For the sake of this high level discussion, I consider “communication” to include perception.  In reality however, perception is a distinct category that requires its own understanding.  I will explore each one separately later in this chapter.  However, for this discussion, it’s better to simply lump the two together.


I consider the “processor” the brain.  But you need to understand that the brain is not just one processor but rather different processors housed in the same chassis.  And I will explore why this important and what’s actionable about the reality that there are different processors in the brain a bit later.[43]


Let me explain.  A stimulus is communicated to a processor.  The processor decides what action to take.  The processor communicates the result of the processing to the appropriate agent for action.  It’s important to notice the brackets in the above equation.  They represent the fact that the communication and processing processes occur within the entity and are separate from the stimulus, which is outside the entity.


Let me provide some examples to help you see what I mean.


Example #1 – a pin prick.

The stimulus is the pin prick.  The (Communication + Processing + Communication) part is the nerve cells to sending electrical signals to the brain, the brain processing those signals, and then the brain sending signals (part unconsciously and part consciously[44]) to tell the muscles to act.  Thus the action.


Example #2 – the actions of a neuron.  I’m going to go into much more detail on how neurons work a bit later, but for this example I’m going to stay at a very high level.

The stimulus is the neuron getting a chemical stimulus through the synaptic gap and is picked up at the dendrite.  The Communication + Processing + Communication) part is the things that go on in the neuron that evaluate that stimulus and determine if it needs to be transmitted to the other end of the neuron.  The action part is the neuron then introducing new chemicals into the synaptic gap to stimulate other neurons.


Example #3 – Fulfilling a need – like the “need” to buy a computer.  Unlike a pin prick, a “need” is an interesting stimulus because it is made up of a number of components.  There is the direct need – buying a computer.  But there are also indirect needs – saving money, status, speed, appearance, compatibility, ease of use, etc.

The stimulus is the need to buy a computer.  The (Communication + Processing + Communication) part is the brain processing all the direct and indirect needs and coming up with a decision and then communicating that decision to the various parts of the body that need to take action.  Actually buying the computer is the action.


Clearly I could provide a lot more examples.  Hopefully you get the point and we can move on.


What is important about this discussion is to recognize that the greatest potential for errors is in the “Communication” and “Processing” functions.  There are a great many reasons for those errors, our perceptions could be wrong and/or our thinking could be wrong.


Thus what’s actionable about this is that we need to understand as much as we can about why errors can occur so we can eliminate the errors.  The more we understand our biology, neurology, physiology, and psychology the more we are able to understand how to manage and improve this entire process.


The four broad areas of human physiology that correlate to the equation and are thus important to understand are:

Stimuli – The perception of things that might cause us to act. Our 5 Senses – Sight, Hearing, Tasting, Touching, Smelling

Communication – Our Nervous System

Processing – Our Brain

Action – Our mouths, faces, and hands, muscles, glands.


Perhaps as a way to better grasp my point here is think of a computer.  Roughly speaking the comparison is:

Our Nervous System is like the telecommunications network within and between computers.[45]

Our 5 Senses are like the input systems of keyboard, mouse, touch screen, microphone, or camera of the computer.

Our mouths, faces, and hands are like the monitor, printer, or robotic arm of a computer.

Our Brain is like the central processing unit (CPU) and memory of the computer


Now that I’ve provided a broad roadmap, I would like to dissect it sufficient detail so you will know how to apply it.


So let me get started by talking about our nervous system.


The Nervous System




In order to improve your communication you need to understand the nervous system.  For purposes of understanding communication I’ll talk about the nervous system in two broad categories; the neural network and the brain.


The Neural Network

The neural network is the physical way individual neurons are “chemically” connected.  The key term to pay attention to in this definition is “chemically” connected.  Let me explain.


When most people think of our neural network they like to compare it to an electrical network.   Broadly speaking the analogy holds because like wires the neural network sends electrical impulses from one place to another along physical pathways, just like an electrical network.





However, there is an important point where the analogy to electrical wires no longer holds.  In an electrical system one wire is connected to another wire is a “seamless” way.  By seamless I mean electrical wires are usually physically connected or joined with solder and/or twisted together.  The net result is there is very little loss between the connections.  Thus, in an electrical network the signals can travel with known corruption or loss[46].





The connections in our neural network however, are significantly different.  In our neural network, the individual neurons don’t actually touch each other.  Rather, they are connected through chemicals, called neurotransmitters.


This is the most critical point you need to understand about communication.  Neurotransmitters are analog connections and subject to all sorts of distortions and variations.



Neurotransmitters – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

While people like to draw broad structural similarities between people and computers, there is one huge important difference – people use neurons and neurotransmitters which are analog; while computers use physical connections, transistors, capacitors, and magnetic disks which are digital.


This is very important, so let me explain.


Here is the picture of a memory transistor[47].




Its functions are know and consistent.  Unless it is broken, it will always operate the same.  A known voltage in will result in a known voltage out, every time.[48]  Every time you get into an airplane, you wager your life that ever transistor in that plane will work the same way today as the day it was installed.


The reason for this predictability is that the entire process within a transistor is electrical and follows all the known and consistent laws of electrons moving through a conductor.  The key thing to notice in the transistor is the different parts are physically connected to each other with no gaps in between.  The reason I point out that this is that our bodies function much differently.


The broad equivalent of a transistor in people is the “neuron.”  However, the enormous difference between neurons and transistors is that neurons include an analog chemical process that relies heavily on a thing called neurotransmitters.[49]


Take a look at the pictures below.  These are pictures of a typical nerve cell.  The thing that I want to call your attention to is the little box that magnifies the “Synapse.”  Notice that nerve cells do not actually touch.  Rather they are separated by a small gap called the ‘Synaptic Gap.”  The signals between cells are actually sent via chemicals call “neurotransmitters.”




There are hundreds of neurotransmitters.  Here is a partial list:[50]


Small Molecule Neurotransmitter Substances:  Acetylcholine, Dopamine, Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, Serotonin


Amino Acids: Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), Glycine Glutamate, Asparate


Neuroactive Peptides: bradykini, beta-endorphin, insulin, sleep peptides, thyrotropin-releasing hormone, growth hormone-releasing hormone,


While it’s not critically important to understand what each of the neurotransmitters do to understand the point I’m trying to make, I personally think it’s very fascinating.  So, here’s a brief overview of some of the more familiar ones and what their affects on us are. [51]


Acetylcholine:  – Responsible for much of the stimulation of muscles, including the muscles of the gastro-intestinal system.  It’s also found in sensory neurons and in the autonomic nervous system, and has a part in scheduling REM (dream) sleep. The plant poisons curare and hemlock cause paralysis by blocking the acetylcholine receptor sites of muscle cells.  The well-known poison botulin works by preventing the vesicles in the axon ending from releasing acetylcholine, causing paralysis.  The botulin derivative botox is used by many people to temporarily eliminate wrinkles – a sad commentary on our times, I would say. On a more serious note, there is a link between acetylcholine and Alzheimer’s disease:  There is something on the order of a 90% loss of acetylcholine in the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer’s, which is a major cause of senility.


Norepinephrine:  Norepinephrine is strongly associated with bringing our nervous systems into “high alert.”  It’s prevalent in the sympathetic nervous system, and it increases our heart rate and our blood pressure.  Our adrenal glands release it into the blood stream, along with its close relative epinephrine (aka adrenalin).  It’s also important for forming memories.

Stress tends to deplete our store of adrenalin, while exercise tends to increase it.  Amphetamines (“speed”) work by causing the release of norepinephrine, as well as other neurotransmitters called dopamine and seratonin..


Dopamine:  Dopamine is strongly associated with reward mechanisms in the brain.  Drugs like cocaine, opium, heroin, and alcohol increase the levels of dopamine, as does nicotine.  If it feels good, dopamine neurons are probably involved!


The severe mental illness schizophrenia has been shown to involve excessive amounts of dopamine in the frontal lobes, and drugs that block dopamine are used to help schizophrenics.  On the other hand, too little dopamine in the motor areas of the brain are responsible for Parkinson’s disease, which involves uncontrollable muscle tremors.  Recently, it has been noted that low dopamine may related not only to the unsociability of schizophrenics, but also to social anxiety.  On the other hand, dopamine has been found to have relatively little to do with the pleasures of eating.  That seems to involve chemicals such as endorphin (see below).


GABA:  GABA acts like a brake to the excitatory neurotransmitters that lead to anxiety.  People with too little GABA tend to suffer from anxiety disorders, and drugs like Valium work by enhancing the effects of GABA.  Lots of other drugs influence GABA receptors, including alcohol and barbituates.  If GABA is lacking in certain parts of the brain, epilepsy results.


Glutamate:  Glutamate is an excitatory relative of GABA.  It’s the most common neurotransmitter in the central nervous system – as much as half of all neurons in the brain – and is especially important in regards to memory.  Curiously, glutamate is actually toxic to neurons, and an excess will kill them.  Sometimes brain damage or a stroke will lead to an excess and end with many more brain cells dying than from the original trauma.  ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, results from excessive glutamate production.  Many believe it may also be responsible for quite a variety of diseases of the nervous system, and are looking for ways to minimize its effects

Glutamate was discovered by Kikunae Ikeda of Tokay Imperial Univ. in 1907, while looking for the flavor common to things like cheese, meat, and mushrooms.  He was able to extract an acid from seaweed – glutamate.  He went on to invent the well known seasoning MSG – monosodium glutamate.  It took decades for Peter Usherwood to identify glutamate as a neurotransmitter (in locusts) in 1994.


Serotonin:  Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that has been found to be intimately involved in emotion and mood.  Too little serotonin has been shown to lead to depression, problems with anger control, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and suicide.  Too little also leads to an increased appetite for carbohydrates (starchy foods) and trouble sleeping, which are also associated with depression and other emotional disorders.  It has also been tied to migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia.  Prozac and other recent drugs help people with depression by preventing the neurons from “vacuuming” up excess seratonin, so that there is more left floating around in the synapses.  It’s interesting that a little warm milk before bedtime also increases the levels of seratonin.  As mom may have told you, it helps you to sleep.  Serotonin is a derivative of tryptophan, which is found in milk.  The “warm” part is just for comfort!   On the other hand, serotonin also plays a role in perception.  Hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and ecstasy work by attaching to seratonin receptor sites and thereby blocking transmissions in perceptual pathways.


