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Communication: Separate Information from Meaning

Sean Lynch, November 7, 2016


Communication: Separate Information from Meaning

There is a profound difference between information and meaning. – Warren Bennis

You’d like to address a potentially sensitive topic with a neighbor, coworker, or boss, and you dread it. It might turn ugly. You fear an unpleasant reaction.

Often, when attempting to communicate on delicate matters, we start out by giving the other person a bunch of information (specific facts, dates, places, times, actions, and words) all tangled up with meaning (our own assumptions, interpretations, judgments, exaggerations, and inferences). The result can be an undesired and unproductive confrontation.

As you plan to address a sensitive topic, untangle objective information from the subjective meaning that you ascribe to the information. We create meaning when interpreting information, and individuals can derive different meanings from the same information.

Open potentially delicate conversations by first advancing the objective information uncontaminated with any judgments, or inferences. Next, talk about the way that information affects you and make it clear that you are describing your personal interpretation. Finally, ask the other person to give you their thoughts on the information itself, and on the interpretation you imposed on that information.

Here’s an example. My daughter rows on a crew team. Recently, the coach selected 8 girls to fill a boat for competition, passing her over.

She was frustrated and upset. “I’m going to talk with Coach. Based on my training times and single-boat times, I should be in the competition!” she said in exasperation. “I feel like I’m being punished.”

Was she being punished? I don’t know. Punishment was the meaning she attached to the information and situation.

When speaking with the coach, I suggested she separate out the facts (she was not chosen, her specific training times, and her performances in past competitions), express her frustration and confusion with the selection process (her meaning), and, finally, ask questions to understand what information the coach regarded as important in making crew selections and the coach’s perspective on her performance (his meaning).

The resulting conversation covered a number of facts and observations (some of which were previously unknown to my daughter) that the coach relied upon to evaluate rowers. During the discussion, they created a common pool of information to arrive at a shared understanding of the coach’s meaning, that is, the way he made crew selections. She came away from the conversation with more clarity about how boats were staffed.

To reduce the likelihood of unhelpful emotional reactions:

  • Separate out raw information. List objective information you would like to use as the basis for discussion: specific facts, dates, places, times, actions, and words.
  • Recognize your meaning may be different from another person’s meaning. Our meaning is a result of our own assumptions, judgments, and inferences. Explicitly label your meaning in terms of your “opinion,” your “perception,” your “attitude,” or things that you thought, or felt.
  • Ask open-ended questions to solicit additional information and understand perspectives. Questions such as, “Are there other facts that you regard as important?” and “What are your thoughts on that?” open the door for dialog and demonstrate you genuinely want to hear what the other person has to say.

Creating an environment where information flows freely between individuals, on teams, or in organizations, is challenging enough. It becomes even harder when that information is tangled up and burdened with the meaning that we attach to the information.

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