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Organizational Communication & Abuses


       Tragedies of Communication Failure

Human success or ruin, even life and death, commonly depend on how well we communicate. "Human error" is usually cited as the root cause of major disasters: crashed airliners, fatal mistakes in hospitals and surgery, giant oil spills, sunken ships, broken marriages, business bankruptcies, extinction of nations or their borders, civil and criminal court decisions, ruined cities, lost wars.

Most frequently, the fatal human error is a breakdown in communication.

Communication failure or confusion is always a massive threat to any human's life. The dreaded "fog of war," common throughout history, highlights the horror of men killed needlessly by lack - or delay -of the right information at the right time or by wrong and distorted information or by "friendly fire" (in the first month of the 1991 U.N.-Iraqi war, more American soldiers were mistakenly killed by their own support aircraft than by the enemy). Other daily examples are legion, such as these true stories:

 Item: In a medical emergency, a doctor told a nearby nurse to administer fifteen units of a powerful drug.  His hastily mumbled order was heard by her as "fifty" - and the patient died of an overdose. "Fifteen" and "fifty" often sound the same - ask anyone with an address or phone number including a "15" or "50." (We'll return to "mumblers" later, who mumble words heard only by themselves with no concentrated intent or effort to communicate anything clearly to others unable to hear their words; mumblers insist, of course, that no one listened.)

 Item: A Fortune 500 company salesman closed a huge sale based on a written and "full" guarantee of the product's effectiveness. When the product failed and needed repair, the "guarantee" covered parts replaced but not the enormous labor costs.   Irate, the customer successfully sued and damaged the public image of the vendor when reported on 6:00pm TV News. The salesman, of course, lost his job.

Building Effective Communication Habits

This is a book for on-the-job managers and management trainers, designedly practical rather than theoretical. Throughout it, along with essential coverage of communication theories as a conceptual framework, our emphasis will be on time-tested and specific methods to build reliable communication skills into one's daily life in order to consciously avoid communication failures. As far as this is possible! (^'Murphy's Law" ["if something can go wrong, it will"}, originally expressing engineers' and managers' frustrations at the almost inevitable failure of plans no matter how careful their efforts, applies equally to human efforts to communicate effectively.)

In the many communication seminars I've conducted for management groups, I've learned that - as a practical matter - the gradual and real daily accomplishment of improved communication skills is built upon simple, new and consistently practiced communication habits, not upon theory. What has worked best for that practical purpose is a three-step process:

(1) Identify and list clearly the major barriers to communication, i.e. the main causes of communication failure;

(2) Clarify how these destructive barriers operate by analyzing personal and vivid concrete examples of each as recalled from managers' on-the-job experiences; and then

(3) List and stress the relatively easy communication habits (specific remedies for each listed communication barrier) which, when practiced consistently, prevent or correct communication failures.

Deadly Trap: Communication Complacency

A first, fundamental and insidious barrier (and ironic paradox) blocks the communication patterns of most people:

Complacency.  As critical a skill for survival and success as it is, communication is taken lightly rather than seriously. It is "taken for granted" as natural, easy, simple, uncomplicated - almost automatic, no need to pay much attention to it or make any special efforts to "do it right." In fact, however, communication researchers and experts know now that just the opposite is really the case in most human lives and organizations: effective and flawless communication is one of the most complex and difficult skills for any human to master. Most don't, but wonder why they suffer so much grief in life (due, when analyzed, to failures of communication). The remedy for such complacency is not a complex mental skill, but an attitude and an act of will.

The Foremost Communication Skill: Concentration

The first and fundamental remedy for communication failure is to avoid naive complacency, to nurture a healthy respect for the importance and difficulty of effective communication. This is the habit of consistent mental concentration whenever communicating, alert and determined effort to monitor and be sure every communication with others works effectively. Exponential improvement in communication success results from this simple habit of taking it most seriously, paying close attention to every detail (choice of words, medium used, feedback gotten about actual result of the communication attempt).

It is critical to understand and treat communication as a means to an end, not merely an automatic, "natural" process. Every communication, no matter how seemingly minor, is seeking some actual result or a series of results - which you want to actually happen. The communications may range from major efforts (documents worded persuasively to secure a bankruptcy-avoiding bank loan) to almost whimsical remarks about people or world events (seeking, at least subconsciously, to impress or get approval or desired actions from others). Every word and sign (planned or not), used by a man during a job interview or on his first date with a woman he covets either succeeds or fails to achieve the results he intends. He could lose the new job (or woman) by a single wrong word or gesture.

 The Nature of Human Communication

Superficially considered, communication seems simple since we've been doing it naturally from our earliest years.   But communication is a subtly complex process involving many physical and mental steps which go generally unnoticed and seemingly automatic, like breathing or walking.

Although we are not interested here in communication or linguistics theory per se, a clear understanding of the critical parts of the communication process provides another practical means for anticipating and thus avoiding communication failures (more about the skill of "anticipation" later).

The Conceptual Diagram of Communication Processes

Let's examine analytically the parts of the diagram. Every communication begins with some meaning (idea, image or feeling) deeply embedded and hidden in the mind of the sender {only in his mind\).  Since the receiver (to whom the communication is to be targeted) can not "see" into the mind of the sender, the sender must somehow transform (encode) his unseen meaning into a form that can be sensed by the receiver's five senses (this encoding becomes the sender's message, a series of sounds, words, visual signs, writings, etc.). For example, the message might be several marks drawn in the sand, sounds emitted from the sender's mouth, facial expressions, eye contact or a hug. The receiver, now able to sense the sender's message, still doesn't yet know his meaning. The receiver must now somehow transform (decode) the sensed message into a new meaning in his own mind.

Both the sender and the receiver presume automatically (and often wrongly) that the meaning now in the receiver's mind matches exactly the sender's original meaning. When, as is frequent, the meanings don't match and there is misunderstanding, unintended consequences are the result, usually damaging if not fatal. Killings in meetings between American Indians and West-bound English pioneers happened often when a voice sound or hand gesture, made and clear to the sender as friendly, was misunderstood by the receiver as a threat or danger.