Endorphin:  Endorphin is short for “endogenous morphine.”  It’s structurally very similar to the opioids (opium, morphine, heroin, etc.) and has similar functions:  Inhibitory, it’s involved in pain reduction and pleasure, and the opioid drugs work by attaching to endorphin’s receptor sites.  It’s also the neurotransmitter that allows bears and other animals to hibernate.  Consider:  Heroin slows heart-rate, respiration, and metabolism in general – exactly what you would need to hibernate.  Of course, sometimes heroin slows it all down to nothing:  Permanent hibernation


The diagram below shows how the “transmitting neuron” and the “receiving neuron” send out and pick up neurotransmitters.[52]





Hopefully you get the basics of neurotransmitters, if you want to learn more just search the Internet and you’ll find a lot of good information on neurotransmitters.  Now let’s go to the next more important point.



The “Teeming” Synaptic Gap

I need to make an absolutely critical point now.  The point I’m going to make here is a fundamental reason why good communication is so difficult.  But I need to set it up a bit, so bear with me.


If you look at all the diagrams I presented you might think that there is only 1 neurotransmitter in the Synaptic gap.  If you think that you’d be wrong.  Each neuron can have thousands of receptors specific to unique neurotransmitters.  And there are hundreds of different neurotransmitters floating around the neuron in any number of different quantities.   And not only are there neurotransmitters floating around, there are a lot of other chemicals floating around in the Synaptic gap.


In addition to the neurotransmitters produced by the neuron, there are neurotransmitters from the adjacent cells and even from neurons quite a distance away.  Additionally there are many different hormones our body makes for various reasons.  And there are also chemicals we take in from the environment, through the food we eat, the drugs we take, or the air we breathe.


For the sake of discussion I’ll call the combination of all these chemicals in the Synaptic Gap a “biochemical bath.”  Think of the whole process like fishing in the ocean.  The water is the biochemical bath, the fish are the neurotransmitters, and the hook on the end your fishing pole is the neurotransmitter receptor.  Different kinds of fish require different kinds of hooks; just as different kinds of neurotransmitters require different kinds of cell receptors.  And, as with fishing, what’s in the water affects the kind of fish and the quantity of fish, so too what’s in the biochemical bath affects how we process information.





One brief detour might be helpful here.  Not only are there neurotransmitters created by the neurons but we can ingest chemicals that can mimic, excite, or block neurotransmitters.


Let me offer you some examples to show how the things we ingest can affect neurotransmitters.  The first example is cocaine.  The diagram below shows how cocaine blocks neurotransmitters.





Another example is LSD.  LSD binds to the serotonin receptors in the brain.


The third example is marijuana.  The active chemical in marijuana is THC – Delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol.




THC is very fast acting.  It takes just seconds for it to reach the brain after it is inhaled.  And then it begins to work immediately.  THC works on the “cannabinoid receptors.”  Cannabinoid receptors are activated by the neurotransmitter anandamide.  Cannabinoid receptors are concentrated in several different places but mostly in the hippocampus, cerebellum and basal ganglia.




These cannabinoid receptors have an effect on:

Short-term memory



Problem solving


So those were all examples of illegal drugs.  Now let me offer a more attractive example – chocolate.




Apparently chocolate increases endorphins and endorphins are neurotransmitters that make us feel good.  Endorphins tend to reduce pain and stress.  Chocolate also affects serotonin, which is often seen as an anti-depressant.   Which explains why chocolate is such a popular food.


A lot of things influence the composition of this biochemical bath.  Exercise increases endorphins, Botox prevents the neurons from releasing Acetylcholine.  Heroin, alcohol, and nicotine increase levels of dopamine.  And Stress can change the chemical makeup of the biochemical bath in many different ways.


Diseases also affect this biochemical bath.  Schizophrenia and Parkinson ’s disease are related to Dopamine.  Alzheimer’s is connected to Acetylcholine.  And Serotonin has been tied to migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia.


Here is a chart that might be useful to help describe what I’m talking about.


Noradrenaline systemarousal
AcetylchonieCognitive, Memory
SerotoninEmotion, mood, Depression, Anger Control, obsessive-compulsive disorder
EndorphinPain reduction and pleasure[53]



The key point here is that the synaptic gap is teaming with all kinds of biochemicals, some helpful some not so helpful.


I found this interesting chart when I was doing my research[54].





This chart attempts to visually describe how the neurotransmitters interact with each other.


The bottom line for you to understand is that the chemical bath filling the synaptic gap is a complex sea of ever changing quantities of different chemicals.  Just as the ocean is never the same one moment to the next, either is the biochemical bath.



Our Nervous System is not Precise

Here is where I’ll bring in the points I made earlier about analog and digital.


The biochemicals filling the synaptic gap combine in ways that are analog and continuous not digital and discrete.  So, unlike turning on a light switch, our internal communication system can vary dramatically day to day and even moment to moment.


These neurotransmitters in the synaptic gap between neurons is the key difference between electronic computers and biological systems.  Electronic computers have no chemicals between each component.  Each component is hard wired together.  When you turn on your computer, the electrons move along the wires in very predictable ways.  However, because of the analog nature of neurotransmitters, every moment for a human is a unique experience.














The better you are at understanding our biological capabilities and limitations, the better you will be at mastering the skills to maximize our communication capabilities and minimize our communication limitations.

The better you understand your biological capabilities and limitations, the better you’ll be at mastering the skills to maximize our communication capabilities and minimize our communication limitations.




Let me summarize what I’ve been trying to say; our internal communication systems are built on a foundation of nerve cells and because nerve cells interact using a biochemical bath of neurotransmitters they function more like analog systems than digital systems and analog systems are not precise and prone to variability. Hopefully the reason I went into so much detail about analog and neurotransmitters is now clear.


Here is example I want you to keep in mind.  Let’s go back to the discussion on color.  When we communicate about the color “RED” we process an analog picture of a color “red.”  This means that everyone has a different picture of what the term “red” means.  When you think of the color “red” it could be any, or none, of the boxes below.  And if someone is “color blind” what they think of as the color red is even more different.




Our brains work in analog.  We don’t process a digital description of “red” like “FF336.”  This is what makes communication different for each and every person.


Hopefully this helps you understand why our nervous system is not precise and cannot only vary widely between different people but also vary widely day to day and moment to moment in you.[55]



 The Brain – Our Central Processing Unit

Humans are not the only species that communicates.  Birds, bees, ants, monkeys, and dogs all have some form of communication.  However, communication in all other animals pales in comparison to humans.  We are able to remember and use thousands of words.  Some say we can attain up to 50,000 words.  And even more importantly we can combine those words in an infinite number of ways making it possible to process an infinite number of messages.[56]


The human brain is a marvel of evolutionary development.  Scientists have long studied the special properties of the human brain that sets us apart and makes our high level thought possible.  And they have come up with some marvelous findings.


In the old days the only way to study how the brain processed communication was to study people with brain damage.  Now we have many noninvasive brain recording technologies like Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scans, and functional Magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).



How the brain processes information

The brain is responsible for 3 levels of communication:

The technical level – Perceiving the stimulus

The syntactic level – Understanding the structure of the communication

The semantic level – Understanding the meaning


Steven Pinker[57] “argues, and I agree, that the brain at birth is not simply a blank slate to be shaped by culture and experience. Rather, it comes preprogrammed with many behavioral dispositions and talents.  To Pinker and others, “communication and information processing are to some extent innate and shaped by natural selection.”  He postulates that our mind is not empty at birth and cannot be completely molded by family, society, and experience, but rather that we are born with predispositions that are genetically determined.[58]


These are controversial ideas.  If we are born with predispositions we are not all equal, which raises some ugly social and political issues.  And if we are born with certain innate capabilities, we dash the dream of the perfectibility of humankind.  “If people are born with certain drives, if certain ignoble traits, such as violence and selfishness, are innate, then that might make them unchangeable, and attempts at social reform and human improvement might be proven to be a waste of time.”[59]


Drew Weston[60] highlights on his website, “the best way to attain your goals — whether in politics, marketing, or leadership — is to start with an accurate understanding of how the mind and brain work.” He also highlights a very interesting statement, “persuasion is about activating the right networks.” When he talks about networks he is talking about “neural networks.”  He is talking about the brain networks.  Weston says in bold writing on his web site, “To move people, you have to understand the neural networks that connect ideas, images, and emotions in their minds.” [61]


I agree with Mr. Weston completely.  The more you understand how people communicate from a physical and biological perspective, the better you can communicate.  Just as the more pilots understand aerodynamics the better they are at flying a plane.  Or the more weather forecasters understand how climate works the better forecasts they can make.  Or the more auto mechanics understand how a car works the better they are at fixing and maintaining your car.


All these new technologies are proving that our brain relies on coordinating activity among the many parts.  Thinking occurs when the billions of brain cells communicate with each other in a synchronized way.  Think of an orchestra playing in harmony.  The more the orchestra is in harmony the better the music.[62]





It’s important to reference back to the earlier discussion on the nervous system.  The brain and the nervous system share many common elements.  Both have neurons, axons, and dendrites.  And both connect the neurons via analog chemicals, called neurotransmitters.  And these chemicals can turn the signal up or down depending on the type of neurotransmitter.  And just as a reminder; the important point is that these neurotransmitters are constantly changing depending on any number factors including the food we eat, the drugs we ingest, the activities we are participating, even the people around us can influence the type and quantities of neurotransmitters.  And as the combinations and quantities of these neurotransmitters ebb and flow and increase and decrease so too will our communication processing ebb and flow.  Sometimes you will be wide awake and alert; communicating quickly and accurately.  Other times we are tired or distracted; communicating poorly.


To summarize; because our brains are internally connected via neurotransmitters, which can vary minute by minute, we never communicate exactly the same twice.[63]  And, here is something else important: these neurotransmitters are influenced by what we take into our body.  Have you ever heard the saying, “you are what you eat?”  Well apparently there is biological and neurological support for that being a true statement.



Your Brain is Compartmentalized

As I talked about above, the brain is made up of nerve cells and never cells are all pretty much alike in their structure and operation throughout the body.[64]  However, in the brain there are huge local differences in the way nerve cells are arranged.


In some places “dendritic trees” are tightly interwoven and largely share the same territory.  In other parts “dendritic trees” are neatly separated with little or no overlap.  There are parts of the brain were the fibers carrying the signals are connected directly to the neurons.  And in other parts there are things called “interneurons” that are in-between the neurons.  There are differences in neurotransmitters in different parts of the brain.  And there are differences in the “plasticity”[65] in different parts of the brain.  I could go on describing the structural differences between different parts of the brain, but hopefully you get my point.


Brain researchers have long known that different parts of the brain do different things.  They first noticed it when they studied people and animals with localized “lesions”[66].  Most of these observations were reinforced with the development of fMRIs.  And it seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that the reason for this compartmentalization of brain functions is a direct result of the different quantity and structure of brain nerve cells.[67]


Here are a couple of pictures of our current understanding of the different compartments of the brain.



