The meaning of communication is the response it gets—regardless of your good intentions.
Organizational life is rife with misunderstandings, missed opportunities, mistakes, and conflict. Many of these issues result from confusing intent and impact. Understanding the dynamic process that occurs from intent (which happens before the communication) through impact (which happens after the communication) can significantly enhance a leader’s ability to motivate and influence effectively.
An archer shooting arrows at a target is a rich and useful metaphor for exploring communication intent vs. communication impact.
The archer represents communication intent. They intend to communicate meaning to a person or group of people. They have their own ideas of what the message means and the effect they want the message to have with their listener (insight, motivation, change, etc.)
The arrow represents the actual message. This exemplifies the words used (as well as tone of voice and body language if relevant).
Unfortunately, our thoughts cannot be transferred directly from one mind to another. The communicator must use words and symbols to convey a message as skillfully as they are able to in order to closely approximate their intended meaning.
The target represents the impact of the message on the receiver—in other words, how the message is heard and interpreted. Put simply, the impact is how the message “lands” with the listener.
In the unlikely event that the receiver hears and interprets the message exactly as the sender intended it, then the metaphorical target has been hit in the center of the bull’s-eye. Of course, this rarely happens.
If you think about it, it’s actually sort of a miracle—or perhaps a rare case of telepathy—when the receiver interprets the message exactly as the speaker intended it.
We can think of the archer’s arrows hitting the outer rings of the target or missing it altogether as representing the common scenario when the listener interprets the message very differently than the sender intended.
Is It Possible to Improve Our Aim?
In this blog, we will highlight two fundamental reasons that communication so often misses the mark and a couple of things you can do to improve your aim.
The first main reason is that you as the “sender” may lack certain communication skills that would allow you to more accurately articulate your message that precisely reflects your intention. Put simply, some days you may have “bad aim.”
The second reason that the impact is different than your intent is that the “receiver” interprets your message through their own filters which, for purposes of this brief article, we will call “mindset.”
Mindset refers to subjective filters that determine how information is perceived and interpreted. Mindset is also referred to as “mental model,” “worldview,” and “meaning making system.” A listener’s mindset includes his or her orientation and attitude about communication itself (e.g. they tend to over-communicate or under-communicate, or they tend to avoid conflict or engage it unnecessarily). It can also refer to a person’s orientation toward learning or feedback. Some people tend to be argumentative or get defensive or not even hear the intended message.
Mindset also refers to a person’s worldview (values and beliefs).
People also have particular ways they make assumptions, interpret information, and draw conclusions.
The more you know about the listener’s mindset and how they interpret information, the better you can anticipate how the message might land with them, and adjust your aim accordingly.
If you want to be a more conscious communicator, and you want your impact to match your intent more often, pay close attention to your listener’s mindset.
There are many ways skillful communicators adjust their message delivery to account for the other person’s mindset and their process of interpretation. Perhaps the easiest tool to reach for first is what we call “framing”. To understand framing, it’s helpful to understand pretext and subtext.
Meaning is Often Submerged as Subtext
An iceberg is a terrific way to think about the explicit message (the content) and the deeper meaning of your communication (the subtext, sometimes called context).
According to human communication researchers, the content only represents around 10% of the meaning of communication, and context makes up more than 90%. Put another way, all meaning is context dependent.
The subtext of the communication can be thought of as the 90% of an iceberg that lies beneath the surface.
In most interactions, this “subtext” is submerged under the water. It is implicitly present, not explicitly seen or acknowledged.
When you forget to make the subtext explicit, listeners often fail to understand the purpose of the conversation, misinterpret your intentions, or misunderstand the meaning of the message.
Alternatively, when you strive to be a “conscious communicator” and deliberately make the subtext explicit, state the reason and purpose for the discussion, make your assumptions explicit, and let the listener know why the topic is relevant to them, the impact of your communication is much more likely to match your intent.
This subtext can also be referred to as the “frame of reference” or “frame” for short. This brings us to what is perhaps the most fundamental skill of conscious communicators: “Framing.”
According to integral communication theorist and Boston College professor Bill Torbert, framing is the element of communication most often missed from conversations and meetings. He explains, “The speaker too often assumes the other knows and shares the overall objective… Explicit framing is useful precisely because the assumption of a shared frame is frequently untrue.”
When speakers assume a shared understanding of the subtext and fail to frame the communication, listeners have to guess where they are coming from or what point they are driving toward.
When forced to guess at a frame, people frequently guess wrong. Too often, the guessing takes a negative slant: For example: “Why is he bringing this up now? He must not trust me.” Or “What is he getting at? Is he implying that I did something wrong?” Without a clear frame, it is easy to assume that others have negative or manipulative motives.
Most people’s frames are unconscious, especially the fundamental assumptions inherent in their worldview (their values, beliefs, assumptions, and motivations).
Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and thought, “He thinks I agree with him. I don’t even agree with his basic assumption—but he seems to think that I do!”
When we communicate unconsciously without being aware of, clarifying, and/or fully understanding the other person’s frame, we inadvertently accept their frame (their assumptions and interpretations about the topic) and should be prepared to suffer the consequences of that choice. Check your assumptions that your listener shares the same frame as you before delivering the message.
Conscious communicators look and listen for the explicit and implicit frames and actively inquire into other people’s frames. They bring them into full view with clarifying questions and proactively offer their own frames (and checkfor agreement).
Framing promotes clarity, prevents confusion, and most importantly, aligns intent with impact. You can use framing to address relevancy, state purpose and intentions, expose assumptions, and check for agreement. With practice, you can learn to recognize other people’s mindsets (assumptions, attitudes, worldview, motivation) and frame your communication so that it is more understandable and resonant.