Although greatly oversimplified, this description of the complex communication process should have the practical value of putting us all carefully on guard against the illusory complacency that communicating effectively is simple or easy. Instead, it is complex and difficult, deserving our highest concentration (as it has among philosophers for thousands of years ). This is especially so when three other inevitable communication complexities are factored in: channels, barriers and the differences in the life experiences of the sender and the receiver (as in the diagram above).

Channels, Barriers and Individual Differences

 Channels of communication are closely related to (or even parts of) the message. They are the physics and chemistry of communication: the sounds, physical actions,   pictures and entire physical environment affecting the transmission and reception of the message as it is encoded and decoded. For example, a message sent in French to a German who only poorly understands French fails even though the message is encoded accurately; or an oral message is only A//-heard if mumbled or in the noise of a windstorm or city traffic; or a doctor's prescription is read wrongly because of his scribbling. Attention to the critical details of channels is often the difference between a successful communication and a failed one.

The barriers to effective communication (the huge circles around the sender and receiver in the diagram) are the major causes of communication failure. As already noted, identifying, listing and explaining these barriers are the main and practical objective of this book and will be treated fully below.

The life-experience base ingrained - and uniquely different - in the minds of each sender and each receiver is always a major barrier to successful communication, and will be treated as such later. These individual differences between senders and receivers (typical "gaps" such as differences in age, gender, nationality, language, religions, motivations) are usually the root causes of failed communication. For example, such differences in why and how today's workers are motivated constitute the central theme in another book in this Management Series.

"Meanings" are in the Mind. Not in Symbols

A  most   profound   insight   underlying  human communication was developed recently by the General Semanticists, a powerful think-tank of communication researchers: that any "meaning" (idea, image, feeling) is always and only in your mind as you try to "send" it to another, never in any symbol or sign you use. People tend to "look up" a word in a dictionary for its meaning. This can be helpful in choosing the best signs in a message for your purpose of communicating the meaning in your mind into the mind of the receiver. But the word, or any other sign or part of a message, is only a sign of the meaning, never the meaning itself.

A common communication disaster is the human tendency to assume automatically, with no explicit attention paid to it, that a sign familiar and clear to a sender (such as a handshake or the word "Hi") is the same as his meaning (for example, an inner feeling of friendship). When the sender's sign is interpreted (decoded) differently by a receiver (for him it means, just as automatically, maybe an attack or insult), both marvel at the misunderstanding - and blame the other, if they haven't already killed each other or ruined any future relationship. Cross-cultural communications (Americans talking to Iraqis, Russians to Moslem nations in the U.S.S.R; Japanese to New Yorkers, etc.) are like dynamite on a short fuse, ready always to explode into such communication disasters, often causing wars and death.

Epistemology's Descent into Existentialism

 At this most fundamental level of linguistics theory. involving at its roots classical Philosophy's basic field of Epistemology, human communication is revealed as always a monumental challenge to any human being "to try to do it as 'right' as possible," knowing it can not ever even come close to being flawless. The inherent complexity and finitude of communication (as in the diagram above), loaded with huge and treacherous gaps between meanings intended and messages actually sent or received, reduces "full and perfect" communication between humans to a mere fraction of that desired ideal.   Each person's experience base is the most fundamental barrier of all: words like "combat," "flu," "sex," "starvation," "childbirth," "a parent's death," "surgery" or "bankruptcy," vivid with inner meaning for one who has actually experienced them, are almost meaningless for one who has never actually experienced them. The two humans can share the words and message, but never truly the meanings. Typically, the words will be misunderstood or not understood at all - despite the nods of heads and vocal assurances of mutual understanding of each others' meanings. Many existentialist philosophers sank into openly nihilist and atheistic views of man, so depressed were they at this miserable "human condition" of man "locked within the prison of his mind, utterly unable to reach, understand or be understood by others.

The "Anticipation" Habit

Practical people cannot afford the disabling despair of philosophers but must continue to communicate as best they can to achieve practical daily goals. But, because of the complexity of the communication process, careful and cautious communicators take nothing for granted as they communicate. They exercise extreme respect for its difficulty and hazards. They are like champion chess players, almost paranoid in anticipating all possible ways a move, a word, might fail to achieve the result desired by their communication (as chess champions do on a chessboard).   This skill and daily habit of "anticipating" is the mental power that makes chess champions - and also effective communicators. For example, the doctor ordering "15" units of a medication would anticipate the possibility of it being heard as "SO," ask his nurse for feedback or even write it on a piece of paper to be sure his meaning is truly understood.

Perception and Other Illusions

Humans do not "see" the real world as it really is (although naively they think they do) but rather "perceive" it as changed by their own senses and minds in their very act of "seeing" it. A common example is humans' belief for centuries that the Earth "is" flat and the Sun "rises" in the East, etc. (that's how humans perceive it all, but not how it actually is). This phenomenon, now called human perception by modern psychologists, was long ago noted and identified by the early Greek philosophers such as Plato. It was developed into a sophisticated (and positive) model of the true nature of human thinking by Immanuel Kant, one of history's most influential philosophers.

Threats of Negativism, Skepticism, Cynicism

        Unfortunately, but not too importantly, many philosophers and linguistic theorists became so disillusioned by human inability to know "things as they realty are" that they abandoned all such hope and adopted total skepticism. Modern versions of this still exist as minor pockets of negativism among the Existentialists (as noted above). But such depressive (and useless) rejection of human knowledge - or ability to communicate - is hardly new: the Greek philosopher, Gorgias (480 BC, known then as "sophist" and "cynic," as was later Socrates ), taught convincingly that "if anything really exists, we could never know it as it really is; and, even if we could know it, we could never communicate it accurately to others." Even Plato, one of the two vast influences upon 2000 years of Western thought (the other Aristotle), taught views similar to Gorgias,' although somewhat less radical.

Again, our purpose here in reviewing briefly some aspects of Epistemology and linguistic theory is only to lay a quick, but solid, theoretical framework, highlighting the extreme difficulty of "knowing" and "communicating." The practical aim and result for any prudent reader should be removal of all complacency when "accepting" "facts" or "knowledge" as real or when trying to communicate it to others. We need not and should not abandon all hope of knowing or communicating well; but certainly the inherent difficulty of it demands the daily habit of alert and careful concentration. The practical lesson of Epistemology and linguistic theory is summed up in one word: CAUTION!   Communicating only seems simple and easy.   But communicating effectively is in fact a most challenging undertaking and demands our best efforts to "do it right."

