Semantic sensitivities, dictionary definitions, and effective communication

Wherever conversations happen,  there will always be an element of indeterminacy that makes it possible for people to hear more or less than what is actually said.

How well of a job one can perform at explaining and defending the meanings behind their words will not change that fact.

Words have meanings, yet their impact extends far beyond the boundary of their dictionary dictated denotations.

Language is processed not only according to the content it’s meant to convey, but also according to the sensitivities and sensibilities of the listener.

What an individual says, as far as his audience is concerned, is a mixture of both what is uttered and what is understood.

How wide the gap is between those two elements varies from person to person.

Effective communication not only involves learning how to clearly and compellingly say what we wish to say, but it also demands that we improve our ability to appreciate the plethora of ways in which different hearers hear.

Being precise and persuasive is not the automatic outcome of being articulate; it’s the combination of how aware we are of how others hear us, how open we are to the idea that there’s no single correct way to hear, and how willing we are to make adaptations when the way we’re being heard isn’t working for us.

8 thoughts on “Semantic sensitivities, dictionary definitions, and effective communication

  1. On second thought P.S. re: “What an individual says, as far as his audience is concerned, is a mixture of both what is uttered and what is understood.”

    Not in my view. I would suggest that: from the audience’s perspective, they only get what they understand, which is filtered through their experience and perspective. What they “hear” may be totally different that what the speaker intends to “communicate.” Communication happens when the experience, intention and content of the the speaker and intersect/overlap with the experience, intention and desire to understand of the audience. Actually, what is said is pretty much irrelevant to the audience. They care only about what they understand. The speaker is much more invested in her content than the audience is…

    1. Not in my view. I would suggest that: from the audience’s perspective, they only get what they understand, which is filtered through their experience and perspective. What they “hear” may be totally different that what the speaker intends to “communicate.” Communication happens when the experience, intention and content of the the speaker and intersect/overlap with the experience, intention and desire to understand of the audience.

      You’re absolutely correct here on your theory regarding what takes place when people listen, but the utterances of the speaker are an indispensable component in the listener’s filtering process. In other words, what is the listener processing if not the words of the speaker? Even when a speaker is grossly misunderstood by a listener, that misunderstanding is the partial outcome of how the listener reacts to the speaker’s words. If there is no speaker, there is no listener. If no utterances are made, there is nothing to understand or misunderstand. The combination of utterance and understanding is inseparable when two parties converse.

      Actually, what is said is pretty much irrelevant to the audience. They care only about what they understand.

      The audience might care MOSTLY or PRIMARILY about what they understand, but not ONLY about what they understand. If that were true, the speaker’s specific word choices would be relatively inconsequential and that is almost never the case when two parties communicate. When we observe the way people react in conversation, we find that they respond to different utterances in different ways. Observe how a group of minorities react when someone utters a racial slur or consider how a group of women react when someone utters a sexist remark. The actual utterances of the speaker mean an awful lot to the audience even if their interpretation of the speaker’s words are biased, skewed, or heavily filtered. Surely, a different set of word choices would have produced a different outcome. A better example would be the conversation we are having right now. Although your viewpoints are based on your own “experience, intention and desire to understand”, your comments are significantly influenced by my utterances. What I said in this blog post was far from irrelevant to you. If it was, why are we talking about communication instead of basketball? We’re talking about communication instead of basketball because I didn’t make any basketball related references for you to react to. It is true, however, that listening is a very difficult thing to do and I don’t claim to be an example of one who does it well. And it is definitely true that most listeners are far more entangled with their own inner monologue than they are in what a speaker is saying. Nevertheless, it’s always a two-way street even if one party chooses to mostly drive in only one direction.

      The speaker is much more invested in her content than the audience is…

      I can’t argue with that.

      While I am totally okay with disagreement, I don’t think we’re really disagreeing here. I suspect we might be echoing compatible sentiments with different semantics. But if I’m misunderstanding your perspective here, don’t hesitate to let me know.

      Feel free to kick the conversational ball right back at me. I enjoy this kind of dialogue as long as we can agree to “shed more light than heat.”

  2. Perhaps Susan is correct in that, sometimes, a speaker may be misunderstood
    by an audience member—in part or whole. In the give and take of many of these scenarios, it could be cleared up with further communication. With
    willing participants.

