Communication is generally considered to be self-explanatory: I say something and my dialog partner understands what I meant to say. That would be nice, but it’s not the way it goes. If it did, there wouldn’t be any misunderstandings. And everyone would have a similar reaction to the same facts.
In fact, communication is not apparent, rather it is highly individual. The reason is simple: In communication there isn’t only a “sender” and a “receiver”, there is also a whole lot of “software” on both sides that processes and filters communication – software that does not know or accept any general standards. What I think of the person communicating, the topic and the world in general are deciding factors for how I receive the communication. My expectations give certain words a certain meaning. They also lead me to ignore what I don’t want to hear. Each person has a different perception of the same facts. Everyone creates their own truth from them.
People see themselves in everything
Even when we think we are being objective: Actually, we are subjective through and through – the result of our education, our experiences, our training, our role models.
Everything that we receive through communication is ultimately a reflection of our own self. That’s why facts are never perceived objectively but always subjectively.
Difficult to imagine? Here’s an example: After observing the same situation, different people will say completely different things about it. A student will say different things than a senior citizen would, as would a manager compared to a worker, or a woman compared to a man.
Each person perceives different details in the situation. A person’s emotional state also has a strong influence on how they receive communication. I receive communication differently when I feel serene and balanced than when I feel neglected, oppressed and isolated, which are just two extremes that exemplify the matter. Fear vs. confidence are also strong factors that influence communication.
Selective perception as a form of self-protection
If a person were to know all the factors that influence communication wouldn’t it be possible to receive communication objectively? Probably not. Selective perception is a protective mechanism that gives us security in a latently uncertain world. Something that fits into my world view is less of a threat than facts that I have to confront first. If we virtually can’t get out of our own skin, when we communicate we should generally expect that whatever we say will always be filtered by our dialog partner.
Clarity and empathy help achieve communicative goals
Those who are aware of the limitations of selective perception can also deal with them. In other words, we can decide to communicate more clearly and put ourselves into our dialog partner’s shoes even more. If we can sense the direction in which communication is distorted, we can be more clear in those points that counter-act this distortion. Understanding how the person you are communicating with thinks gives you a tool to really reach them. In so doing we can make a dialog a bit more definite and remove some of the distortion that the other party receives it with.
It doesn’t make communication 100% controllable, but it does remove a large part of its random nature.