Cerebrum – What is typically thought of as the “brain.”  The cerbrum is divided into two hemispheres, “right” and “left”.  These two hemispheres are thought to contribute to major diffenences in the way we process information.

Cerebrum Lobes – The frontal lobe is behind the forehead and thought to control thinking, judgement, planning, and some movement.  The parietal lobe on the top of the head interprets the things our senses experience like smell, taste, and touch.  The occipital lobe in the back of the head is responsible for our eyes.  The temporal lobe on the sides near the temples stores many memorys but also does some work with our senses.

Cerebellum – In the back of the head.  Helps control movement.

Brain Stem – Controls sleeping, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressue.  It also is the first point of contact for signals coming from the spinal cord.

Diencephalon – Made up of the thalamus and hypothalamus and in addition to control some autonomic functions like body temperature also works on thirst and hunger.


It is interesting to note that different animals have different brains components.  Insects for example have very impressive optic lobes, which makes sense since they rely on vision over other senses, whereas in humans the cerebral cortex is the largest component of the brain.



All Brains are Different

It is pretty well believed that no two finger prints are exactly alike (even the fingerprints of identical twins are different).[68]  So it should come as no big surprise that no two brains are exactly alike.[69]


But did you also know that “A” snowflake is never exactly the same with itself.  As it falls the air gets warmer and the snowflake begins to melt.  A specific snowflake only exists for one brief moment in time.  Then a new snowflake exists for that next moment.


Based on the fact that no two brains are alike I’ve come to the conclusion that no two people communicate the same way.


Because no two brains are exactly alike, no two people communicate in the exactly same way.







Because your brain is unique, the way you communicate is also unique.  This is not to say that you communicate better or worse than another brain.  Just as you can’t say one snowflake is better than another.  Rather this is just to say we are all different.


There are two important actionable items you should take from the fact that your brain is unique.  First, since you communicate in unique ways it is critical that you learn as much as you can about your unique communication style.  The more you know about your unique style the more you are able to maximize the good and minimize the bad things about your communication.  If you know what your communication strengths and weaknesses are you can develop skills that will make you more efficient.[70]


The second reason this is important is since we all communicate in unique ways, it is critical that you recognize that others are most assuredly communicate differently than you.  You need to respect those differences and learn to work with them.[71]


How the Body “Senses”

The point I’m trying to make here is that we “sense” the stimuli presented to us.  Some of those stimuli are waves, like radio and electrical waves, some are mechanical waves like sound waves and some stimuli are touch and smell.  In all cases, our bodies are designed to sense stimuli.


All these stimuli hitting us cause our sense cells to create electrical impulses that in turn cause our brains to “vibrate.”[72]


What I’m going to say now is extremely important.  Because each and every one of us have a unique genetic code and because each and every one of us has unique experiences, each of our brains are “tuned” differently.


Since I believe that each of us is tuned slightly differently, each of us find harmony in different environments.  Some like the rhythm of the crowed city.  Others like the rhythm of the country.  Some like classical music and some like rock and roll.  Some like fast pace.  Some like slow pace.  Each of use attempts to find harmony with the stimuli hitting us.


And in today’s environment, it is easy for our bodies to be overloaded, over stimulated, and overtaxed by the stimuli hitting us.  In fact, I might even go so far as to suggest that not being in harmony with the stimuli around us can cause our natural coping and defense systems to freakout and cause any number of problems like depression, confusion, and sleep problems.


Music might provide a useful model to help understand this concept.  We’ve learned over the eons to manipulate musical stimulus for our pleasure and benefit.  We’ve learned which stimuls make us feel safe and secure like the sounds of a mother singing a lullaby and rocking rhythmically.  Or the energy we get a sporting event chant.  Or the feeling of connection we get joining in a hymn at church.


There’s an interesting term that applies here.  The term is “resonance.”  Resonance is what happens when one set of vibrations can cause something else to move in harmony as a result.  We can clearly see this in stringed instruments like violins and pianos.  Pick one string and the vibrations of that one string can cause other strings and even the entire instrument to vibrate harmonically.


The same thing happens with communication.  As people and things move in the environment they generate all kinds of waves.  When we speak we create sound waves, when we move we create light waves.  The more harmony we can get with others, the more effective the communication.



Our Brain Can Play Tricks on Us

A key message is that our brain, while obviously a huge benefit and the thing that sets us apart from others species, can also be an impediment to success at the same time.  The more we understand the benefits and impediments of the brain, the more we are able to maximize the benefits and minimize the impediments.


This duality, that our brain,  as both a benefit and an impediment, shouldn’t be a surprise.  Take any activity, woodworking for example.  A cabinet maker understands which particular type of wood works best for a particular activity.  They understand the benefits and limitations that a specific type of wood brings to the end product.  In some cases the benefit could also be a limitation.  While a hardwood might look good, it might also be hard to work with.  Cooks understand this duality too.  Some ingredients have benefits when combined with other foods but they also have limitations.


The more someone understands the benefits and the limitations of a thing the more they can use that thing to their advantage.  This, goes back to my discussion in the Chapter on Learning about Step #2, learning the natural laws of thing is important to understand that thing.


Movies as an example of the tricks our brains play

Take a look at the picture below.




You see still images of a horse moving.[73]  However, if you put these pictures into a spinning disc, you would not see still images; they would see the horse running.  This is how movies work.  Movies are really made up of a sequence of still images.


Here is another example.  Ever notice how sometimes movies can seem “shaky.”  This is particularly noticeable in home handheld camcorder movies (you don’t see this as much in professional movies, because professional movie makers go to great lengths to eliminate this shakiness by using expensive camera support systems).  But now notice that you don’t experience the same thing as you view the world.  We experience no shaky transitions was we move through our life and view world.  The world appears stable no matter how quickly, erratically, or violently, we more around.


Apparently, our brains take before and after pictures of what we are looking at and just like they do with movies, they combine them to smooth out any jitter.  Apparently, our brain anticipates where we are going to move next and our brain uses the anticipatory image to smooth out the transition.[74]  Moreover, our brain does this with all our senses, smell, hearing, touching, and tasting, as well as seeing.


Now, let me go back to the duality of the brain I talked about before.  The duality refers to the reality that the brain is both a huge benefit but also a huge obstacle to effective communication.  The ability of the brain to anticipate what is next and then combine our sensory experiences into a consistent perception is a huge benefit because it allows us to efficiently move through world.  However, the risk is that we combine the perceptions in ways that are wrong and not helpful to achieving our goal.


Here is the point of this.  Our brain plays tricks on us.  Our brain uses past experience and anticipation to fill in the gaps we encounter as we try to make sense of the world.


Let me give you a good example that I have to deal with all the time – “Proofreading.”  I find that I’m not a very good proofreader.  It is not uncommon for me to proofread something, find some errors, correct them, but then when I look at it later I see I’ve missed some things.  This is very frustrating.  I hate to send out something I’ve written that has spelling, grammar, or sentence structure problems that I could have corrected if I saw them.  But, the point is I did not see them.  The reason is that my brain sees what I want to say, not what I actually put on paper.  My brain misses the details.  Do you see the point?  Do you see how the brain plays tricks on us?



Optical Illusions

Optical Illusions are always fun.  I did a search and found thousands that I had never seen before.   The point is that these are not just fun, they point out an important aspect of information processing.  Our eyes and brain can be tricked.  And the reality is that not everyone is tricked in the same way.


Here are some of the classic optical illusions.















Face or Vase






Believe it or not, these 2 lines are straight





Young lady or old hag





Our Senses are not Perfect

The key thing to understand is that the function of our senses is to “translate” the analog signals in our environment, mostly light and sound, but also smell, taste, and touch, into electrical signals that our brain processes.



Physical Limitations with our Senses


“Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see”  – Benjamin Franklin






Apparently even Benjamin Franklin knew back in the 1700’s that the ‘senses” we use to obtain information, sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, are fairly limited and prone to error.  In fact, it’s interesting to note that as a species, humans don’t have great senses.  Many animals can hear, see, and smell much better than humans.  But, be that as it may, we humans still have risen to the top of the food chain.  We have what we have, but we’ve learned to live with it and though the use of tools (like teamwork) we’ve learned to compensate for our limited senses.


Our senses translate the stimulus presented to us into electrical signals our brain can process.  And, as with any translation system, there can be a great deal lost in translation.  I want to go over each sense a but so you get an idea of the kinds of obstacles we have to overcome to communicate.







The process of “seeing” starts when light is reflected off something and enters our eyes through the cornea, a transparent outer covering of the eye.  The cornea “bends” the light so it can pass through the pupil, the dark round opening in the eye.  The iris, the colored portion of the eye, opens and closes to make the pupil bigger or smaller, similar to the F-Stop on a camera.  The light then goes through the lens, which changes shape so it focuses the light on the retina at the back of the eye.


The retina is a thin tissue that contains millions of light-sensing nerve cells called rods and cones, named for their distinct shapes.  Now here is the most important part.  These rods and cones convert the light into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain via the optic nerve.  The point is the eye does not actually “see” anything.  The eye is simply a translator of light waves to electrical signals.  The brain is the one that “interrupts” those electrical signals and thinks it sees an image.








Problems with vision

I’m sure you’ve heard the term 20/20 vision.  That is the term used to express “normal” vision.  By measuring a lot of people’s vision, researchers have been able to figure out what is “normal.”  What’s particularly cool about this term is that it implies that there people with “normal” vision, “sub-normal” vision, and “super-normal” vision.[75]



I can see well at a distance, but have trouble seeing objects up close.  This is common for people as they age.  Others, can see up close just fine, but have trouble seeing far away.


Here is a brief list of eye problems.


Vision changes and problems can be caused by many different conditions:


Presbyopia – difficulty focusing on objects that are close – Cornea.

Cataracts – cloudiness over the eye’s lens, causing poor nighttime vision, halos around lights, and sensitivity to glare. Daytime

Glaucoma – increased pressure in the eye, causing poor night vision, blind spots, and loss of vision to either side. A major cause of blindness.

Retinopathy – bleeding into the retina. Another common cause of blindness.

Macular Degeneration — loss of central vision, blurred vision (especially while reading), distorted vision (like seeing wavy lines), and colors appearing faded. The most common cause of blindness in people over age 60.

Retinal Detachment – symptoms include floaters, flashes of light across your visual field, or a sensation of a shade or curtain hanging on one side of your visual field.

Optic neuritis – inflammation of the optic nerve from infection

Temporal arteritis – inflammation of an artery in the brain that supplies blood to the optic nerve.


The point here is not to present a complete list of vision problems, that’s what the Internet is for.  The point here is to demonstrate that if you depend on seeing to communicate, which we all obviously do, you have to understand that not everyone sees the same things.