Sensation Vs Perception Vs Knowing

Three functions of the human mind, utterly different but naively confused and acted upon as identical, underlie and control every human's perception or "knowledge" of the world and his daily communications within it. It is generally accepted today (based on Aristotelian empiricist premises rather than Platonist idealism) that all knowledge starts with sensation.

 Sensation is the act of any of our five senses such as "seeing" a shape, "hearing" a noise, "touching" a tree, "smelling" perfume or "tasting" an apple). These acts of sensation are automatic, occurring in blizzards of millions as sights and sounds rain in upon our senses every second of our lives. Often even when we sleep, but then as sensations stored (as images) and recalled by the brain's memory.   Sensations are the raw data seeping into our senses constantly, neither examined nor analyzed, only received and stored in memory.

 Perception is an instant, automatic and subconscious series of mental activities that follows sensation but so rapidly as to seem part of sensation itself. Our perception determines what sense data we pay attention to ("sensory selection") and how we then organize it.

           Perception (really a complex group of many mental acts) instantly tries to organize sense data into meaningful wholes. Perception ignores most sense data as unimportant, selects and focuses upon some of it as noteworthy, compares it with data in memory, often adds (by imagination) sense data not there now at all but stored in memory from previous sense experience, and continues to organize ("interpret") current sense data (as far as possible) into meaningful wholes. The result is that each of us perceives an identical scene differently based on our inherent interests, goals and past experiences.

For example, a landscape painter and a home builder, both looking at the same land site and clump of trees, perceive it totally differently. The painter "sees" only colors, shadows and artistic shapes, the builder only inclines for water drainage and trees to be cut down. A child viewing the same and longing to climb the trees would also perceive the scene much differently than his father interested only in the site as a good future investment. An eagle, soaring above it all, "sees" only an ideal nesting site and "intruders." So the "reality" out there, as "seen" and experienced, is not one "thing" at all but as many as there are different perceivers perceiving it differently, each in his own way.

 Knowing (knowledge) is the formation of firm mental convictions (determining here-and-now decisions, acts of will and consequent actions) about what is true or false, based on mental analysis of our sense data and perceptions - or by faith. Knowledge is seldom adequate, a constant frustration for all of us yearning for truth, usually sorely limited and needing "leaps of faith or inference" (such as religious beliefs) to "complete" and "fill in" the gaps. Typically, but subconsciously, we "see" what we want our world to be rather than what it really is, then "know" it to be so (often near-desperate "wishful thinking"). For most, religious faith provides the "knowledge" about what we want to "know" (life after death, heaven, etc.) when such knowledge is otherwise beyond human capability.

Perception, "Knowledge," Illusion and Communication

      Magicians, statisticians and corporate accountants (and others such as economists and politicians) often exploit the deep flaws in human perception and knowledge. Magicians do shows openly and honestly, "tricking" people's senses after they've paid a fee to be (delightfully) tricked. It's an honest game people enjoy, laughing at their mental frailty, much like well-known "optical illusions" that fascinate and entertain but generally do no harm. For example, the hat below "is" exactly equal in height and width although you perceive the height as much greater; the rows of checkers are exactly parallel despite how crooked you perceive them (check it out with "objective" rulers or calipers). Note also the two faces in the middle (or are they a drinking cup?). The lesson, of course, is that only the naive trust their senses and  perceptions "automatically" or completely, whether in magicians' fun shows or matters of serious life thinking and communicating.

At a more serious and microscopic level (inspired by Kant ), modern physics and chemistry now know that matter exists as utterly different than how we normally perceive it. It is mainly empty space, with tiny and hugely separated protons and electrons linked by invisible energy. The tiniest bits of matter are like their macroscopic cousins, the giant universe of suns and planets separated by billions of miles of empty space. When you look at your hand or desk you perceive hard, solid matter although, in reality, they are tiny bits of matter separated by relatively huge empty spaces. Before the invention of microscopes, revealing the "tiny" world of atoms and molecules, humans had no way of knowing what matter really was, only how it was perceived (wrongly) by their limited senses. Cautious minds must always wonder and anticipate that today's truths quickly become tomorrow's illusions; merely our perceptions, not reality at all. Yesterday's flat Earth "is" now a sphere and matter mainly empty space, but who knows how we will perceive and organize reality in later centuries?   No wonder that scientists tend to be skeptics, distrusting conventional "truths," as they routinely prove them to be illusions and mere ancient perceptions or unfounded "leaps of faith."

Daily attempts to communicate perceived "facts" and "knowledge" must be subject always to similar caution about their accuracy. Any complacency about accepting (without caution) what people think, believe or say makes one vulnerable to irritating or disastrous communication breakdowns. The effective communicator (and thinker) excels in healthy skepticism and the daily habits of caution, concentration and anticipation. 


EMPATHY: The Supreme Communication Skill

The discussions above make it clear that the "real" world, as perceived and known by each of us (differently), is not some simple, single or same thing. The "real" world, whatever it is, "exists" only in the mind of each perceiver and is completely relative.  At a macroscopic level, Einstein's theory of relativity proved this in the movements of enormous suns and planets where time and place are never absolute but always relative to each other. There is no such "thing" as any absolute "time" or "place" or "distance."  The same cosmic principle of "relativity" operates also in the smaller world of humans on our small planet (and even the microscopic world of atoms and molecules).

No "One" Real World, but Many as Perceived

The "real" world is only as each of us perceives it. Recall the land site and clump of trees which is three different "realities," relative to your being and perceiving as a painter, builder or child. The real world for a tall father in two feet of snow is quite manageable or even exhilarating; for his young child it is fearful and life threatening. When the child says "I'm scared” the father misunderstands because he fails to practice the mental habit of empathy. So does a fast-talking computer expert explaining routine (to him) computer operations in quick unintelligible terms to a new and bewildered trainee.  Both the father and the computer trainer are communicating solely from their own viewpoints (not the other's), and so are sure to fail in their communications - and any practical results intended.

