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How Talk Really Works

This lesson is a part of an audio course The Nature of Effective Communication by Dr. Dalton Kehoe

To demonstrate how talk really works, let's start with a simple situation.

Say a stranger stops you and asks for directions.

You have a picture – an image of the location in your mind that you want to communicate.

To respond, you have to quickly pull together a collection of verbal symbols – words – whose single, clear meaning will describe your image (of course, you automatically ignore the fact that words have multiple, arbitrary meanings and assemble them into a non-graphical message to communicate your mental image to them.

You then utter the sound elements representing these verbal symbols in a way that you assume the other will recognize.

But along with these utterances, you also transmit a set of nonverbal gestures (some are intentional – gesturing with your hands, for example – pointing in the direction you want them to go) – but most of them are automatic, unintentional – facial movements, tonal qualities of your voice).

All this flies through the space between the two of you in a situation or context where you assume there is no distracting interference from external sources.

You send them to the ears and eyes of the other person in a certain belief that they will physically hear and see everything you said.

Pay attention to what you said and displayed throughout the entire message.

Decode (translate) your non-graphical message correctly. That is, they will pick your meanings – not theirs – from the archive of meanings they have accumulated based on their previous experience, not yours, while avoiding misinterpreting any number of your words because of the unintended and unconscious non-verbals that you displayed at the same time as you spoke your words. And then translate this verbal message into the same picture in their minds (without any distracting internal thoughts, feelings, or beliefs of their own).

All this just to "get" your message and then show you or tell you they did. What are the chances?

Not great, actually: surely you've been on the receiving end of directions from someone who knows how to get there and assumes that you understand everything they're saying – the way they meant it.

Moreover, they pretend not to notice that you don't seem to get it the first time through…so they automatically repeat themselves in the certainty that more words will do the trick.

Considering this common situation, our simplistic view of face-to-face talk is truly disconnected from the underlying realities of communication – as communication experts see it.

Talk is immensely more complicated than we understand. The apparent simplicity of talk is a kind of necessary working illusion we all share.

The upside of our simple view: It gets things going and permits us to talk without thinking about it – and keeps us going as apparently competent speakers.

The downside: it does not set us up to learn much new about our own talk or be able to effectively explain to ourselves what happened when things break down. In difficult moments, we simply blame the other.

And what are these moments?

For example, when you're resisting others' attempts to take something you don't want to give.

When you're trying to get them to see something important to you, and they don't seem to understand or care about it.

I'm sure you can think of many more. Each will contain one or more of the 3 D's we talked about in the first segment.

Now we'll take a deeper look at the interpersonal (between us) and intrapersonal processes (in our minds) – these are the forces that make face-to-face talk really work. We'll discover where things might go off the rails.

In our model of talk, everybody is both a sender and a receiver of messages, and it happens simultaneously. While you're sending your message verbally, you're already receiving information from the receiver – non-verbally – through your eyes and ears. And they're doing the same for you.

Remember, Interpersonal communication is a continuous process – both a transaction in selves and in topical and relationship information – and it happens in a particular context. And this is the first basic truth about the talk, we need to recognize. Where you are and when you're speaking makes a tremendous difference to how the other interprets your words and non-verbals – context shapes the meaning of everything that's going on.

Basic Truth Number two: in face-to-face talk, communication is inevitable. All behavior has message value. You don't have to say a word. As soon as you're in somebody's space – and turn towards them – you're already telling them something. Moreover, when we speak – we can't take words back once we've uttered them.

Basic Truth Number three: face-to-face communication always combines words and non-verbals. You can't avoid this. What you say and how you say it is tied together – and this means that sometimes these two levels can reinforce each other or contradict each other.

Basic Truth number four: face-to-face communication is always about content and relationship at the same time. No matter the topic, it's always about how you're treating me – and how I'm treating you – while we're talking. So never say to anybody, "Don't take this personally." Everybody takes it personally. It's built into the way we talk to each other.

Basic Truth number five: communication is a process that is punctuated differently by each of the participants.

Punctuation is a major way of explaining how we can have disagreements over the same flow of events that happen in relationships.

It is the root of countless struggles in relationships, because people view things from a different perspective depending on where they are in the conversation. It's a classic issue for couples: "Why did you say that?" "I only said that because you said that first." "Yeah, but I only said that because you said the other thing before." And on it goes. We all punctuate to sustain our positive view of ourselves.

Notice what's happening in our model: we have internal feedback going on while we have external communication happening between people. We have messages working at two levels – topic and relationship feedback – and it also happens instantaneously at the level of our words and non-verbal behaviors. People are senders and receivers of messages pretty much at the same time.

Let me sum up with a formal model of talk that pulls together all of the things that we've just said into a few sentences.

Interpersonal communication is a process whereby:

  • Two or more people.

  • Within a particular context (they're in the same situation).

  • Who are aware of each other.

  • Act together to create and manage shared meanings. (Talk is a collaborative activity, and it's about three things – the topic of conversation, each of the speakers' selves, and their relationship to each other while they're talking about the topic.)

  • Through non-conscious display or conscious sending and receiving of messages using a shared repertoire of both verbal and non-verbal symbols.

Life and talk are immensely more complicated than we understand, but the apparent simplicity of talk is a necessary working illusion we all share.

Every time we say the right words at the right time and the other person responds in a predictable way, it sets us up not to prepare ourselves for more complicated and difficult situations. I hope this course will awaken you to what's really going on and prepare you for everything you are likely to encounter the next time you are communicating with another person.

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Written by

Dr. Dalton Kehoe

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