Ears, like the eyes, receive analog waves (sound waves) and convert them to electrical impulses, which your brain then interrupts as sounds.


Ears pick up all the sounds around you and then translate this information into a form your brain can understand.


The ears are a bit simpler than the eyes.  Sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate. When the eardrum vibrates, it moves the tiny ossicles bones, the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup. These bones transfer the vibrations to the cochlea in the inner ear via the oval window.  The cochlea is filled with liquid, which is set into motion, like a wave, when the ossicles vibrate.  Lining the cochlea tiny cells covered in tiny hairs.  The organ of corti is a structure containing thousands of tiny hair cells. It lies on the surface of the basilar membrane and extends across the length of the cochlea. The vibrations cause the hairs on the cells to move, creating nerve signals that are sent through the cochlear nerve to the brain.




The piston action of the stapes moves the fluid in the cochlea. This causes a vibration wave to travel down the basilar membrane.


There are 2 broad categories of hearing:

Involuntary – like when we are startled by a noise

Voluntary – When we chose to listen


Within Voluntary listening there are 2 broad categories:  1) passive, where we don’t pay attention to the sounds, like listening to music in background, and 2) active, were we specifically attend to the sounds.





I’m not going to spend too much time talking about smell.  Just be aware that it is an important sense we use often.  The most talked about smell that we use in communication are “pheromones.”  Our noses contain tiny structures know as the “vomeronasla organ.”  This organ seems to be sensitive to pheromones.  Research has shown that Queen Bees can produce a pheromone that turns other females into worker bees.  And pheromones are used in various pest control products.


In doing my research on this I found that there is still some question on if and/or how humans use pheromones.  But I think it is generally agreed that smell does play an important part in the way we evaluate others.



Using “Frames” “Metaphors” and “Motivated Reasoning” to Communicate

As I pointed out earlier, a movie is actually a series of still images and our brain fills in the gaps.  Would it surprise you to know that we do this “filling in”, not just with movies, but with pretty much everything?  We fill in gaps, make assumptions, and jump to conclusions with all communications.


This is a very important point; the reason communication is so difficult is that no two brains fill in the gaps the same.


First let me make sure you understand why there are gaps in all communication.  As I said previously communication is analog and we operate with limited bandwidth.


The brain is very good at unconsciously filling in the gaps figuring out what the communication should have meant.  But, in so doing, in filling in the gaps, all brains most likely will fill in the gaps differently.


Filling in the gaps, in itself, is neither good nor bad, it’s just the way the brain works.  It’s commonplace, routine, and unavoidable.  The world is different every moment.  Virtually any situation you are in and any communication you put out has never been communicated by anyone before in the history.  You’re communicating thoughts that have never been expressed in exactly that form before.


Thus, no one can have perfect understand of what you are saying.


To help us figure out what others are trying to communicate we create “Frames” or “metaphors” to help us.  George Lakoff said it this way, “there is an extensive, and mostly unconscious, system of metaphor that we use automatically and unreflectively to understand complexities and abstractions.”[76]


Frames and Metaphors are a set of relatively fixed frames that structure how we see the world.  Notice I said relatively fixed.  This means that while it is possible to change our frames, it is very difficult.  For example, an abused child may see the world as dangerous.  Getting that child to change that frame is extremely difficult.


Someone from a traditional home might see a “strict father model” where the family is structured around a strong, dominant “father” and where children require discipline to grow into responsible adults.  The frame might continue that once the kids have grown into adults the father should not be involved in their lives.


That individual might then expand that frame to include government and business, where citizens and employees are the kids and need strong rules to become responsible citizens and employees.  And further, Government and business should stay out of the affairs of those citizens and employees who have shown their responsibility.


One could have a completely different frame that sees the world in terms of a “nurturing parent model.”  In this model, both mother and fathers work together to keep children away from “corrupting influences” like sex, drugs, alcohol, bullies.  In this frame someone might see the role of business and government as more a nurturing parent.


Another example of a frame is that some people think that Politics is business, where government should be run like a business and those that are good at effective business management would be good at effective political management.


Another frame might be that “Morality” is like a balance sheet in business, where the goal is to keep the moral books balanced.  If you do something bad you have to repay the debt.  And they see “Justice” as balancing the moral books.


The point here is that we come to a communication event with these frames of reference already in place.  When we communicate we then try our best to fit the stimuli hitting us into these frames.  Often times that is an easy fit.  However sometimes we need a shoehorn, or sometimes even a crowbar to fit the stimuli into our frames.


In many fields of scientific study, political science economics, law, cognitive science, the basic belief is that we make decisions based on “bounded rationality.”[77]  This belief states that in general we are “rational” within the limits of the information we have.


However, when it comes to communication, rationality is not “bounded” only by the stimulus presented, but by other things going on in the brain.  This means that when you communicate your brain is not only looking at the details of the communication, things like words or sights, but on intangible things going on in your brain.  The brain is not so interested making rational assumptions about communication.  The brain is more interested in fitting the communication into pre-existing “Frames of Reference,” much the same way we fill in the still pictures in a movie to make it look seamless.  If we think people who drive a Mercedes are rich, then whenever we see a Mercedes driver we think they are rich.


They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  In communication, meaning is in the mind of the listener.


As you probably figured out by now, two researchers I look to the most for the foundations of this view are George Lakoff[78] and Drew Westen[79].  If you are interested in these ideas and want to know more, I suggest you start with those two.


Social Neuroscience

One of the great things about writing a book like this is I learn a lot in the process.  One of the things I learned is there apparently exists a new area of research called, “Social Neuroscience”


The Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience defines it this way:


Studies of social intelligence investigate the ability to perceive one’s own and others’ internal states, motives, and behaviors and to act towards them optimally on the basis of that information. Research suggests that the quality of social intelligence is distinct from that of cognitive intelligence, and that they are supported by separate neural substrates.[80]


Said a different way, Social Neuroscience looks to help us improve our communication by understanding the way the brain works.  Daniel Goldman said Social Neuroscience is about helping us better understand, “the neural dynamics of human relationships.”[81]


Although we clearly have learned a lot about communication over the years by studying people with brain injuries, neuroscience in introducing a bunch of new tools and brings to the discussion an anatomical guide that can be used to help us understand the brain.  Knowledge of the workings of the neural connectivity systems is very helpful.


Emotional intelligence is the innate potential to feel, use, communicate, recognize, remember, learn from, manage, understand and explain emotions.[82]


Goleman’s work in Emotional and Social Intelligence[83] is important for a number of reasons.  He documents the basic reality that we are social animals.  We are “Wired to Connect.”[84]  I saw a commercial for an insurance company saying how a mother whale brings her newborn calf to the surface to breath.  It was interesting because it got me thinking about this notion of us being social animals.  Whale calves, as well as most animals are pretty self sufficient at birth.  Humans newborns, on the other hand, are much more dependent on others to help them survive.  More than any other animal, that I’m aware of, humans need to be connected to survive.  As a result, our brain chemistry is programmed to connect with others.


We need to connect to others.[85]  And it’s through communication that we connect.


It’s obvious that as a species we’re pretty good at communication.  Just look at the advances we’ve made and our ability to actually get things done.   Sure, some are better at communication than others, but on average, we are all pretty good.  The work by Goleman on Emotional Intelligence is just one many others that would support that conclusion.


To be sure, there are those that are born with physical conditions that prevent them from maximizing their potential to be connected; autism being just one example.  But as Helen Keller showed, even someone with significant communication barriers can overcome them and connect well with others.



Emotional Communication

Researchers have found that the muscles used for smiling are controlled by the limbic system, which are not under voluntary control.  When you force a smile, a different part of the brain is used — the cerebral cortex (under voluntary control), hence different muscles are used. This is why a clerk, who might not have any real interest in you, has a “fake” look when he forces a smile.


Some actors learn to control all of their facial muscles.  But, this is not an easy trick to pull off all the time – and the fact that it is so difficult explains why so few are good actors.


There is a good evolutionary reason for this base honesty in communication.  The more we can trust those around us the more we can depend on them.  If emotions could be faked easily, they would do more harm than good[86]


Our moods and emotions, both the good and bad emotions, influence the people around us.  While that fact is probably not a huge revelation to you, it’s interesting to note that there’s a growing body of very good research on the brain supports this notion.  One study found that people working together, after a bit of time together, tended to share their moods, both good and bad.[87]  In other words, emotions are contagious.  An emotions is like the “flue;” you can spread it to the people around you.


Here are some research examples:

The comforting presence of another person not only lowers the patient’s blood pressure but also slows the secretion of fatty acids that block arteries.

Three or more incidents of intense stress within a year (for example, serious financial trouble, being fired, or a divorce) triples the death rate in socially isolated middle-aged men, but it has no impact on the death rate of men with many close relationships.

One person transmits signals that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular functions, sleep rhythms, even immune functions, inside the body of another.

Couples are able to trigger surges of oxytocin in each other’s brains, creating a pleasant, affectionate feeling.


We are “wired” to Connect.[88]  We are wired to have our physiologies intermingle and blend together.[89]  We are wired to harmonize with others.  Those that understand this and can build skills around it, have a chance to communicate better than those that do not.



Research Support for Rhythms/Harmony/Resonance

The reality is we don’t notice the process of harmonizing with others.  It happens subconsciously.  Researchers have documented this communication harmony by measuring different things.  Researchers have found that as we begin our interactions, our bodies operate at different rhythms.  But after just 15 minutes the different rhythms start to look astonishingly similar.


Even back in the days before fMRIs researchers have documented this reality.  Friedman and Riggo found that even nonverbal expressiveness can influence others.  They found that when “three strangers sit facing one another in silence for a minute or two, the emotionally expressive of the three transmits his or her mood to the other two – without a single word being spoken.”


Bartel and Saavedra found that work teams ended up sharing moods – both good and bad – within two hours.  And groups, like individuals, are subject to the same emotional linkages.  This is often called the “Bandwagon” affect or “emotional contagion.[90]”


As it is said, “Smile and the world smiles with you.”  Since we know your emotions affect your communication, you need to honestly look at your moods and think of them like the Flu.  If you feel infected with a bad mood you need to not transmit that mood to others.  You should treat those you are communicating with respect, empathy, and a perspective that says you are ok.


I recognize that most often it is really not much of a choice in how we feel.  If you are in a bad mood, you cannot just turn it around and be in a good mode.  However, you can try to not pass on your bad mood.  Just like covering your mouth when you cough.[91]


This whole idea of emotional contagion is very important.  So just as you can transfer a germ through the air, you can transfer your emotions though communication.  If there exists a thing called emotional contagion, which apparently there is, then it is through communication that we infect others.