Empathy means "imagining yourself in another person's immediate circumstances," "putting yourself in his shoes." At the most fundamental level (or frustrating limitations) of our finite "human condition," complete empathy is impossible, of course. Each of us is an utterly different and isolated person, locked alone and hidden in his own mind, with no direct access to any other's inner thoughts or meanings. Most of our own unique experiences can never be shared with or fully known by anyone except ourselves. No man, for example, can ever really know the pain and fear a woman experiences in the vivid, private moments of childbirth or the mind-destroying horror of being raped- nor any woman a man's fear of sexual impotency. No religious fanatic (Muslim, evangelical Christian, etc.) can truly understand the motivations or words of a rational agnostic - or vice versa; nor can a modern American really "get into the mind of an Oriental (or vice versa). We are able to "reach" each other only in most limited ways, only through cumbersome, usually flawed, signs and symbols ("messages" as in pp.3-4). Mainly we must live - and die - alone.

EMPATHY (Sensitivity): Easy, but Critical, Mental Habit

Fortunately, however, limited but immensely useful and practical empathy is an easy communication skill, it one concentrates on it, practices it daily and makes it a "natural" communication habit. It is "sensitivity" to others, their particular situations, goals and feelings. For example, the computer expert above could easily succeed in his communication goals with a new trainee by just imagining quickly that he is that trainee, knows nothing about a computer or the technical terminology and jargon that's routine and automatic for an expert. With just that quick "mental shift," and sensitivity, done automatically;/ made a daily habit, the expert would easily communicate in the trainee's terms, explaining each necessary step slowly, waiting for feedback indicating the trainee's real understanding and patiently watching (and helping) as the trainee himself performs each new computer operation.



The General Semanticists' approach to communication problems was practical rather than theoretical.   They researched to discover the general and specific causes of communication failures, along with practical remedies for each.   The general causes which they identified have already been discussed above, lying in the very nature of the communication process and human perception. Now let's list the specific causes and their remedies. Note that each remedy is a simple, but powerful, mental habit easily mastered provided, as noted earlier, one avoids complacency, concentrates carefully on the task of communication and anticipates potential communication trouble at every turn.

"R E I F Y I N G"

This word, "reifying," should be in the vocabulary of anyone determined to improve his daily communications. Coined by the General Semanticists, it is the broadest of the barriers they identified and includes implicitly most of the others to be listed below.

The word "reifying' comes from the Latin word for "thing" (thus "thing" or imagining non-things as real things).  By definition, "reifying" is "reacting to words or signs as if they were the real thing they merely signify." When we reify, we confuse and mistake mere signs for real things. A common example is a doctor's placebo (a sugar pill offered to a patient as a powerful, real, medicine for, say, insomnia, but with no real specific or sleep-inducing chemicals at all). The patient, however, reacts to the doctor's mere word "powerful sleeping pill" as if the pill were the real thing - and, taking it, falls immediately to sleep.

Mark Twain often told a story which illustrates the reifying phenomenon. Arriving late one night on his lecture circuit at a mid-western hotel, he found the room oppressive, couldn't get to sleep, not enough air. Unable to open the window, he finally threw a nearby book in the dark through the window to let in air, heard the window crash and soon, breathing comfortably, went to sleep. Awaking in the morning, he was surprised to find the window intact but a mirror near the window smashed into small bits. Although the term "reifying' was not yet coined, he was amused at how convincingly he had reacted to the sound of crashing glass (a mere sign) as if it were, in fact, the actual opening of his window and real fresh air in his room.

Similarly, but not amusing at all, many suffer disabling psychosomatic symptoms (actual paralysis of a leg or arm, severe headaches, nausea, constipation, stuttering, etc.) when there is no real physical cause of it, only the mental fear or inner suggestion of it (merely mental images becoming as real as real physical things).

Words, however, are the more common examples of reifying, contaminating daily communications. The word "gay" used to mean someone pleasant and joyful. Now the very word connotes a homosexual. People react to the word instantly and take no time to examine the reality such as the person referred to as "gay" being really a joyful person, not a sex deviate.

Negative reaction to the word "bribe" was a major factor when Congress recently passed a law banning U.S. firms from making advance payments to ministers of foreign nations where such are routine for the privilege of bidding on major construction projects. Congressmen didn't relish 30-second TV campaign commercials branding them as supporting "bribery." The result is that U.S. firms and American workers lose jobs to European bidders valued in the $billions. (In many foreign nations, the advance payment to ministers is merely a different method of executive pay in lieu of a salary for their work, not what we mean by "bribery" at all.) Thousands of words we use are "loaded" (usually emotionally) with such prejudgments about the thing being referred to, rejecting \t with no careful examination of the thing, only the instant knee-jerk reaction to the word. Think of the use (abuse) of words such as "racist," "liberal," "atheist," "warmonger," "God on our side," "discrimination."

Many words are used to conceal reality. We call them euphemisms (nice sounding, usually vague, words for ugly realities) such as military reports of "collateral damage" instead of "civilians killed," or "induced miscarriage" (abortion), "disinformation" (lies), "love" (lust or rape), "DoD" (War Dept.), "peace movement" (appeasement), "welfare safety net" (handouts), "PAC contributions" (payoff for votes), "capital punishment" (execution), "inoperative loans" (bad debt), etc.

The "professions" are saturated with euphemisms, reifying and jargon. Some of it is useful technical terminology to facilitate operations within a profession. But often it is designed to exclude "outsiders" from their real meanings and/or achieve the professionals' goals by verbal deception of the ignorant. Lawyers (with "legalese") and computer experts (with "computers") excel at this art; but close behind are  politicians,  priests,  economists,  philosophers,  government bureaucracies, theologians, advertisers, PR agencies, etc. Some lawyers routinely intimidate and collect huge fees for churning out simple Wills or real estate settlements (secretaries print the boilerplate from computers in minutes) because of clients' terror about an invalid Will (or real estate papers) due to "technical flaws" in the language used. Priests (especially religious cultists) enslave the minds of billions using mainly metaphorical, anthropomorphic and inciting words (with no real-world evidence for them), driving people fanatically into self-destructive religious lifestyles or wars. Economists control a nation's "confidence levels" and financial decisions with statistics and theoretical models that are often meaningless but with words that convince the uninitiated. Even auto mechanics and appliance repairmen easily extort excessive fees with their doomsday jargon unintelligible but terrifying to their victims. Reifying is everywhere every day, blurring or destroying communications if not being used deliberately or subconsciously to exploit the unwary.

