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Matt Wilcox


Aug 28th 2014

Effective communication and generalisations

Good communication is all about increasing empathy and removing ego.

TL:DR; If you're doing the talking, it's likely that you'll most effectively get your message across by talking in a manner most suitable for your audience to understand. If you're doing the listening, you'll do well to pause and try to understand the speakers intent, and not just react to how you initially heard it.

Communication is hard

No doubt about it, communicating what you mean is hard. People are complex, we're the product of everything that's happened to us in our lives. In my case, it's taken 33 years of non-stop experience to get to my current cognitive understanding of the world, everything in it, and everything about it. Everything that's happened to me has shaped that understanding. It is my understanding, the only one I have. Just like everyone's is their own personal understanding, the only one they have. Everyone's understanding is based on their life experiences, and everyone's life experiences are unique.

Communication is the act of trying to transfer your state of mind in its entirety to someone else, so they understand what you are thinking. It can never happen, inevitably we must cut out huge swaths of subtlety. Instead we have to rely on a 'common ground' in order to communicate effectively, and part of communicating is trying to guess what that common ground is.

Even when we've done that (a risky prospect involving much guesswork and intuition), the tools we have to do our communicating are limited; we have words which, unless they're naming a physical object, are just tiny encapsulations of otherwise abstract concepts. The concepts and definitions of words aren't always commonly agreed between speaker and listener. The way they're combined changes perceived meaning – if you're the listener the perceived meaning can even be changed simply by who is saying the words, because our assumption of the common ground changes, our assumptions about the speaker's intent changes, the context changes even if the words don't.

We have pitch of voice and body language to help communicate emotionality, and these can be essential as they are usually less easy to misrepresent or be misunderstood – but they're also much more nebulous; they don't communicate anything specific.

And sometimes we're reading written words, so we have nothing to rely on other than those highly-compressed series of simplified abstractions. Written word is devoid of all of those other ques we otherwise use to help understand the intent behind them.

Generalisations are particularly problematic

I've written about generalisations before, quite a long time ago. The gist to me is that they are a useful (essential) tool for thinking about groups. You can't think about groups without generalising. However, the moment an individual is being addressed, generalisations can't be relied on, they become a risky proposition for effective communication unless carefully handled. While it's safe to argue that 'women in tech are underpaid compared to men' that can not then be relied on as directly applicable to any individual, or even any specific company. I'd argue that most of us know that's how it works – but not everyone does.

Here's something I believe to be an important realisation (certainly it's one I feel has helped my ability to communicate); even if you're addressing a group, and you're talking about generalisations… every person that hears it is hearing it as an individual. So it's vitally important that what they understand is that you're not talking about them specifically, or any person specifically. Because you aren't. But it's so easy to hear 'women in tech' and then as a listener make the obvious intuitive connection 'I am a woman in tech, logically that means this speaker believes this applies to me'.

It's a wrong conclusion, but it's natural to make. And as soon as it's made the natural reaction is to introspect (rather than keep the speaker's context), and very likely object as soon as its realised the generalisation being made doesn't apply to the individual hearing it. This leads to the "Not All X" argument; 'Not all men! Not all blacks! Not all disabled people!". It's true, 'not all X', but it's also missing the point. The conversation has been de-railed, the communication has been ineffective.

This is why I'm wary of talking in generalisations, and try to make it 'less personal' when I do by saying things such as "the trend for women in tech is" rather than "women in tech". One can be heard as an absolute, the other is more likely to be understood as conditional. One is more likely to keep the conversation on track than the other.

The responsibility of participants

So, given the above scenario, lets assume both sides realise the communication has gone awry. Both participants have a perfect understanding of their own intent, circumstances, and meaning, and an imperfect understanding of the others… well, it's easy to believe the other person is misspeaking/mishearing then!

Except that such thinking doesn't help anyone. It doesn't fix anything, it just assigns blame.

There are two things any individual can do to help facilitate clearer communication:

  • Find ways to express your ideas in terms and frames that the other person can more properly understand.
  • Listen carefully and question your initial reactions; what else might the speaker be intending to convey?

If the other person isn't 'getting it' there are two options: blame them for the problem and abandon the attempt to communicate until they're able to "see where you're coming from", or take ownership of your communication and figure out how that person's mental model differs from yours, in order to re-frame your concepts.

In conclusion

Good communication is all about increasing empathy and removing ego. The better you can empathise the higher your ability to present your message effectively, the more you can let go of ego the less clouded your understanding will be.

Abandoning a conversation isn't necessarily a bad thing either. Some people are deliberately facetious, other people may just not share enough of your life experience to be able to "get it". A conversation where the participants can't establish common understanding isn't wasted, nor is it an argument. It's just a part of communication that sometimes it doesn't work well.