Unfortunately, spreading germs around, communication contagion is much more complex and nuanced.  There are many things that can influence how communication passes around our contagions.  Just one example is the how the power position of the individuals influence the way an infection moves.  Reseach has shown that the path of the infection tends to go from the individuals of higher power to the individuals of lower power easier than the other way around.[92]




So what is actionable about this discussion?  Basically, the more in sync with others the greater the likelihood of effective communication.  So, the goal is to try to sync with others.  You should try to harmonize with others.


What I am going to say now is very important.  I think I’ve said it already in many different ways before, but I want to say it again using the terms of rhythm and harmony.  If your goal is to improve communication, then  your goal should be to find the harmonies with others when you communicate.  And, if we assume that it is more difficult to change someone else, then you have a great chance to find the harmonies with others if you change your tune and not expect others to change their tune.


Of course it would be great if everyone in the communication would be willing to change their rhythms in order to find the most harmony.  But, you cannot expect others to change.  So if you want to achieve some goal, then you will more likely succeed if you are willing to change your communication to match others.


Communication Model

It’s always useful to use a model of something when you talk about it.


I typed in communication model into Google and I got 203,000,000 hits and found a lot of different models.  In reviewing the models it is easy to see that they have many similar elements.  They all have some mention of people, as in senders and receivers.  They all have some mention of noise.  They all seem to have some mention of encoding and decoding messages.  They all seem to have some mention of the messages themselves and how they are transmitted.  There is also some mention intent and some mention of feedback.  And they all seem to have some mention perception in terms of individual and shared reality.


There are a couple of good models out there.  The Shannon/Weaver model[93] is an oldie but a goody.  The Berlo model has a lot of good things to offer.[94]  But, I’ll choose to make up my own model.  If I could be so bold.


While I base my model on other models, my approach is a bit unique.  It’s focused on what is actionable about using a model.



Here is my model.






Notice that there is no start or stop in his model.  In many communication models, there is a beginning and an end[95].  I don’t see it that way.  I see communication much more like a spiral, where the communication actors participate in a back and forth dance to achieve some intent.






Of course, there are communication events that have a clear start and stop.  There are thousands of examples.  The first one that comes to mind is ordering at a fast food drive-thru[96].  The communication event starts when someone drives up, and ends when they get their food, pay and drive off.  They will most likely never communicate with that individual again[97].  Another example might be asking someone for directions.  Clearly, there is a beginning and end to the communication event.


In both cases, there is the initiator of the communication event.  Someone wants something (food or directions).  They then construct a message that they hope will get what they want.  When they get what they want they end the conversation and leave the scene.


However, most communication events of any significance are ongoing and there’s no clear beginning or end.  One interaction builds on another.  Going back to a restaurant example, I may go into the restaurant on a regular basis.  The waiter may know me and may build upon those past experiences when communicating.  (Please refer back to our discussion on “Elaborated” and “Restricted” codes.


The key point here is that no matter if the communication event is a onetime thing or lasts over many years, the focus should be the Intent.


The Intent is usually started by someone but after the communication gets going the parties both try to achieve some intent.  In the case of the fast food drive thru the intent of the person ordering is to get food.  The fast food worker’s intent is to get the food to them, collect thier money, and do it in such a way that they will return again.



One important aspect of any communication model is “Context.”  The same communication can have a much different meaning depending on the context.  I might hug a family member or friend when I greet them.  I would not hug my waiter when they come to the table to take my order.


Context is extremely important in being in harmony with others.



Key Actionable Elements of Communication

At this point it would be helpful to go into more detail on the actionable items in the communication model.


I find it interesting that I bury it here in the middle of the book.  But, to me this is the most important section.  I would have liked to put this section right up front in this book.  But, I thought it would have more meaning after I explained a few things.  Perhaps as I edit the book and review the entire work I might change it.  But for now here it is.







Key Actionable Items in Communication


Actionable Communication ElementWhat’s Actionable
IntentYou need to focus on why you are engaging in the interaction.  You need to focus on what is in it for the other parties of the interaction.
Encoding/Decoding You need to construct your communication so that you get what you want.You need to make sure you understand what the other parties are asking of you.
ChannelYou need to pick the best channel to get what you want.  Would a phone call be better than an email or text?
FeedbackIn order to “hone” in on the target, you need to make sure you are giving the right feedback to the other parties and you need to make sure you are looking for feedback from them.
NoiseYou need to understand the barriers to communication and how to overcome them.




—  “Intent” – The most important element

As I said many times and in many ways before; we communicate to achieve some purpose.  Implied in this notion is the concept of “Intent.”  Implied is that that the goal of communication is to achieve some “purpose.”


At some point, someone has to start the communication process.  This starts with someone having something they want.  Our intentions fundamentally affect the exchange.   Our intentions will affect how we construct the message


The word “Intent” is critical to the study of communication.  While there may be some cases where there is no intent in communication (though I’m hard pressed to think of any) [98], in most cases we have a very specific intent in mind when we communicate.  We have a specific outcome we want to achieve.  We know exactly what we want to happen at the end of the communication.


Another way to look at this is to think of the word, INITIATOR. There is always an initiator of the communication process.  Someone starts the process.  And the individual starting the process has some intent in starting the process.  The more you understand what you are trying to accomplish – your intent – the greater your chance of achieving that intent.


Let’s take some basic examples.  Chimps were successfully taught American Sign Language.  When a chimp uses signs to ask for food, the chimp has a specific intent – to get food.  My daughter called me the other day from college.  She had a specific intent in calling me.  She wanted money.

With most communication, there is a specific intent.  I have a specific intent in writing this book.  I have a specific intent in writing this chapter.  I have a specific intent in writing this sentence.  Moreover, I have a specific intent with each word, comma, and question mark I use.  I would say that every communicative act I perform has a specific intent.


Now here is a very important point; communication involves a sender and receiver.  The chances of getting great communication are increased when the sender and receiver are in agreement about the intent of the communication.  If you ask someone for directions and they want to give you directions you are more likely to get good directions than if the one you’re asking doesn’t want to give you directions.


I like to use the example of an Air Traffic Controller and a Pilot.  Both have the same intent – to land the plan safely.



What is Your Intent?

My son and I went to the computer store to buy a new laptop.  His intent was to get a laptop.  My intent was to help him, and the salesman’s intent was to sell him a laptop.  We all had intents, but all our intents were different and we all had multiple intents.


In fact, it is critically important to remember is that we enter every communication event with multiple intents.  The salesman wanted to sell my son a laptop.  He also wanted to keep his job, which meant he might have wanted to sell my son a particular laptop with particular features.  Perhaps, he was looking for a new job and wanted to communicate with in such a way that we might see what a great employee he was and as a result offer him a job.


While, getting someone to do something for you is probably the most common reason to initiate communication, we also communicate as a response to someone else wanting something and when we need to get information to make a decision.



—  Encoding and Decoding the Message

There are two aspects of communication I want to talk about; the encoding of the message and the decoding of the other parties message.  In this context, encoding means all the things you do to create a message to achieve an intent, and decoding means all the things you do to understand what you are hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, or tasting.


If you wondered why I went into so much detail about your brain and your nervous system, it will now become clear.


Our encoding and decoding processes are directly tied to our nervous system and brain functioning.  The more you understand about how you create and perceive, the more control over you’ll have over your encoding and decoding capabilities and the more likely you will get what you want.






Despite what we see in science fiction, we cannot link minds together.  We have to try to construct (encode) a message that we hope the receiver of the message will be able to intuit, discern, or in some way translate.


You construct a message by choosing the Code, Content, and Medium.

Code is the particular set of symbols, graphics, or words that we “hopefully” share with the people in the communication event.  As I mentioned before when I talked about restricted and elaborated codes, the more we share the same codes the more likely we will have effective communication.

Content is the stuff in the message that says what you want to say.

Medium is the specific channel you use to send your message.  You could use email, the phone, a letter, or face to face communication.


A critical point is that the code, the content, and the medium are in the control of the sender.  This goes back to my comments earlier that you have control over your communication.


As an example, look at a TV news show.  They have to decide what stories to run by thinking about what would be interesting to the viewer.  They have to decide what words to use and what images to use.  They have to put everything together in a way that they think will achieve their intent.


Another example is advertising.  Think of an advertising executive putting together an ad campaign.  They start with a blank sheet.  They then pick the code, create the content, and chose the medium they think will best achieve their goal of selling their product.  Every word, every choice of media, every picture is chosen with the goal of achieving the intent.


Or look at me writing this book.  I have to decide on the words I use, the font and size of the type.  I have to decide! No one else decides!  No one is controlling me!  I have total control over each letter, each word, and each picture.  I’m responsible for my encoding.


But, and this is important, my choices are based on what I think of you.  If I know you only read French, then writing in English will be useless.  If I know you are blind, then I know you cannot see the words or pictures and I have to encode the message I want in other ways.


When I encode a message, I’m thinking what do I want to accomplish and how best to construct a message to get what I want.


So the fundamental question when I construct a message is how well can the message I send correspond to the message you will receive.


Conscious/Unconscious and Intended/Unintended Encoding

There are two broad categories of encoding going on all the time: 1) Conscious/Unconscious, and 2) Intended/Unintended.



Conscious encoding is what I intend to do.  The actual words I pick are conscious.  When I call someone I consciously chose to use the telephone as opposed to sending a text or email.


Unconscious encoding could be completely unavoidable.  Like when you blush or cry.


In some situation there is more conscious encoding, for example writing an email.  In other situations there is more unconscious, like perhaps dating.  In either case, the more you are aware that both are going on, the more you will be able to construct a message that best achieves your intent.



While, you have a lot of control over how you encode a message, you have no control over how others decode the message.  This is why communication often yields unintended consequences.


You need to remember that others only see your actions, they can never truly know your intent.


Let’s say you buy a new car.  Your intent was to get a nice car.  But someone sees your new car and thinks you’re pretentious.  Your intent was just to get a nice car.  You didn’t intend for people to think you pretentious.  But you have no control over that.




Essentially this is listening and seeing.  My favorite quote is


“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”[99]


Again this is the whole discussion of how the brain functions becomes actionable.  The more you understand how the brain processes communication the better you will be at encoding messages that achieve the intent.


When we perceive a stimulus (communication) our senses translates that stimulus into electrical signals that are sent on to the brain for processing.  The first and most important part of that process is to decode those electrical signals into something the brain can process.


But, as I talked about earlier the decoding process is full of potential errors.



Relationship between sender and receiver – Context

The context of communication is very important.  What works perfectly well in one situation may not work well in another.


While there are often communication events that are a straightforward onetime event, like when I order food at a restaurant, most important communication events have no beginning or end.  Communication is a process where every interaction, both positive and negative, builds on a previous interaction.  Those all the previous communication events creates a “context” for current communication events.