We swim daily through a watery maze of "thing less" words (most emotionally convincing) which control and often damage the naive, complacent and unsuspecting. The practical lesson from this perverse pattern of reifying is:


Be always most wary of the mere "world of words;" concentrate instead on what is the reality, the real thing (if any), being referred to by mere words, and what is the real and rational evidence (if any) for it.

"The Map is Not the Territory."

This favorite and profound analogy throughout the writings of the General Semanticists contains the main remedy to avoid or compensate for the human "reifying" tendency.  It is similar to our mental habit of Anticipation (see above). A map is a symbol, a picture of a particular real territory, not the thing itself. Yet the instinctive tendency of people is to react to the mere map as if it were the actual territory.  We just assume subconsciously that the map accurately represents the territory (it only rarely does). For example, a salesman, driving through near deserted Western plains, in a hurry, almost out of gas, passes a gas station, noting on his map that another gas station is only 20 miles ahead, a more efficient stop for refueling. Arriving at the mapped station, he meets with a very real "Out of Business" sign and faces now very real "out of gas" and "missed sale" problems (no phone there either despite the "phone" symbol right there on the map).

Our salesman fell into the common trap of the wrongly used "existential IS." (He also failed to use the chess champion's effective habit of anticipation - p.6.) Looking quickly at his "map of the territory" and noting that a gas station is 20 miles ahead, he subconsciously assumed that subjective "is" (the mapmaker thought there existed a gas station at a particular place) to be the same as an objective "existential IS" (a real thing, physical and operating gas station, really there). Similarly, when someone says "this room is cold," "racists are immoral," "the Iraqis are victorious," "women are weak," agnostics are blasphemers," "this man is unqualified," etc., all such statements constitute only a subjective "is" (along with lots of emotionally loaded abstractions and jargon); whether any such subjective "is" or "are" proves to be an objective existential IS must be cautiously examined and analyzed based on the thing itself, never mere signs or words. Not surprisingly, General Semantics draws heavily on Immanuel Kant's critical distinction between noumena (the real world) and phenomena (the world as merely perceived).   Human history is littered with the tragedies of peoples, governments, religions, economies, government bureaucracies, wars, etc., always confusing the map for the real territory.

A major General Semantics scholar, Anatol Rapoport, summarized well how our illusion-oriented minds constantly "trick" our senses, convictions and actions by "reifying," reacting to mere symbols exactly as if they were real things:

"Since man reacts as readily to symbols as to reality, he stands in constant danger of mistaking verbal constructions of his own making for reality, regardless of whether the former ever correspond to the latter."



A more specific form of "reifying" and a common barrier to effective communication is stereotyping: i.e. reacting to a universal class name (word) as if all individual members of it were the same. All nouns, except pronouns he, she, are universal, connoting an entire class of individuals (such as girl, man, horse, salesman, professor, Muslim, etc.).  Based on painful experience with a few individuals of a class or ingrained biases learned from others, the human tendency is to prejudge all members of a class as the same, no exceptions. Stereotypes, usually negative, abound by the thousands (and usually include the "existential is [are]" trap above) such as the words professors (all are absent-minded), salesmen (all are dishonest). Congressmen (all are corrupt), soldiers (all are rigid)), etc.

The reaction to a stereotype is usually instant, automatic, subconscious, negative and stops all communication, especially careful listening or reading of information. For example, a corporate hiring officer, studying resumes for a key job he needs to fill promptly and competently, erroneously dismisses the best individual for the job because he spots the word "salesman" in the applicant's early work history (the hiring officer had once been ripped off by a car salesman). Prejudging instantly, he reads no further into the resume, his knee-jerk rejection of the applicant missing the very credentials urgently needed for the job.  This stereotype was "salesman" but could be thousands of other mere words that spark instant (and wrong) decisions such as "professor," "divorcee," "Iraqi," "psychiatrist," "Colonel," "democrat," "agnostic," "dancer," "age 66," "young black," "farmer," etc.

Individuals are REAL, Not Abstract Classes

The  remedy  for  stereotyping  is,   like   most communication remedies, intellectually easy: ignore all ingrained prejudgments associated with an abstract class name and concentrate solely on the here-and-now qualities of a particular individual. Easily said, but difficult to do when the stereotypes are charged with extreme emotional content such as raw hatred of any group of people or things.

A further complication is that many stereotypes aren't totally imaginary but have   some reasonable foundation in reality -although only as a generalization. For example, many professors (maybe the majority?) are in fact impractical, absent-minded theorists, dour and humorless. But, many are "exceptions" such as the individual professor you might be trying to persuade into a major investment. If you err by "acting" on the stereotype, you alienate him and "lose the sale." Many lawyers (maybe the majority?) are in fact cynical exploiters but many individual lawyers are considerate about fees, reducing clients' costs and do much free community work.

Despite the entrenched tendency to stereotype, the basic remedy still remains an act of will, the mental discipline to explicitly dismiss from mind stereotypes, and act instead on your assessment of the here-and-now real individual; only him or her. Practicing this discipline daily until it becomes a natural habit is the sure remedy to the ruinous communication barrier of stereotyping.

Stereotyping, Parochialism, Bias and Prejudice

Stereotypes aren't mere communication "technicalities." They're pervasive and perverse poisons seeping deeply into each of our minds from our earliest childhood years, all created by a single event: where and when we happened to be born. None of us ever escapes them; although, with persistent mental discipline, some (few?) adults begin gradually to gain "control" of the stereotyping pattern (by methods already emphasized above). However, the poisons are always still there, suffocating all genuine communication, buried in our minds, ingrained forever by the tiny and parochial influences of the place and time of our birth: i.e. the "brainwashing" power of parents, religious authorities, regional culture, local laws, rules, customs and beliefs. All of these quickly bias ("program") our minds into highly emotional, unquestioned convictions about what is absolutely right or wrong, good or bad, no matter how irrational.  The tragic result (illustrated throughout all human history) is profound misunderstanding and jungle-like hostility among people, impenetrable communication blocks, mutual distrust and hatred, tribal and religious wars, killing, starvation, rape, looting, disease and misery.

