[Communication is a lot like a game of telephone. Information needs to flow from your head to the the medium to the other person to the other person's head. As a result, there are lots of places where miscommunication can happen. Some actionable suggestions are given for how to do better.]

A simplified way I think about communication is with a multi-stage model, where the information flows from one step to the next, often becoming transformed along the way, sort of like the game of Telephone.

By “communication”, I mean to refer to the process by which an idea travels from one person’s head to another’s. When discussed in this manner, it is relevant to questions I have about pedagogy and the nature of media, i.e. how to teach things and how the vehicles we use to transmit information affect the process.

At each step, I will go over what happens to the information being presented.

Here is basic multi-stage example to start us off:

Ankit has a thought about the question of consciousness.
He writes it down into an essay and sends it to Beth.
Beth reads the essay and interprets the ideas in her head.
She excitedly explains them to Cai Yi.

If we track the development of the idea, as it goes through host to host, there are several natural places where the idea is stored:

  1. Your mind.
  2. The initial medium.
  3. Primary receiver’s mind.
  4. Primary receiver’s medium.
  5. Secondary receiver’s mind.
  6. and so on

I think it is easier to think of each stage as a place where the idea lives, and potential changes to the idea happen as it transitions from stage to stage.

Let’s dive into the stages:

Your Mind:
This is the initial place where the idea is generated. Oftentimes, the generative factors for your idea, i.e. the things that caused you to think about it in the first place, might not be explicit. They might instead be aliefs, experiences, or emotional responses. More verbal or explicit models, of course, can also play a role. And while you can trust yourself to have some sort of underlying reasoning, the base justifications aren’t always available.

Inside your own head, you also have immediate access to a lot of different trails of thought. A big benefit is being able to quickly pick up a combination of very disparate types of internal objects and composing them to bolster your initial idea. This immediacy can also lend a nebulous quality to idea composition. You can have mental pointers to cached thoughts and make gratuitous use of them to reference different ideas.

Because everything is directly available, there’s not necessarily a need to have things be neat or tidy.

Initial Medium:
When moving your idea from your head to your first medium, there is an immediate bias towards writing down explicit models. Much of this has to do with the linearity of our speech and text, i.e. our default mediums—they encourage a paradigm of progression. As a result, there is pressure to move away from the subtle and non-verbalized reasons that make up your idea and towards more legible ones.

Legible ideas are easier to transmit because they adapt well to the intermediary mediums we use to bridge minds. Showing a chain of “and then this leads to this” makes sense when our essays read top to bottom and when audio is heard from start to finish.

At this secondary stage, your reasoning or explanation may already change. While it can be useful to seek a clearer way to express what is in our minds, the question we answer changes from “Why do I think this?” to “How can I write/say what I am thinking and why?”

Primary Receiver’s Mind:
Now that you’ve put your thoughts into a medium, it goes and travels into someone else’s head. Here, I think the best case is that the primary receiver comes away with the explicit models you intended to put into the medium.

Often, though, that doesn’t even happen. People often skim material; a lossy transfer of information is the norm.

Here’s a diagram showing what might happen:

Overall, even during just one-on-one communication, there’s multiple stages of interpretation happening. There’s a double illusion of transparency which can happen:

The speaker might fail to give useful Generators (instead opting to say things which they merely Recognize to be useful), while the listener might just pattern-match to existing insights. From the speaker’s perspective, things make sense as they can match up their words to their thoughts and of course things fit together. From the listener’s perspective perspective, things make sense because they can match what they received with their thoughts and of course their own insights are correct.

But unless both sides check in to see that the things which make sense to them are the same thing, then we run the risk of miscommunication.

Moving Forward:
What are some of the implications of this model? I think the most important one is that miscommunication, even just minor ones, are the norm. It’s far too easy to jump to the optimistic conclusion that both sides are talking about the same thing. To change this, the basic prescription is to put in more effort in ohw we give and receive information.

More actionably speaking, here is some Obvious Advice:

  1. Paraphrase what you are hearing. If you think that you picked up on what the important bits were, hand them back to the speaker for verification, i.e. “I thought you said that X was the important part. Is that right?”
  2. Give and get examples. As the explainer, it is very helpful to triangulate concepts with examples. As the receiver, you can use example to help with paraphrasing to see if you’ve understood the point.
  3. Asking for more clarification and reducing your own confidence in your comprehension abilities. Next time you think you know what’s happening, seriously consider the possibility that you could be mistaken.
  4. When communicating, pay attention to the stage after the one you are currently on. For example, when writing, it can be useful to also be thinking about how a third-party might respond to the words you write, in addition to focusing on translating your thoughts to the medium. Similarly, when speaking, it can help to keep in mind how the person you are talking to will summarize the current conversation to others / how they will recollect it after the fact.


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