Semantics

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that is has taken place.”     George Bernard Shaw

As I begin the oral presentation of my thesis, I point to the triangle on my large presentation pad, and say, “If your concept of love is a circle” – then pointing to the circle I continue, “and my concept of love is a triangle, our communication is going to be difficult because of differing definitions of the words we use.” The primary  objective  is to illustrate for my classmates  how semantics – the  linguistic and philosophical study of meaning – can  be a barrier in our attempt to effectively communicate with others. The professor is intrigued by my  effective use of illustrious graphics. In a visually powerful way, I have driven home the point of semantics, one of the goals in the oral presentation of my thesis, a curriculum requirement in this business class.

Later that afternoon in the break room on campus at Samford University, I have the opportunity to talk to some friends who were in class during my speech. As they  express how much they liked my presentation and the intentional graphic misdirection to illustrate semantics, I finally realize what had occurred.  In fact, there was nothing intentional about my mistake. It really was a mistake, plain and simple – not a deliberate or clever design.   Whoops! Seizing the moment, and in their fun effort to unnerve me, my friends threaten to tell the professor about my unintentional mistake. Since communication is my major thesis for this college paper, I quickly and effectively use my verbal skills, persuading them not to expose my unwitting faux pas.

Because of my own accidental error in the same concept I was trying to illuminate, I never forgot the truth I learned that day, 40 plus years ago.

Communication is difficult – really  difficult.

The element of semantics is only one part of the challenge. There are many other components that test us in our attempt to say what we mean and mean what we say. How the other person translates what we speak, in the end, probably matters more than how we express it.  If their interpretation  is flawed because of semantics or by any other communication principle, if they do not hear what we  intend for them to hear, despite  a presentation that excels in clarity and effectiveness,  the communication for which we strive does not occur.

Have you ever expressed something to another person whose non-verbal reaction leads you to conclude that they must not have understood your point? Absolutely yes! It happens to all of us, and  on a regular basis. Sometimes though, we may not see or sense their lack of understanding, which only further challenges our effort for clarity.  We think we got through. The other person thinks we got through. Both parties have a different understanding, though they think it is the same. That is when communication really becomes more than difficult. It becomes almost impossible unless . . . we understand, at a very deep level, the inherent challenges of effective communication.

Communication is difficult – really difficult.

I cannot tally the innumerable  times in meetings that I have expressed or heard another person urge, “We need to get on the same page;”  Or, “We need to agree;”  Or, “We need to find common ground.”  My wife and I may not use a similar vocabulary on a particular subject, but our conversations are generally supportive of the same ultimate result. Get on the same page. Agree if possible. Find common ground. If you want a real challenge, try to say any of those sentences to a group of individuals who currently represent different sides of the political divisions within our country. The exchange of intellectual dialogue on issues concerning us all could take weeks to achieve mutual understanding.  Common ground? Agreement? Hmmm . . .I promise you that I would not want to be the facilitator who tackles that challenge. But, even in that context, it should point out to us how really difficult it is to achieve effective communication.

We may have arrived at this juncture in life hoping to persuade others to believe as we do. And, that is possible at times, but often it is not.  A better goal is not to convert the listener to believe as I do, but hopefully effect an understanding of  my belief – to comprehend the ‘real’ me and for me to understand them. Some of the best moments in my entire life have been when another person has completely understood me. I have had countless such moments with my lifetime partner, my wife Carol.  When it happens, those magical moments transcend religion, politics and all kinds of individual beliefs.  If you have ever experienced such communicative bliss, you know that it is an experience you would cherish often. Not just to be audibly heard, but to be fully  understood by another person. 

My sister Janice loves hearing me say  to her: “Relationships are messy. Communication is part of the problem.”  But, those are only the first two sentences in my trilogy. The last sentence I share is the true principle on which we should build all of our relationships.  Since that business class over four decades ago, I have strived to embrace this compelling principle. Failure as well as  success have resulted in my efforts to integrate this guiding beacon.  A simple and powerful foundational truth that will make a positive and life-changing difference in our road to success, being and becoming the best at what we are meant to be and do in life. That successful person, the person we want most to be, may be crying out loud to not only be heard, but importantly, at the deepest level, to be understood. The last sentence in the trilogy, the core principle I have tried to make a cornerstone in my own life is . . .

Communication is the answer.

Communication may be the problem, but it also is the solution. Despite all the varying influences and major challenges, communication is the answer.

I will keep trying. Understanding is one more conversation away. I will listen for tone and non-verbal cues. I will be aware of semantics. I will try to see who you really are and what you are really saying. And when that fails, I will keep trying. I will look at all that represents who you are as a person, your education and your parents. And when that fails, I will keep trying. I will look at our messy relationship. And even when that fails, I will keep trying.

The key to our mutual success lies in our relationship, which may be messy. And part of the problem may be our communication. And yes, I know in my heart that communication is the answer.

Today . . .

Success is available to me.

I will keep trying to understand and to be understood.

Communication is the answer.