For example, Arabs and Jews hate and have killed each other for centuries (and still do), Moslems kill Christians (and vice versa), Shiite Moslems kill Sunnis, Communists kill Capitalists, Families feud and kill others', and so on throughout history.  Note that all the capitalized terms are powerful - and fatal - stereotypes.   (It is worth noting, also, that the central purpose of a college "liberal education" is to "free" students from such bias and replace it with rational, reality-oriented thinking and communication abilities, the foundation for all human mutual support and cooperation.)

Stereotyping is also the natural habit of lazy minds (often life-long), "organizing" people and events into quick, convenient slots as just good or bad, thus avoiding the hard mental work of careful examination and evaluation of the factual details of each individual person or event.

Communication: The Essence of Human Life

It must now be obvious that "communication" is much more than a bundle of quick-study "technical skills" (as critical as these are to accomplish daily tasks, such as clear writing, effective grammar and spelling or enunciation of words, especially in life-and-death emergencies). Far more basic, however, and at the very roots of human existence (as truly human), sophisticated communication ability is what distinguishes humans, in essence, from other animal species.   It "connects" us meaningfully "with" each other through developed languages by which we can cooperate for survival. If abused, lacking, "disconnected" like a broken nerve system in an organism, we can destroy each other as an Earth-planet species - which we might indeed, and soon, in today's nuclear age of mass-destruction capabilities.

It is no exaggeration to state that: when human communication fails, so does the quality - or even meaningful existence - of human life itself.


"Polarizing" is closely related to stereotyping and, again, includes the mental barrier of reifying. "Polarizing' is the tendency to reduce everything to one or the other of two opposite extremes (such as "black" or "white").   It is often called "either-or" thinking.   Like stereotyping, polarizing is caused mainly by perception, the tendency to over-simplify and quickly "organize" sense data into easily intelligible wholes (as in the Otto experiment above). Shunning the frustration of tentative approximations or degrees of some quality in a person or thing, we pigeon-hole it in our minds or words as "good or bad," "beautiful" or "ugly," "friendly or hostile," hot or cold, etc.    When we think and communicate in polarized opposites, these "extremes" seldom represent reality at all; they distort it and mislead everyone. A room is never "cold" or "hot" but rather 67° F or maybe 92°F; a woman is never "beautiful" or "ugly" but rather "beautiful" in degrees of qualities desired by the perceiver as he comes to know her.

Public policy debates are often contaminated by the polarizing instinct, leading to nationwide absurdities and severe harm. The highly emotional debates for and against using fluorine in public water systems were mainly polarized, those "for" it extolling its cavity-reducing power, those "against" condemning it as "poison." The reality is that fluorine is neither "100%" good or bad, but depends on how and how much of it is used. Too much of it is poison but the correct proportion of it relieves much grief we all suffer from tooth decay. Many city water systems were deprived of fluorine for years, officials banning it as "pure poison."

The same is true of many life-enhancing chemicals and pharmaceuticals banned by Congress and the FDA (Food & Drug Administration), based on (polarized) research "proving" they are, for example, carcinogenic (rats get cancer using amounts equivalent to tons of it a day in a human). Hundreds of substances essential to human life (iodine, vitamins, etc.) or life-enhancing (aspirin, sugar, wine, antibiotics, red meat, even some "illegal" drugs such as marijuana which can alleviate glaucoma) are fatal poisons if used in excess. And also fatal if not used at all. Few of these substances are "either" good "or" bad per se; their real value exists only as a "right degree" somewhere in a range between 0% and 100%. So the same with human functions such as exercise, jogging, eating, sleeping, sex, work, moneymaking, socializing, thinking, etc. All are more or less good - or bad, depending on the amounts. Polarizing, like stereotyping, severs us from reality and substitutes a misleading "world of words."

Remedy: Search for the "Golden Mean"

In the practical world of work, managers constantly polarize themselves into career-threatening, and unnecessary, morale crises. For example, engineers' morale and will to produce creatively is killed by an extremist, obsessed with his narrow version of "efficiency," banning all personal phone calls and socializing at the water cooler. He is oblivious to the realities: hours of personal phoning or socializing on the job by a few people are destructive to his department's productivity; but occasional, personally critical, minutes to insure that a baby-sitter has arrived and "the kids are OK," or a car being repaired is indeed ready for car-pool time, or getting to know a key fellow-worker's ways of thinking at a water-cooler break, etc., enhance real motivation for productivity, replacing personal worries with undistracted concentration on the job being done. The manager's mistake lies in his "either-or," "all-or-none" polarizing.

The easy remedy is the daily habit of the "Golden Mean," avoiding the traps of extremes, searching always for the "right degrees" of all things between the extremes.


"Allness," a special concept developed by the General Semanticists, is as fundamental as the Darwinian concept of animal individual "survival of the fittest." Allness is the ^//-survival tendency to "see" any situation from one's own single point of view only and assume that's ALL there is to be seen (or heard). Allness is the absolute and impenetrable barrier to communication, a rigid, resistant viewpoint, often called "closed mind" or "tunnel vision."

An Allness-infested person closes his ears and eyes instantly to anything unfamiliar or opposed to his own viewpoint, even if in mid-sentence it seems it might be. He will not listen to it. He is typically an interrupter, like TVs "Archie Bunker," stopping a speaker in mid-sentence with instant rejections such as: "Oh, no, let's hear none of that kind of nonsense" or "just stop it, that's blasphemy" (or "policy violation" or "unpatriotic," etc.). But, less direct than "Archie," more subtle forms of the Allness syndrome include letting a speaker say all he wants but "tuning out" completely, not listening, paying no attention to it at all. Professors, PhDs, CEOs, government officials and other highly-placed professionals are especially prone to Allness, since (in their view) they do know it all and there's nothing worth listening to from mere subordinates, students or other such 'underlings.'

This is how Allness can destroy a manager, and his career, as he rejects realistic information about new operations, new technologies or marketing systems essential to meet the competition, known by his subordinates but never by him. The obvious remedy for Allness is the day-by-day mental habit of Empathy. With it, we become sensitive to the experience and knowledge accumulated by others in their worlds of work, listen to it carefully, learn critical information from it and are thus able to make decisions that succeed rather than fail.


