Communication is a process. This process, at any given point in time, has one interaction point populated by two (or more) people. I’m talking at a microscopically individual level, but when you consider everyone, at larger scales, communication is everywhere. We’re all communicating nearly all the time.
Any interaction with another person is communication — call these “conversations” if you like — and any given conversation (aka communication) has multiple perspectives on it. Both you and the other person, engaged in the same process or same interaction, has your own perspective, your own interpretations, takeaways, inferences, and outcomes. Each person also has their own approach and demeanor, mannerisms, and so on . These combinations make every instance of communication highly individual and unique.
The experience of communication is a relatively common process I imagine, but just because we all communicate — just because we have the process in common — doesn’t mean communication is always the the same, even for two people involved in the same conversation.
Communication always has multiple interpretations and multiple meanings. The fancy word for this is polysemy. Pronounced “PUH-lih-seh-mee” or, if you’re a fan of the more formal IPA notation: /päˈlisəmē/. Polysemy is the capacity for a word or phrase to have multiple meanings.
This feature goes beyond just individual words or short phrases though. We can think of interactions as having multiple meanings, takeaways, inferences, and so on. Remember, your perspective and that of the person you’re communicating with is never the same. Where we meet and intertwine is common between us, but meaning is created at this point and resides elsewhere.
Communication’s multiple interpretations is a given — just part of the wild and messy process of interacting with other people. It’s not direct or linear. This is why it’s better to ask: “How much does meaning overlap with understanding?” rather than how much information got across. It’s possible to grasp where one person’s understanding and another’s converge and assess where they might differ though even when considering multiple meanings.
People walk away from the same interaction with different takeaways, different feelings — some things in common and some things not. Two people can completely disagree, have little to no “overlap”, yet still communication has occurred. Communicating isn’t about agreement or getting along or cohesion except in an ideal sense.
It’s a funny thing about communicating to never quite know what the outcomes will be. And it’s odd that we interact and communicate all the time often with little to no thought about what the outcomes will be beyond, “Sure, I wouldn’t mind talking with them for a little while.”
We communicate all the time without knowing what the outcomes will be. We don’t know where communicating will go. Well, sometimes conversations go exactly as you expect them to, but the possibility for variety is always there.
The thing is, you can be perfectly happy and content from communication where you have no plan going in. You can communicate well by just being contented to sit around having a conversation. You don’t have to know exactly what to do or how to get there to still have things be alright. This is why erring towards sharing is a good strategy. Say what you want, try to be nice about, have it come from a good place. You can call this “intent” if you like but, intent never trumps outcomes. Try to listen more and communicate with hope. This is about the best we can do when communicating and yet still we can’t predict what will happen.
As I wrap up this walk through some of the messier aspects of communicating, I need to acknowledge randomness. When we encounter others (physically, but also communicatively), sometimes things are planned out and at others they are quite random. So, for example, you could go into a meeting with an agenda but also with an expectation of how things will generally go. You can also randomly find yourself in the middle of a conversation that came out of nowhere and feels like it’s flailing wildly. Both instances are communication and and we never quite know what we’ll get.
The randomness of communication is partially why and how communication slips into the background even though it’s right out in front of us. Imagine if every time you struck up a conversation with someone you had to announce “Ok, let’s communicate now.” You’d look and sound crazy. But every time you have a conversation, this is exactly what you’re doing. We don’t announce our intention to communicate though, we just get right into it.
How often do you happen to find yourself conversing with someone? Maybe often or maybe not, but we don’t only communicate when we have a plan just as we don’t always have a plan when we communicate. Conversation is conversation and just because it isn’t planned or formal doesn’t make it less (or more) meaningful. We communicate by happenstance: we run into people on the street, we strike up random conversations with neighbors, we might even connect with an old friend or talk with someone new who piques our interest. You can’t always plan for it. You don’t have to.
Communication interactions always have multiple outcomes. There are always multiple meanings. It’s a given considering the actual messy nature of communicating — all part of the process.