Communication is the interactive sticky stuff which strengthens or weakens the relationships we have with each other. One of the primary difficulties we have when we communicate is that we let our biases creep into our conversations without even recognizing them. Let’s examine this a bit further by clarifying the filters through which we communicate that often lead to a bias.
It’s important to understand that the process within which we relate with others forms the basis of all our communications. The process is quite simple but not necessarily always easy. It has eight elements and taken together they make up the interactive communication process between and among individuals. These elements take place almost at lightning speed. Any one of them could cause us to misunderstand or misinterpret what the other person is saying.
The eight elements are:
1. An individual has something to communicate. It may be a comment, an idea, or a reaction to what someone has said. This person should clearly formulate the thought and send it to another person. The first person becomes the Sender of the communication, the second is the Receiver.
2. Before the Sender says anything the unit of communication is encoded by that person according to his or her unique perception. That perception includes the person's self-concept, feelings, attitudes, and values; and shaped by his or her family background, cultural norms, life experiences, and education.
It is in our perceptions where our biases are hidden. Just think if a person’s life experiences, family influences and dominant culture are closed to accepting another cultural group or has been influenced early on in life to not accept certain individuals, religions, or a group of disadvantaged people then those individuals communicate their closed perceptions through their tone, behavior, and interactions.
3. The message is sent and then received by the Receiver who decodes it relating to his or her unique perceptions. That person's perception may have some similarities to the person who sent the message but in most instances, there will be several differences. That is what makes the perception unique.
Let’s take the example where biased similarities exist. In this case the sender’s and receiver’s biases are reinforced which may result in ‘group think,’ scapegoating, and discrimination. Often these individuals are not even aware that they are communicating a biased perception. They have no reason to believe that they are biased because their life experiences have caused them to believe their perceptions are right.
Now let’s take the example of a person where biased similarities don’t exist, each communicating from their own unique biases. This is often where communication blind spots become prevalent, and conflict emerges. One person’s perception clashes with the other and visa versa.
The extreme of this example shows up within communities where there are cultural differences or where one disenfranchised group clashes with the predominant groupthink.
This plays out when one group attempts to make another segment of the community aware of the ‘biases’ and their impact on them, but the other group wants to preserve their own perceptions of what they consider to be reality or right. Unfortunately, the bias continues and deep divisions within the community result. All we need to do is look at the conflict which is generated in communities where people feel disadvantaged through poverty, racism, sexual orientation, and misogynism.
So, how do we get out of this situation?
The key is to become open to other points of view and to understand the impact of what is being said and more importantly to be honest with ourselves as to our own clouded perceptions. But how do we do this? Step 4 in the communication process shows us how.
4. The best way for the Receiver to understand the Sender’s message is to respond with Feedback summarizing what the Sender said. This is known as the Clarification process. An important element in any interaction with others.
Both the Sender and the Receiver should give clear messages, respect each other with dignity and grace and listen well so that the message can be fully understood. This step is often missed. Rather than clarifying their biases individuals and groups often tend to promote, defend, and otherwise exploit them. They push their biases onto others, expecting them to accept whereas the other cannot because they come from a completely different stance based on their own life experiences.
In this way our hidden biases become apparent resulting in conflict with the other or within our communities. If the divide is deep and hurtful then the necessary work towards resolution and reconciliation becomes a slow and arduous process.
There are other ways in which we let our hidden biases cloud our conversations.
5. A message is sent via certain Paths or Channels. So far this discussion has been about communicating our biases face-to-face, but they could also be sent by means of an email, telephone. video conference call, a YouTube presentation or through social media.
If we have biases, and everyone does, then it does not matter what channel we use to communicate, sooner or later the biases will raise their heads.
E-mails are one of the lowest forms of communication because we cannot see or hear the individual, and feed back is often a long arduous process. If we let our bias seep into our emails, and the recipient is offended in some way, we may or may not know. In any event the email has a cooling effect on our relationship with the recipient.
Telephone is better because we can ask for clarification immediately. Yet we can't see the individual and thus gage the full extent of his or her reaction.
Video conferencing is an improvement because we can see the reaction of others and take corrective action. Although it is still not the same as in-person communication because we can only see a portion of the other person’s body language.
Social Media messaging and YouTube offerings are often used as ‘bull horns’ for one’s point of view and thus another venue for spreading one’s biases.