"Bypassing" is the General Semanticists' term for misunderstandings or non-understandings between persons, each one's meanings and words "bypassing" instead of "connecting" accurately with the other's. Usually these bypasses are honest but hurtful errors, only thoughtless ambiguities.   Common examples are technical terms ("hypertensive," "per stripes," "drop form") and acronyms (FDA, DPSC, AMA, ASAP, FYT), automatic jargon for a specialist in his world but usually misunderstood by his receiver - or not understood at all.

However, the causes of bypassing often run deeper than carelessness. They are instead (1) the subconscious urge to impress others with one's knowledge and status; or (2) deliberate intent to conceal or confuse meanings and/or deceive others to exploit them. Iraq's Saddam Hussein (U.N.-Iraq war, 1991, "mother of all wars," etc.) excelled in the latter, as do most international communications between "diplomats." The need to impress is more common, usually innocent and merely ego-building, but often harmful as receivers /^understand critically needed information about job goals, career advice or essential SOPs (standard operating procedures).

Many professors (and management trainers), for example, talk to impress students rather than teach concepts clearly. Trendy acronyms, name-dropping at cocktail parties, foreign clichés ("entre nous," "deja vu," etc.) are usually meant to impress, not to communicate clearly. Receivers, especially students needing high grades, shun all embarrassing show of ignorance, "play the game," pretend with nods of head that they understand when they don't at all. The same happens as managers "talk" to subordinates, /vo/i-communication is amusingly manifest at cocktail lounges where couples hear little of what's said (only the ear-shattering "music") but knowingly nod heads.

Bypassing is a practical and daily problem for managers, ruining decisions and work results. They issue orders in rapid-fire jargon to subordinates who, misunderstanding, produce finished products or documents - all wrong. Hours or months of huge human effort become wasted in the communication confusion, ending in harsh blame and finger-pointing. Managers' careers often end because of doomed bypassing. Ruinous as bypassing is in one-on-one communications, this scenario in groups, in executive meetings, can become a catastrophe, everyone pretending cleverly to understand all that's being said but nobody really understanding any of it. Or, much worse, thinking they do when they don't. But, still, to show tangible results from the meeting or meet a deadline, all agree on some real-world decision (usually wrong).

The 500 most common words in an American dictionary list a total of about 14,000 meanings, such as the word "round" with 70 meanings itself. No wonder bypassing is more the rule than the exception, unless a communicator concentrates most careful (and practices the habit of feedback, below). "Round" to a teenager might mean another boring harangue by Dad about drug abuse when he means it as going out for a "round" of golf; the misunderstanding causing an instant fight and further deterioration of their relationship. A now famous example: Winston Churchill (in his Second World War) recalls a meeting of top British and American commanders arguing furiously for "tabling" a critical issue (the British) and against it (the Americans), the meeting near collapse until all finally realized that "tabling meant to the British "put the issue on the table now and discuss it," while to the Americans it meant "put the issue aside for another meeting."

A Communication Fundamental: FEEDBACK

Today's standard remedy for bypassing is the concept and use of feedback (Cybernetics).   Decades ago, communication theorists developed the field of Cybernetics (Greek word for "steering," now the science of command, control and communication systems in animals and machines).  Bats and dolphins use built-in feedback mechanisms, functioning like "radar," to navigate unerringly air or oceans. The three "Cs" ("C "), now accelerated to the speed of light by computers and space satellites, are the essential elements of modern TV, heating & A/C systems, aircraft and warfare. "Smart" missiles pin-point and hit specific targets as TV cameras and "radar" feed back to a guidance system their actual destination in flight versus an intended one so adjustments can be made automatically to assure delivery at the intended destination.

The same feedback principle (or Monitoring) applies exactly to interpersonal communication.   Most people "launch" a communication (such as a job directive) and walk away, assuming it is fully understood and achieving its purpose. There is no feedback about the extent to which the actual meaning as understood by a receiver matches that intended by the sender. Hectic executives often spurn feedback or ignore it because it does take time and patience amid the pressures of busy events. Recall the doctor (page 1), ordering "15" units of a drug, heard by the nurse as "SO," resulting in a patient's overdose. Feedback would have saved his life, if the doctor had patiently waited a moment, quickly checked out the nurse's actual understanding of his order by asking her to repeat his order back to him or by writing it on a piece of paper, handing it to her and monitoring her reaction. Her reaction would soon correct the wrong "50" to the right "15," as intended.

Careful monitoring of communications is the essence of interpersonal feedback. The daily habit of monitoring assures that one's intended meanings match those as actually understood by others. Feedback efforts, however, can be irritating, forcing people to repeat messages. It must be handled tactfully (such as the doctor: "I better be sure I didn't speak too fast, Sally, how many units did I order?")

Technical Jargon, "Gobbledygook" and "Officialese"

A major modern communication barrier, itself a cause of bypassing, is "Gobbledygook," coined by Congressman Maury Maverick (Texas) to describe how Washington bureaucrats talk and write. As onomatopoeia, it needs no definition (its sound says it all, like "bees buzz"). However, gobbledygook, usually called "officialese" or "jargon," is the use of unclear words that communicate nothing to the average receiver (like "PERT," "OSHA," "voltage crash," or "onomatopoeia"). Although select technical terms are useful among specialists, they are for most unclear jargon used thoughtlessly; or merely to impress others; or evade questions and issues; or to create wrong impressions upon which gullible listeners take a desired action, moved by the emotional sound of words with no understanding of them.  Orators, skilled in the arts of rhetoric [not logic}, exploit meaningless jargon to inflame political mobs (Hitler) or religious flocks (TV evangelists) or naive juries.

Jargon is a dangerous daily trap for any manager, loaded with high risk of bypassing.  Technical terms, acronyms or abbreviations routine to him are often misunderstood by subordinates, leading to work mistakes and job failures. His clearly meant "ASAP" ("as soon as possible") might mean to him "must have by 4pm today," while a subordinate, with other priorities, interprets "ASAP" as "do by end of the week," and sets his agenda accordingly.