It’s often assumed that the better the communication skills of the source and the receiver, the more effectively the message, because the assumption is that they will be encoded and decoded messages better.  The thinking is that smart people communicate better because they can encode and decode messages better.  While there may be some fundamental truth to this, I tend to think that there is more to it than that.  I think it also about the relationship between the parties.  There is even research that suggests that, “We cannot predict the success of the source from her skill level alone”[100].


In some cultures talking about the weather is more important than giving information.  It’s a way of maintaining relationships.  So asking about someone’s health is critical to building relationships.


I could probably write a whole book on this subject.  But, let me use just one example of “context” in communication.  Let me use a teacher/student relationship.  There an imbalance of power that has considerable influence on the way a teacher and student communicate. Even if the teacher appears open to criticism, the student is likely to be wary of being critical of the teaching.[101]  The context of teacher/student is important to understand in order to have effective communication.



—  Channel or Medium

Marshal McLuhan said “The Medium is the Message.[102]”  As you try to figure out how to get what you want, you have to decide how to encode your message and you have to decide what channel you will use.  Will you call, text, email, or walk over to someone’s desk.   The choice makes a difference.  There are obvious differences in the features of different media, which make them more or less appropriate for getting what you want.


At work, if I want to ask for help on a particular project, I can walk over to someone’s desk, I can send an email, or I can use the phone.  Since picking a communication channel is up to the encoder of the message, understanding how the different channels work is critical to encoding the most effective messages.


There are many ways to talk about channels.  I could talk about channels by talking about mediated and non-mediated channels.  And if I talk about mediated channels I could talk about the different channels like email, or phone, or video conference, or texting.


Or I could talk about channels by talking the different channels by talking about the different senses, sight, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting.


Or I could talk about channels in terms of verbal and non-verbal.  Or even, going back to the discussion on Social Intelligence, I can talk about emotional channels.


I talked about mediated and non-mediated and our different senses earlier in this chapter.  Now I want to talk about Nonverbal.



—  Nonverbal Behaviors of Communication

Here are some classic examples of nonverbal:

Eye contact

Facial Expressions


Posture and body orientation

Proximity – how close to another you are

Vocal tones/Rhythm/pitch/volume/accent



One classic study that I learned about in college was by a Mehrabian[103] where he said that 93% of all communication was nonverbal.  I personally think that his study can only be used in a very narrow context, yet you hear it repeated all the time.  So, I thought I would repeat it too.


Mehribian performed very detailed research and found that communication is composed of:

55% of the content from the visual component

38% from the auditory component

7% from language


My experience would suggest that the above percentages apply only to a very limited number of situations.  In fact here is an interesting thought exercise that was first posed to me when I was an undergraduate.  From a communication perspective, who is at a greater disadvantage: someone that cannot see or someone that cannot hear?  If you believe Mehribian then someone that cannot see is at a greater disadvantage because 55% of all communication is visual.  But, I can think of a number of blind musicians, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles to name just two, but I can only think of Beethoven as a deaf musician (and he was not born deaf).  Thus, I question Mehribian’s findings.   But then again, a deaf person can drive a car, but a blind person cannot.


My take away from all this is that while it’s absolutely true that communicators derive information from visual, tonal, and verbal cues; the percentages used for each one can vary greatly depending upon a number of other factors; actions, context of the communication, and how well they know that person.



—  Feedback

You could not drive a car without feedback – think about all the little adjustments you make to keep the car going where you want it to go at the speed you want.  We make those adjustments because of the feedback we get from the car and the road.  Think how you break for a red light.  The amount of pressure you put on the breaks is a result of feedback you get as to how well you are stopping.


Just as you cannot drive without feedback, you cannot communicate without feedback.  Think of the difference between a “speech” and an “interaction.”  A “speech” implies all the stimulus is coming from the speaker.  A speech could be recorded and broadcast.  In that case the speaker gets no feedback.  Interaction however implies stimulus is coming from both the speaker and the listener.


Communication implies interaction not a speech.  Communication is a journey mapped out by feedback.  Communication is like driving a car where you have someplace to go, and you use feedback to help you get there.


Remember my model of communication?




Feedback is how the parties know if they are getting closer to the goal.  Communication is like a continuous game of “Marco Polo.”[104]


Feedback is vital to communication.  How many times has this happened to you?  You’re talking on the phone and after a while, you or the other person says, “Are you there?”  They were looking for feedback.  They were looking for an occasional “mmmm” or “aaah” or “yes, I understand.”  Without this feedback communication is very difficult.


This now goes back to the discussion of “bandwidth” and “mediated/non-mediated communication.”  We get the most feedback in face-to-face communication because we have the highest bandwidth and it’s non-mediated.  When I say highest bandwidth I mean that we can get all the nonverbal channels, sight, sound and smell.  You can see head nods, smiles, changes in posture, etc.


Feedback on a mass scale is usually in the form of surveys, public opinion polls, student evaluations, employee comments, and so on.


I read a study once, that scores plummeted when the sound was turned off on some computer games.  The thinking is that the sound provided important feedback.  And we know that tactile feedback is important in keyboards.  I could not find the study that proves this, but it sound reasonable.[105]


Feedback is defined by Norbert Wiener, often referred to as the father of “Cybernetis,” as, “In its simplest form the feedback principle means that a behavior is tested with reference to its result and success or failure of this result influences the future behavior.”[106]


A good way to understand how feedback works in human communication is to study a poker game.  Poker requires a lot of feedback.  And a live game with everyone sitting around a table provides a lot more feedback than online poker.


There are 2 aspects to feedback; 1) conscious vs. unconscious, and 2) feedback intended to help the parties achieve the stated goal vs. feedback intended to mislead the parties.



Helpful feedback vs. intentionally misleading feedback

Carl Rogers listed five main categories of feedback. [107] They are listed in the order in which they occur most frequently in daily conversations. Notice that we make judgments more often than we try to understand:

Evaluative: Making a judgment about the worth, goodness, or appropriateness of the other person’s statement.

Interpretive: Paraphrasing – attempting to explain what the other person’s statement means.

Supportive: Attempting to assist or bolster the other communicator.

Probing: Attempting to gain additional information, continue the discussion, or clarify a point.

Understanding: Attempting to discover completely what the other communicator means by her statements.




I could spend a lot more time talking about these fundamental actionable elements of communication.  But hopefully you get my point.  The more you understand these fundamental elements the more you can use them for your benefit.


Barriers to effective communication/Barriers to getting what you want.

When I first wrote this section I wrote, “Barriers to communication.”  Then I tried to figure out what was actionable about this section.  I asked myself, “Self, what are you trying to say here?”  I then changed the section title to, “Barriers to getting what you want!”  Then I changed it back.  Then I decided to use both titles.


Here is why I’m not sure what to call this section.  As I have said all along the purpose of communication is to achieve some intent.  You want something that you cannot get on your own, so you communicate.   If there are barriers to communication then there are barriers to getting what you want.  So any barrier to communication is a barrier to getting what you want.  Hopefully this makes sense.


What’s actionable in this section is that if you know the barriers to something you can figure out a way to get around them.  If you know the barriers you can develop a plan to avoid them.  If you know the barriers you can work on skills to overcome them.  I have sixty year old eyes, which means I cannot see close up.  I know I have this barrier so I have reading glasses to help me.  I also forget things.  I know that’s a barrier, so I have reading glasses in every car and every room of the house , in my workshop and in my desk at the office.  So knowing I need glasses and knowing I forget things, I have developed a strategy to overcome the barrier; I leave reading glasses everywhere I might need them so I’ll always have them to read.


(I’m going to talk about this more in Chapter 5 when I talk about decision making.  But, if you don’t mind, I want to point something else out about my decision to leave reading glasses everywhere I might need them.  Notice that I made the decision that being able to read is more important than the cost of having reading glasses everywhere.  If the cost of a pair of reading glass was a $1,000.  I would not have them everywhere.  But since the cost is only about $10, and I have old pairs laying around, why not just distribute reading glasses everywhere.)


Barriers to effective communication are things that get in the way of good communication.  It would actually be practically impossible to achieve communication at all, let alone good communication, without a good understanding of the barriers to effective communication.  I find it interesting that these barriers are often overlooked when trying to communicate.  Yet, these barriers have a tremendous affect on our view of the communication, our view of the other people we are communicating with, and even our view of our own communication competence.


A term we often use to describe the barriers to effective communication is “Noise.”  You will notice that Noise is not a stated part of my definition of communication, “Communication is the process by which people exchange information to achieve some purpose.”  However, Noise is an integral part of the whole.


I define Noise as anything that interferes with the intended communication.  Sometimes noise is limited to only one communication element.  For example, if one person is tired their decoding and encoding process will be less effective than normal.  Or for example, if you are in a crowed bar with very loud music playing, the channel would be less than optimal.  However, most often Noise is in every element and action.  And the better you are at understanding what the noise barrier is, the better you will be at overcoming that barrier.


It might not be an exaggeration to say that the heart of finding ways to improve our communication is to find ways of first recognizing and then overcoming the barriers to effective communication. Understanding the barriers to effective communication is so important that I’ll spend a whole section on it.


In practice, much can happen to cause problems during communication.  MUCH!.  My experience is that on average there is more wrong with communication than right.  Some situations require that communication be as effective as possible, like air traffic controller, hospital operating rooms, and military operations.  As a result, air traffic controllers, surgeons, and the military spend a lot of time working on communication to make sure there are no problems.


There are three broad categories of barriers:

Barriers that are a normal part of communication, can be predicted and occur with almost every communication event.

Barriers that are a normal part of communication but cannot be predicted.  They occur often but not in every communication.

Barriers that are not normal, cannot be predicted and happen only rarely.  These are the hardest to prepare for because they happen so rarely.



Barriers that are normal and can be predicted

There are too many to mention here but let me go over a few so you know what I’m thinking.

Distancesomeone is too far away for a face-to-face conversationMove closer, use some mediated form like phone, email, letter, text
TimeWhen you want to talk to someone laterLeave instructions.
Too much Ambient noiseLike in a bar or a concertYell, text,
Channel OverloadToo many people trying to talk at one timeWait your turn.  Find another channel
Sender/Receiver MismatchWhen the sender and receiver do not speak the same language, are from different social classes, cultural backgrounds, experiences, have different attitudes, beliefs or a whole range of other factors.One or the other learns the others language or get a translator.