    However, what may be harder to measure is the emotional reaction/s which
    are involved in the speaker and listener interaction. Many times it is a very
    appropriate emotional reaction, given the intent to engage with intellectual guidelines to monitor the emotions. Sometimes there can be emotional reactions that lead to misinterpretations and/or incorrect emphases to the subject matter.

    We’ve probably all experienced an (even) non-controversial comment made
    where the listener (over)reacts angrily. What is that person reacting to?
    Something that was said? Or something in that person that is from prior past
    experience/s and acting in the present without permission?

    Similarly a person could overreact positively to a very mediocre statement
    that doesn’t require such a strong response.

    A doctor could have an X-ray of a patient with a terminal illness. The doctor
    may feel less emotionally affected. The patient may feel very saddened and
    frightened. The patient’s wife may feel angry and helpless at the diagnosis.
    A scientist may be excited because this is a link to a cure in research he has been investigating for years. The clerk who files each patient’s folder
    away may feel indifference.

    The same X-ray but varied responses dependent on the context of the various
    individuals emotionally. What if the wife was happy and the patient relieved and the doctor so overcome he couldn’t deal with the diagnosis?

    So it would seem, among other obvious purposes, that our thinking should be
    monitoring our emotional states. And helping us to process what we’re hearing.

    (I hope this post doesn’t show up all chopped up. Not sure why mine are
    doing that.)

    1. Your post shows up fine on my end, Alana.

      You wrote:

      “Perhaps Susan is correct in that, sometimes, a speaker may be misunderstood by an audience member—in part or whole.”

      I wholeheartedly agree. This is why I don’t think Susan and I disagree. But maybe we do disagree and I’m failing to understand. That’s entirely possible. I think she totally nailed it when she described what takes place when people listen. Like Susan, I reject oversimplified either/or attempts to explain the complex dynamic involved in communication.

      My attempted point, which paradoxically I don’t think I successfully communicated at all, was that neither the speaker nor the listener has a total monopoly on how words are understood—that when two parties communicate, both parties, not just one versus the other, have a causal effect on the outcome of that exchange.

      The observations you make about emotions is dead on. I could certainly use more knowledge and experience in the area of navigating the terrain you describe.

      1. “when two parties communicate, both parties, not just one versus the other, have a causal effect on the outcome of that exchange.”

        Yes, both parties play a part – communication is a “two-way street.”

        It might me useful to share the fact that I have worked as a public speaking/presentation skills coach for about 20 years and my experience as such heavily influences my thoughts on communicating. Most speakers start thinking about their content from the perspective of what they want to say. However, in my view, it’s much more effective to begin thinking about building a speech/presentation by focusing on what the audience wants to and/or is able to hear (i.e. start from where they are and bring you to where you want them to be). I think the same applies with most oral communication. Writing is perhaps different…

      2. Very, very good: “It’s much more effective to begin thinking about building
        a speech/presentation by focusing on what the audience wants to and/or is
        able to hear (i.e. start from where they are and bring you to where you want
        them to be.”) Rather than “Starting with the content.”

        And that “oral communication may be different from writing.”

        T.K.’s point that “neither the speaker nor the listener has a total monopoly on
        how words are understood” will be easier to clarify, starting with “focusing on
        the audience. ”

        As for T.K.’s comment: “And it is definitely true that most listeners are far
        more entangled with their own inner monologue than they are in what a
        speaker is saying.” I think it becomes vital that the listener distinguish the
        inner from the outer dialogue. That the speaker be aware of this, and if
        necessary, and possible, address it when it becomes the stumbling block
        to the content.

        I attended a lecture where an audience member (whom I knew and is a
        decent guy) reacted angrily to a moderate comment made by the speaker.
        The speaker, very calmly and gently, asked him why he was angry and this
        guy didn’t realize he was and then didn’t know why he was. That’s when the
        speaker suggested he may be reacting to something else from his past,
        operating without his permission. in the present. (The inner monologue.)
        The speaker let that sink in for just a moment then carried on with his talk.
        A galvanizing moment, because as well as an interesting speech, was this
        added dimension. 20 years ago and many of us still remember this fondly.
        (Including the (once) angry guy.)

        This is a learned skill, I believe, more easily accomplished by starting with the audience first. Which I think we’re all trying to do here.

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