17 May 2007

The Problem with Communication and Meaning

One of the first things you learn in communication is that meaning lies with the receiver not with the sender. John Smulo has a great post that gives an example of this concerning the emergent, emerging, missional, post-modern church.

To give a primitive example, if I said to you, "I went to see elephants in their natural habitat." You could think I went to Asia or Africa.

Maybe I saw them at the new zoo that places Elephants, not in cages, but in wide open spaces that gives them a natural habitat. I never left the country.

And this is important: It doesn't matter where I really saw the elephants, to you, I saw them, in let's say Asia, so you assume I traveled to Asia. The meaning ALWAYS lies with the receiver.

If I said, "I love you." And meant it romantically, but the person receiving the message thought it only as a friend, I'm soon due for disappointment.

Therefore, it behooves the sender to be as clear as possible so that the receiver receives the most accurate message. The problems with this will be discussed in the next couple future posts.

A good example of this in context of following Jesus, is the story of some missionaries who traveled to a distant indigenous culture to spread the good news. The verse they used was in Revelation when Jesus says, "I stand at the door and knock..."

Now this verse may not be the best verse to use even in a culture that understands what this might mean, but with this particular people group, someone who knocked on the door was a thief! They would knock in the middle of night and if they heard rustling inside they would not break in, but if it was silent they knew the house was empty and they would enter and steal.

In this culture, it was courteous and customary for a friend, or a well meaning person to stand at the door and yell.

This verse made Jesus sound like He wanted to rob them!

The meaning lies with the receiver...always.

We'll go more in depth with this in part 2.


Michael said...

Looking forward to part 2!

paul said...

great thoughts bro :) I lose track of the number of times I have thought i have told debs something but haven't - well i have but just not really well :)

the receiver of course is listening through lots of filters which makes true listening almost more of an art than true talking - to actively listen, to ask questions, to be open about assumptions, to not get defensive or offensive is i think something i certainly wish i was better at... great talker, poor listener!

John Smulo said...

Great post. But I wasn't clear, were you saying that you love me as a friend, or romantically?

Thanks for the plug.

David said...

Yeah Paul, that's kind of what part 2 will entail a bit of; all the noise that surrounds us...
Or as you say filters (in part).

John, since meaning lies with the receiver, I'll just leave that up to you!

sonja said...

I'm still catching up from our trip and then having our ISP go down ... so I'm late to this party!

Here's a rub to this theory ... what happens if you're in a relationship (not necessarily romantic) and the receiver stubbornly insists on hearing something different than what is being said, despite being told that the message is not filled with ill will. Sometimes I think the recipient does need to take some responsibility for what they hear (in the context of a relationship, where both parties know each other) ... they need to listen and assume the best in each other, rather than the worst. Does that make sense?

David said...

Hi Sonja,
Hope you had a great trip! ;-) It was great to meet you!!!

That's a great point, and you are correct.
Often, theory, in a soft science breaks down in real life and therefore that theory is adapted and altered. So I'm painting with broad strokes here.

Because communication is complicated, and because the receiver holds the meaning...it is in fact the responsibility of the receiver to receive as best as he or she can the meaning of the sender.

Now all communication is give and take. During the communication process both are receiving and sending. Even if one party is not saying anything...that's still communicating a message.

In your example, no matter what you do, your receivers will always have a presupposition to whatever you say. No matter how you send the message, unless there's a major breakthrough, they will still receive it the same way. It is your responsibility to send as clearly as you can. It is their responsibility to work as hard as they can to understand the message you are sending.

If they haven't done their part, then it's no longer your burden to bear...it's theirs.