Barriers that are normal but cannot be predicted

Receiver does not hearThe person you are talking to cannot hear you for some reasonFind another channel, perhaps use text or email
Receiver does not seeThe person you are talking to cannot seeUse the phone or talk to them.
The person you are talking to is busyThe person is driving a car or talking to someone else at the timeWait until they are available
The person you are talking to thinks they understand, but does not understandThe person you are talking to thinks they understand your language but they don’t reallyFind a translator



Barriers that are not normal, Cannot be predicted, and happens only rarely

Someone in the communication is sickNormally the person is able to communicate at some level.  But when they are sick they cannot communicate well.Wait until they are well or accommodate their illness
The technology the person normally uses to communicate is brokenTheir computer or cellphone is lost or stolen or the network is down.Wait until they are back online


Having said all this, there is another way to look at barriers:


This area encompasses a whole range of different areas.  But have to do with the things I talked about earlier.

They have to do with individuals ability to encode and decode communication effectively

Here I am talking about some normal, sub-normal, and super-normal communications capabilities.


a loud motorbike roaring down the road while you’re trying to hold a conversation

your little brother standing in front of the TV set

mist on the inside of the car windscreen

smudges on a printed page

‘snow’ on a TV set

Bright Lights/Dim Lights

Generally speaking, in this kind of everyday communication, we’re fairly good at avoiding physical noise: we shout when the motorbike goes past; you clout your little brother; cars have demisters.


This is the most difficult to describe, and I somewhat hesitate to actually go into it.  But from an Academic standpoint it’s a very descriptive concept.

Semantic barriers have to do specifically with language and codes.  Using the same language and the same codes enhances communication.  Semantic differences hinders effective communication



Your chances of achieving effective communication are enhanced to the extent both you and the people you’re communicating with agree on all the elements of the communication and work together to overcome the barriers to effective communication.



Communication Skills used to Overcome Barriers

Now that I’ve described the natural laws of communications and provided an overview of some of the key barriers to good communication, it’s time to focus on what is actionable for you at this point.  It’s time to start developing useful tools to become a great communicator.


Just as great athletes constantly work on their skills, so too do great communicators constantly work on their communication skills. The same way someone becomes skilled at tennis, football, bowling, or golf, they become skilled at communication.


Earlier I presented the “Actionable Communication Elements”







I’ll use these actionable elements as the structure to present the skills you need to work on to become a great communicator.


It should come as no surprise that the first and most important skill you need to work on is your intent skills.


Every time you open your mouth you should ask yourself, “what am I trying to accomplish.”  Every time you make a decision you need to ask yourself, “what am I trying to accomplish.”  The more difficult the result you are trying to achieve the more important it is to have a clear and well thought out idea of what you are trying to accomplish.



—  Intent Skills

The first and most important skill required for effective communication is to clearly establish the intent of the communication.


We may want to get directions, or solve a problem, or sell something.  We may want to get someone to do something for us or for themselves.  Perhaps your goal to teach or is the goal to learn.[109]  Whatever it is, the clearer the goals the greater the likelihood of success.


I’ve said this many times before, but it bears repeating here; The more for in harmony everyone is with the goals the greater the likelihood of success.


Here are my suggestion for Intent Skills

Think honestly about what you want to say before you say it.

Before you write an email, ask yourself what do I want to happen as a result of writing this email.

Prepare for Meetings by setting clear objectives.

Every meeting should have a written statement about meeting objectives.

If you are not sure of your intent, ask questions.

There is a difference between debate and asking questions.

Decide if you are providing directions or asking for directions.

Are you teaching or learning

Are you advocating or inquiring

Develop Better Inquiry Skills

Use the word “Interesting” when you disagree or want further information.  And try to mean it.

Don’t disagree with the person you are getting information from unless they say something you know is absolutely wrong and takes you down a path you know is wrong.

Make sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute.

Ask for elaboration

Be willing to change your Intent

If you cannot get what you want, think of something else that you may want.

Make an “Intent” map

What information am I using to get to this intent

What information might I be missing

If I looked at the information differently what it result in a different outcome.

Have I understood the information correctly.

Become Curious

Offer your reasoning behind your intent

Ask the others for their reasoning

Do your homework before you decide on your intent

Be Honest

Don’t spin

Confront the facts – Remember the Stockdale Paradox; “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.  And at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”



—  Encoding/decoding Skills

Encoding and decoding are critical to effective communication.  How you construct your messages and how you understand someone else’s message is primary for getting what you want.




Speak clearly

Vary your rhythm, tempo, volume

Take public speaking classes

Do not dominate the conversation.  Allow others opportunities to speak.

I messages vs. you messages.

Don’t Argue

Know your Audience – Do not underestimate them.



Grammar and Sentence Structure


Understand the appropriate codes/cultures

I recently went to a class to learn about Japanese culture.  So I would be a better communicator


It’s important to note that communication skills go beyond the words we use (linguistic code).[110]  They also go to our physical behavior.  You might go into a restaurant and order a meal, but your non-verbal behavior greatly affects you ability to achieve your intent.  Things like etiquette, dress, gestures, and so on are part of the message.  You can go into a French restaurant and speak perfect French, but if you don’t understand the appropriate etiquette to apply, you may not get what you want.



Multitasking – Checking your phone while someone is talking.

Spend as much or more time listening than talking.  Use a mental stopwatch to keep track.

Do not finish others sentences.  Wait for them to finish.

Ask questions.


Read everything.

Be aware of your biases

Understand Non-Verbal

Understand Difficult People.

The Know-It-Alls
They are arrogant and usually have an opinion on any issue. When they are wrong, they get defensive.

The Passives
These people never offer ideas or let you know where they stand

The Dictators
They bully and intimidate. They’re constantly demanding and brutally critical.

The Complainers
Is anything ever right with them? They prefer complaining to finding solutions.

The “Yes” People
They agree to any commitment, yet rarely deliver. You can’t trust them to follow through.

The “No” People
They are quick to point out why something won’t work. Worse, they are inflexible.


Both Encoding and Decoding


I remember reading once that Eskimos  have 7 words for snow, whereas Jamaicans have just one word.  This difference affects the way we see the world.  An Eskimo can look at snow and have easy ways to describe the difference between a wet snow and a draw snow.  A Jamaican might see snow and independent of the type of snow, just call it snow.  Your experience of the world is a function of the words we use.[111]





The “No Arguing” Skill

In his blog, Peter Bregman, wrote that “Arguing is Pointless.”[112]  His point is excellent.


He says:


“When I think back to just about every argument I’ve ever participated in — political arguments, religious arguments, arguments with Eleanor or with my children or my parents or my employees, arguments about the news or about a business idea or about an article or a way of doing something — in the end, each person leaves the argument feeling, in many cases more strongly than before, that he or she was right to begin with.


How likely is it that you will change your position in the middle of fighting for it? Or accept someone else’s perspective when they’re trying to hit you over the head with it?


Arguing achieves a predictable outcome: it solidifies each person’s stance. Which, of course, is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve with the argument in the first place. It also wastes time and deteriorates relationships. “


One of the great communication skills to master is to not argue!  The key here is to think about what your intent of the argument is.  If you are trying to change someone’s mind about something, you need to first understand what they think and why they think it.  And you need to believe that you can change their mind, which, if you think about the last time you changed your mind about something, you know how hard it is to change someone’s mind.


Instead of arguing, listening is the great skill to use.  And listening to better understand them, not listening just to prove them wrong.  Listening has a lot of positive results.  It is probably the best communication skill to master.


When you find yourself in an argument, step back, and follow these steps.

Ask yourself what is the Intent you are trying to achieve.

Ask the other person(s) what their intent is.

Figure out if it is simply a communication problem where you all want the same thing, but are just asking for it in different ways or is it a where people actually want different things.

Talk about finding a mutual goal.



—  Channel Skills

Learn to pick the right channel.  Know when email is better than a phone call and when face-to-face is appropriate.


E-mail is great for conveying information, but don’t use it for emotional issues; e-mail messages are too easy to misconstrue. If you’re squirming while reading an e-mail, leave your computer and deal with the situation in person or by telephone.


At the same time, phone calls and face-to-face meetings are inefficient ways to disseminate information, but great for discussing nuanced issues. You can respond directly to the listener’s reaction, and you can use your tone of voice and facial expressions to control your message. “I’m sure you did a great job” could be read sarcastically in an e-mail, but the same words can be delivered sincerely in person with the right tone of voice.


Furthermore, some people are listeners, while others are readers. Listeners won’t focus on written memos but are great in conversation. Readers write great memos and are also glad to read them, but conversation sometimes fails to fully engage them. If you talk to a reader or write to a listener, your message might not get through. Don’t be afraid to ask people how they prefer to receive information; most people know the answer. If they don’t, a little attention on your part will reveal what works best. (And for some people, it’s a combination of the two.)


—  Feedback Skills

There are two types of feedback skills, giving feedback and receiving feedback.  To develop both those skills require that you develop all the other communication skills I’ve talked about.


I hope I don’t seem like a broken record but the most important thing to remember in improving feedback skills is to understand the intent of the feedback.  Here is my favorite example – feedback as constructive criticism.


How many times have you been on the receiving end of constructive criticism where it felt more like just negative feedback.  Daniel Goleman noted, “threats to our esteem in the eyes of others are so potent they can literally feel like threats to our very survival.


Unfortunately however, we need feedback to survive.  Feedback is how we make the little adjustments in our life that we use to learn and grow.


Here are some important feedback skills to develop:

Understand that it is all about intent of the feedback.

Ask why are you giving the feedback

Ask why are you receiving the feedback.

Don’t give feedback when you are feeling bad or hurt.  The other person will sense it and become resistant, hurt, or even combative.

Understand that it is easy to miss-understand feedback.

Don’t assume you are right.  Think about your frame of reference and the reality that the person your proving feedback to has another frame.

Seek First to Understand[113]



—  Overcoming Noise Skills

Noise exists throughout the communication process.  Developing skills that specifically address the noise in communication is very helpful.


Use of multiple channels.

When you have to get in touch with someone, send them an email and give them a call

Use video/audio and text

Recognize that many people multitask

Try to make your message stand out

Focus in on the most important elements

Compensate for short attention spans



[1] I think many people during this period used letter writing a lot.  They couldn’t use email, or telephone, or skype, or get on a plane to make things happen.  They had to rely on letters.

[2] if you don’t you who Carlin is you missed someone truly special.  Some of his work even made it to the Supreme Court.   One of the funnies bits he does is on the difference between baseball and football.  You need to check it out if you’ve never heard it.

[3] I hate the concept of agreeing to disagree.  It’s a huge cop-out.

[4] Trimming the sails means how the sails on a sailboat are set.

[5]  Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal business school survey September 2007.

[6] It is amazing how I think of everything is like communication.

[7] I know this is very hard for some people because I have a real hard time not interrupting.  But it is worth the effort if you can do it.