Even this post is a place for my own hidden and open biased point of view. Some will agree with what is discussed and others will not. Only through responding to this post can we begin to dialogue on the subject. We then can clarify our perceptions and search for understanding and common ground.
6. The message is also communicated in some form of Situation. The Situation relates to the environment or circumstance where the communication takes place, such as a meeting in the office, outside in the parking lot, over the counter with a customer or with a salesperson. Our biases don’t really care where we communicate what matters is how we communicate and whether we are aware of how our biases effect others.
7. When the message is delivered, it may also become distorted. This distortion is called Interference. Interference causes static in the communication process and distorts the message. Many factors cause interference and could include noise within the room, a cellphone ringing, someone emailing or texting. Language barriers or lack of listening skills also cause interference.
Our biased perceptions are often reinforced when we don’t listen and/or when we are impatient due to a language barrier. In such situations we start making judgements about the other based on our hidden biases.
8. For the most part the interaction that is described above takes place in a few seconds. It doesn’t take long for our biases to kick in. Psychologists tell us that we start forming opinions of the other within the first seven seconds or less. And if those opinions are based on hidden biases then we start communicating or thinking about them almost instantaneously. And as the communication progresses in a back and forth manner, and if we are not aware of our biases’ impact and guard against them, then the receiver will either outwardly or inwardly react to them.
In today’s world there is an interesting phenomenon taking place. Rather than recognizing our biases and their impact, we have this growing refrain that we are “politically correct.” Recognizing biases and their impact on others is not being “politically correct.” It is being open to improving our relationships with others, finding peace within our communities and respecting differences and diversity with each other and within our communities.
Underlying this whole discussion is the importance of knowing oneself and not afraid to uncover our hidden biases – it is all about our personal growth and development and how we relate to others. We can choose not to uncover what is not known to us and let our negative selves influence the relationship. Or, we can choose to discover those biases and stereotypes we have about others in order to improve our relationships with them and be a force for good in our places of business, work and communities.
Thank you for reading,
(Up-dated March 17, 2021)
Listening is so fundamental to our communication process that we can easily take it for granted. Unless one has extremely limited interaction with people the opportunities for listening abound in the workplace. We need to listen up when a customer is front of us or on the telephone, or when someone comes to us with a problem or a solution, or when we are coaching an employee, or when ______ (you fill in the blank). Every time we encounter an individual our listening antenna needs to go up.
There are five levels of listening behaviors with level one being the most comprehensive.
Level One: These are the people who listen to understand all the communication signals of the speaker - the tone, emotions, body language and technical elements and even what is being said behind the words. They are the ones who send off the signal: "I am listening intently so that I can walk a mile in your shoes." They are the "empathetic listeners." They are the ones who hold eye contact and listen deeply.
Level Two: This listening behavior tends to be more "factual and technical". These people have an ear for factual information, sometimes at the expense of "feelings" or "emotions". They are often called the "objective listeners."
Level Three: At level three we have the "selective listeners" or those who listen to confirm their point of view or pick out only what they want to hear. They listen only for the elements of the discussion that they are in agreement with and often miss the whole point of the conversation.
Level Four: Here we have the "pretenders." They give the impression they are listening but are often doing something else. For example we can "hear' these people when we are speaking with them over the telephone and they are busy working away on something else; or when we are making a presentation and they are gazing at us like deer caught in the headlights, or texting, or reading their e-mail - all the while nodding their heads to give the impression that they are listening.
Level Five: You guessed it - they are the "ignorers." They are not listening at all, which when we really think about it may be an "oxymoron."
To listen well we need to develop strong listening habits. Here are the four basic rules for strengthening a good listening habit:
1. Hear what is being said - this means giving undivided attention to the person who is speaking.
2. Understand what we have heard - this means clarifying what is said by asking questions,
3. Interpret our understanding of what was said. -this means the rationalization process of quickly putting into context our understanding of what was said.
4. Recap or paraphrase our understanding of what was said - this means repeating in your own words our understanding of what is said.
Remember all communications are perceived but 70% to 90% are screened out or changed by the person who perceives them. If you want to improve your listening habits consider this learning opportunity "Priority Influencing" at http://www.prioritymanagement.com/ and check out an office near you.
Author: Richard P. Fontanie MSW. FCMC Updated from the archives of Fontanie Learning Solutions.