Saturday, July 09, 2011

Understanding Communication Process: Contination of Series

See archives for previous posts in this series

1.2 – Systems of Communication

In 1967, psychiatrists Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas and Don D. Jackson rocked the study of communication by publishing The Pragmatics of Human Communication, in which they presented a systems approach to communication .

A system is an ongoing set of interdependent parts that function as a whole.   As the three authors state.

Communication sequences are not, to use Frank’s words, ‘anonymous units in a frequency distribution’ but the inseparable stuff of an ongoing process whose order and interrelations occurring over a period of time, shall be our interest here.  As Lennard and Bernstein have put it: ‘Implicit to a system is a span of time. By its very nature a system consists of an interaction, and this means that a sequential process of action and reaction has to take place before we are able to describe any state of the system or any change of state.’  Initially, we can follow Hall and Fagen in defining a system as “a set of objects together with relationships between the objects and between their attributes’ in which the objects are the components or parts of the system, attributes are the properties of the objects, and relationships ‘tie the system together.’(p. 120)

In looking at communication systemically, Watzlawick, Bavelas, and Jackson developed several “axioms” about human communication.  An axiom is a presumed true statement that forms a foundation, and these are axioms based on seeing communication between people systemically.
(I should note here that a systems approach to communication is not the only model and not a perfect model.  Some of these axioms are debatable in real-world situations. But this is the best construct I have found because it focuses on the whole and does not overemphasize the “intrapsychic” nature of the communicators.  In other words, it looks at the nature and effects communication behavior and all the variables in relationship context and doesn’t focus on the construction of the self as the originator, purpose, and outcome of all communication.

The impossibility of not communicating.  You cannot not communicate.  All behavior in an interactional situation has message value.  “Neither can we say that “communication” only takes place when it is intentional, conscious, or successful, that is, when mutual understanding occurs.  Whether message sent equals message received is an important but different order of analysis, as it must rest ultimately on evaluations of specific, introspective, subject-reported data.”

(This first axiom is probably the hardest for me to take.  But remember it’s talking about behavior in an interactional situation, not by yourself or in a crowded bus with strangers.  It’s understood that the persons involved are in a state of relating or communicating in some way.)


Every communication has a content and a relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication. 

This is the most useful axiom.  A metamessage or metacommunication is a commentary on the content aspect of the communication.  “Meta” means beyond or above, in the sense of giving something else meaning or understanding because you are above it (like seeing a map and not just the street sign).  This axiom is saying that every time you communicate, there are two things going on.  You are relaying content or information, such as facts, ideas, data, but you are also making some level of statement, even at an unconscious level, about the relationship between you and the other communicator.  “I trust you.”  “Do you trust me?”  “Do you like me?”  “I don’t like you.”  “I have more/less status than you.”  “I am afraid of you.”  “You think you are better than me.”  “This is how I see you.”  “This is how I see myself.”  All of these are types of messages that are communicated at the same time that ideas and facts are being transmitted.

But how?  Obviously, words are the almost sole means of communicating ideas and facts.  I can make a face and point to my knee, or rub it, to try to communicate to you that my knee hurts, but I probably can’t tell you how I injured it, or what the doctor at the E.R. did, or what kind of painkiller I’m taking, or how long it will be, without words.  All that is content, but how do I transmit messages about the relationship aspect?  Well, that comes with words, too, of course, but 93% of it (and you’ve probably heard that statistic before) comes nonverbally:  my facial expression, posture, gestures, and touch.  I would let my husband touch my knee, but no one else (except medical personnel).  That is why nonverbal communication is so important; it carries the greatest bulk of the work in communicating how we view other people and how we feel about them.

This is not to say that words don’t communicate relationship, because they do in many respects, but often it’s what we don’t say as well as what we say.  And it often has to do with context.  This observation is especially true in family communication, where we have so many rituals and so much history.  As psycholinguists expert Deborah Tannen has pointed out in I Only Say This Because I Love You,

 “Everything we say to each other echoes with meaning left over from our past experience—both our history talking to the person before us at this moment and our history talking to others. . . We react not only to the meaning of the words spoken—the message—but also to what we think those words say about the relationship—the metamessage.  Metamessages are unstated meaning we glean based on how someone spoke—tone of voice, phrasing—and on associations we brought to the conversation.  You might say that the message communicates word meaning, by the metamessage yields heart meaning.  So a crucial step in breaking the gridlock of frustrating conversations is learning to separate messages from metamessages. (pps. xvii-xviii)

Professor Tannen uses the example of an adult woman whose mother says, “Are you going to wear that dress?”  The adult woman doesn’t hear a question about her clothing, she hears a criticism about her taste or weight, based on the past associations. 

It would be nice to say that these “metamessages” only exist in families and dating relationships, but that’s not the case.  The longer you work with certain people, the more metamessages there will be due to shared relationship activities.  You don’t have to be great friends with your coworkers for this to be true.  But this axiom is as vitally important to public speaking as personal chat.  Public speaking is a notoriously bad way to relay content.  It’s much easier to just give someone a written report.  Why give a speech at all?  Because public speaking is about much more than giving information.  It’s about credibility, control, credentials, image.  Think about politicians.  They want your vote; they may talk about the issue, but they want you to trust them enough to vote for them. 

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