[8] This is actually extremely important and I’ll spend a lot of time this later.

[9] Encoding/decoding are the processes we use to put our thoughts into words and actions and to understand the words and actions of others.

[10] “The Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, 1949.

[11] Page 1.

[12] Encarta

[13] Look at Shannon

[14] When I watch cooking shows I often hear them use terms like “binding agent” or “reduce down.”  I’ve no clue what that means, but I suspect it has to do with some natural laws of cooking.

[15] Bernoulli’s principle has to do with “lift” over a curved surface.

[16] Even though I worked for 33+ years in the telecommunications industry, I have always liked the human aspects.  In fact my focus in college was an area of study called Psyco-linguists.  George Lakoff is someone I like in this area.

[17] Machine to Machine (M2M) communication is now mostly a digital process, but we are not looking at M2M so this is not actionable for us.

[18] Notice my focus on “Intent!”  I’m trying to clearly articulate the reasonI’m telling you this.

[19] “Orders of Magnitue” is a business term to mean a great deal.  It is usually based on exponents like the power of 10.

[20] This goes to the point about goals.  What is the goal of wearing a watch?  Is it to tell exact time?  Do you need a stop watch because you’re a runner?  It is just a fashion statement?  Are you a scuba diver and need a diving watch?  The goal will determine what information you need.

[21] Those of you that are too young to member cassette tapes might want to ask a parent or grandparent.

[22] On a completely separate note, this ability to make exact copies is why copyright infringement has become a huge problem today versus in the old analog days.

[23] Notice the term “get the picture” is an example of analog.  And what you understand is not exactly what I’m trying to say.

[24] This analogy to highways will be used again when I talk about packets of information.

[25] This statement got be thinking.  They say 1 picture is worth a thousand words.  A picture is analog.  Analog can carry more information than digital in a given bandwidth.  But digital will be more precise.  In this example quantity is the opposite of precision.

[26] American Standard Code for Information Interchange

[27] Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code Pronounced “eb-suh-dick.”

[28] There is a great book about punctuation is a code called, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by

[29] Another word for code is “jargon.”

[30] This is actually an oversimplification.  In reality all communication is mediated.  It’s mediated by our biology of encoding and decoding messages.  But that nuance is not actionable for what I’m trying to say at this point.   Also, mediated communication is when you put another person in between the sender and receive, for example when you use a translator.  There are many sources of

[31] Pavlik and McIntosh, 2004, pg. 70


[33] Dogs marking their territory by leaving their sent would be an example of meditated communication.

[34] I don’t know if this is true or not, but it sounds true so I included it.  Let me know if you

[35] It would be an interesting discussion to look at how a letter based writing as opposed to a graphic based writing is different.  Going back to my discussion of Analog, Hieroglyphics are analogs.

[36] Notice I did not say invention of electricity.  Electricity was not invented.  Electricity exists.  We just developed ways to harness electricity.

[37] 186,000 miles a second

[38] This is a gross simplification of wireless development.  But it sounds good, so I’ll go with it for now.  There were a lot of other people and innovations involved than just Marconi, but hopefully you get my point.

[39] I’m not ignoring the information capability of broadband networks here.  But for the sake of brevity I’ll leave that for another discussion.

[40] For those that might be too young to know about the Beach Boys they were a huge hit in the 60s and 70s.  One of the things that made them great was their harmonies.  And if you’re interested there are links between the Beach Boys and a “mass murderer” Charles Manson.

[41] While not necessarily waves, when someone shakes your hand you’re influenced by the pressure created by how strong or weak it is, when someone is lying next to you in bed you are influenced by his or her heat, and when someone doesn’t bathe or doesn’t have a pleasing perfume you are influenced by their smell.

[42] As a tangent as to why this is important is that I’ve come to believe that those that react better to stimuli succeed better.  Remember the 2 hunters and the bear story.  You don’t have to out run the bear, you just have to outrun your competition.

[43] Recognize that sometimes the processor is not in the brain but in other parts of the body.  But, it is not critical to my intent here so I’ll not go into it.

[44] The unconscious part is the perception of the pain and the reflex movement away from the pain.  The conscious part is seeing the pin, understanding how sharp it is, the intention of the person wielding the pin and based on all of that deciding to move away faster or hold your ground.

[45] Internal to a computer the network is often referred to as the “Bus.”

[46] What loss there is within the wire itself or through a connection can be measured and is consistent.

[47] There are other types of memory and processers that while functioning differently get at the same point.

[48] There are things that can affect a transistors functioning, temperature for example.  But those are known and predictable.

[49] There are actually 2 kinds of synapses, electrical and chemical.  An electrical synapse is a physical link between two neurons.  A chemical synapse uses chemicals, called neurotransmitters to connect one nerve cell to the other.  Electrical synapses conduct nerve impulses faster, but do not have “gain” like a chemical synapse.  Electrical synapses are usually found in systems that require faster responses, like defensive reflexes.  Chemical synapses are much more common and are the foundation of communication, perception, and thought.  .




[52] Not to be redundant but it’s important, notice that the cells do not touch

[53] When you exercise your body produces endorphins, probably to lessen the pain of pushing you body.  There is a great book called “Born to Run,” which describes how humans succeeded because we could run farther than the animals we were chasing.  Endorphins are probably the evolutionary event that allowed us to push our bodies in this way.  By the way, I personally experience endorphins when I run.  When I run I cannot think a bad thought probably because the endorphins.  It is what runners call the endorphin “high.”



[55] Remember the salad bar analogy I used in the preface.  Remember how I said that we never make the same salad twice.  Well this is the biological reason for that phenomenon.

[56] As a comparison, One dog, considered very smart, was reportedly able to recognize 200 words.

[57] Steven Pinker professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Center at MIT

[58] Discover September 2007, page 48 “The Discover Interview with Steven Pinker.

[59] Discover September 2007, page 48 “The Discover Interview with Steven Pinker.

[60] I talked about him in Chapter 1 when I talked about how our bodies resist change.  He’s the one that suggested our brains actually use the neurotransmitters to resist change.  I’m going to talk about him and his research again a bit later when I talk about how the brain filters out information it doesn’t like.


[62] I know “better” here is a relative term.  I just think most people would agree that harmonic music is better on average than non-harmonic music.

[63] I have a theory that the reason we are innovative and computers are not is because of this bio-chemical bath our brain works in.  Computers will add 2 + 2 the same every time it’s asked because the circuits are hard wired.  People on the other hand, can get tired, excited, enraged, which influences the mix of neurotransmitters in the brain, which then influences the way we figure things out.

[64] By the way this is true for different animal species as well.

[65] Plasticity refers to the ability of the neurons to change.  This is important as it relates to “learning.”

[66] These lesions were the result of either injury, or illness, or even surgical experimentation.

[67] Of course we can go back to our discussion of “nature vs. nurture” as too the question of how these structural differences are formed.  But that is for another time.

[68] I don’t know that this is true

[69] Brian Rules Web Site

[70] This again goes back to the salad bar analogy.  You need to know as much about yourself as possible so you can pick the right skills for you at that moment from the salad bar of skill choices.

[71] There is a whole area of management studies based on Myers-Briggs personally survey.  A good book on this subject is “Type Talk at Work.”

[72] I use the term Vibrate here loosely.  It is not vibration like a tuning fork.  It is like electictal impulses like a radio speaker.

[73] “Was there a moment midstride when horses had all hooves off the ground? Leland Stanford, the railroad baron and future university founder, bet there was—or at least that’s the story. It was 1872 when Stanford hired noted landscape photographer Eadweard Muybridge to figure it out. It took years, but Muybridge delivered: He rigged a racetrack with a dozen strings that triggered 12 cameras. Muybridge not only proved Stanford right but also set off the revolution in motion photography that would become movies.”

[74] Influence of the thalamus on spatial visual processing in frontal cortex, Marc A. Sommer & Robert H. Wurtz


[75] 20/20 means that you can see clearly at 20 feet what most people see at 20 feet.  If you have 20/100 vision, you see at 20 feet what most people see at 100 feet.  So that would be sub-normal.  However, one could also have 20/10 vision, meaning you see at 20 feet what most people see at 10 feet.  That would be super-normal vision.


[76] Metaphore and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf, 1991, George Lakoff

[77] Herbert Simon

[78] Berkeley Linguistics Professor

[79] Emory Professor


[81] Page 9 Social Intelligence


[83] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence Books.

[84] Page 4, Social Intelligence

[85] There is a tremendous amount of observable, anecdotal, and experimental evidence supporting this conclusion Perhaps a list of such research would be helpful here

[86] Pinker, 1997

[87] Caroline Bartel at New York University and Richard Saavedra at the University of Michigan studied 70 work groups

[88] Goldman Page 4

[89] This is based on a discussion of our limbic system’s open-loop design.

[90] Bartel, C., & Saavedra, R. (2000). The collective construction of work group moods. Administrative Science Quarterly,45, 197-231.

[92] There is actually is a whole are of research to support this.

[93] Shannon, C. E. A Mathematical Theory of Communication The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 27, pp. 379-423, 623-656, July, October, 1948.


[94] See Appendix X for a discussion of Berlo.

[95] Berlo, Shannon-Weaver

[96] I’m starting to see a trend that many of my examples revolve around food.  I wonder what that means?

[97] In fact, if you think about it, I really didn’t even need to talk to a person at all.  I could have done the whole communication talking to a computer.


[98] I’m very interested in compiling a list of examples of those communication events that do not require an “intent.”  I can’t think of any.  Perhaps you can send me some examples.

[99] Robert McCloskey an American author and illustrator of children’s books.

[100] Berlo 1960

[101] Probably because the student wants a good grade and they think that if they disagree with the teacher they would not get you a good grade.  Or because they have been trained to respect authority and not disagree with teachers.

[102] The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, 1967, New York:Bantam.  This was required reading in the 60s.

[103] Mehrabian and Ferris (1967)

[104] You remember the game Marco Polo in a pool don’t you?

[105] This is a good example of filling in the gaps.  I heard something, it sounded reasonable, so I remembered it and use it.  It may not be true.  The study could have been wrong.  There may be other evidence to suggest that it is not true.  Yet I take it as true.

[106] Wiener 1958: 55


[108] I use the term Semantic to encompass the entire field of Semiotics.  This is best said by Singh, “Syntax deals with the structure of symbols, semantics with their meanings, and pragmatics with their contexts of usage. These terms were picked up by the early logicians and computer scientists and, especially the first two, are frequently the objects of attention in computer science.” Munindar P. Singh

[109] This is why I had a whole chapter on Setting Goals and it goes back to the Chapter on Learning

[110] Semantic, syntactic ???

[111] see the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the section on semiotics


[113] Steven Covey