Remedy: Specific, Concrete Words - and Feedback

Avoiding the communication breakdowns caused by jargon is simple in the skills needed but, as usual, demands the habits of "anticipation" and concentration on every communication - and on the result intended. A careful communicator will be specific and use concrete words ("...need this by 4pm today." not "ASAP'). And feedback: "Will this be a problem, getting it done for me by 4pm today").

Remedy: "Monitoring" and "Self-Monitoring

As noted above (Cybernetics), the essence of feedback is "monitoring" actual versus intended performance, then "adjusting" actual performance accordingly. Your thermostat can't control your home heat, turn the furnace on or off to maintain the intended home temperature, unless it "monitors" the actual temperature minute-by-minute. The same principle applies to interpersonal communication: you can't be sure your communication (such as "ASAP') is actually accomplishing your intended results unless you monitor it, get feedback, check to see what is actually happening as a result of it.

The human problem with such feedback was noted before, the delicate one of hurting people's feelings, the need to monitor - but very tactfully. The air in your home doesn't "mind" being monitored constantly, but people do. So, your degrees of monitoring must be

balanced against the irritation it causes and the importance of the communication. Requesting feedback about altitude readings from your co-pilot every minute (or second) during an emergency landing is accepted without offense as needed life-and-death precaution. Tracking a secretary every minute about your "ASAP" memo would be neurotic - or worse.   Tact and light humor can usually mask or "soften" your monitoring, such as encountering a subordinate (accidentally?) in a hallway and remarking humorously: "by the way, how's my major memo of the day coming along?" His "OK, chief, no problem, it'll be on your desk by 4pm today" is enough feedback for that purpose. (Incidentally, "by the way" in a conversation is often the clue to someone's real agenda and purpose.)

Self-monitoring. combined with the habits of "empathy" and "anticipation", is the easiest way to avoid such communication breakdowns. It is monitoring myself, "listening to what I am saying (or writing)" as I speak, anticipating the many ways it might be understood or misunderstood by another. As I say, for example, "ASAP," I spot the ambiguity instantly, change my message to what I specifically want: "...need it by 4pm today."

The most essential medicine for all this communication disease is "plain English," specific, concrete, clear.   One General Semanticist tells this classic story:

A New York plumber wrote the Bureau of Standards in Washington that he had found hydrochloric acid fine for cleaning drains, and was it harmless? Washington replied:

"The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but the chlorine residue is incompatible with metallic permanence." The plumber wrote back his thanks that it was harmless. Whereupon, Washington wrote him: "Don't use hydrochloric acid - it eats the hell out of pipes." Now the plumber understood.  (It is fortunate that the plumber initiated some feedback; else he and his customers would be "out of business" or "out of pipes.")   Major communication failures occur because the sender "assumes" any "idiot" would understand his meaning and is too busy to waste time with feedback.


Assumptions we make and the tendency to "jump to conclusions" (inference-proneness) are part of most communication failures. In Logic and Mathematics, an assumption is a proposition we take for granted to be true (a "given") while an inference is a proposition we conclude to be true from other evidence. As a practical matter, they both affect communications similarly, so we'll treat them both using the single word "assumptions."

Assumptions (and inferences) can be explicit such as in carefully reasoned analysis or public argumentation. However, most assumptions affecting communication are instant,   subconscious, automatic, happening in literally hundreds per minute, never recognized as assumptions or inferences at all.  At any given moment in a conversation, we subconsciously assume hundreds of things (as we must, and most correctly) such as that our listener is not deaf, he speaks our language, he is willing to listen, etc., and that he understands our words (this assumption is often the incorrect one).

The remedy is theoretically easy: consciously check out all assumptions, - but that's obviously impossible in the real world of rapid-fire, ongoing communication. So the practical remedy is selective caution, anticipation, concentration and judgment, checking out the assumptions most likely to fail - and always using the feedback skill. The main practical point here is: concentrate and be as careful as time permits to avoid the trap of wrong assumptions (as in the "ASAP" example above).


It is obvious that some human communication is done by non-verbals (non -verbal signs, handshakes, pointed fingers, facial expressions, tone of voice, sexual motions, hand gestures, hugs, kisses, menacing fists, "body language" of all sorts).       Decades ago, communication experts estimated that about 80% of human communication was verbal and 20% or so non-verbal, the non-verbal mainly supplementing overt words.

Today's communication research suggests the reverse: that 80% of the real meanings we communicate, what others actually "receive" and understand as our real meanings, happen by non-verbals, -not by spoken or written words. The cynical and hostile grin on a politician's face as he says he supports your candidacy is the meaningful message, not the glib and assuring words. His words tell you he will help; his grin convinces you otherwise.

The most damaging feature of non-verbals is that they operate subconsciously. While giving conscious attention to the words we are choosing, our non-verbals happen automatically; natural gestures and signs we never even notice. But others notice them more than our words. For example, a manager, angry at a worker's failure on a critical project, spent an hour helping "fix" it; soon after, the manager began to outline a routine job for another worker - but the worker heard none of it, anxious about the anger still etched in the manager's voice. The worker dared not ask for a repeat of the instructions, that surely angering the manager even more. Result: a total communication breakdown.

The remedy for controlling much of the damage caused by non-verbals is again the habit of monitoring another's reactions and se\f-monitoring; then avoiding wrong non-verbals or, at least, explaining them. The angry manager, if aware of his anger after the tense hour's meeting above, would have either waited till he regained his composure or, at least, explained to the second worker ("sorry, Charlie, I know I look angry, but it's a problem in my office, has nothing to do with you; but, here is a job I need, etc.").

Cross-cultural and international communications are especially vulnerable to non-verbals, carrying utterly different meanings in different cultures. So are close relationships. Many careers and marriages suffer extreme damage - or end - in the interpersonal conflict caused by misunderstood non-verbals (and the other communication barriers above).

"Hearing" Words, but NOT LISTENING

Flawed listening is the most severe barrier, left till last in our list since it includes all the others. It's also the function most of us do worst. The key is complacency when listening, lack of conscious concentration. Of the four basic communication functions, we tend to concentrate well on speaking and writing, somewhat on reading but concentrate little on listening.

The psychology underlying this is simple: speaking and writing are "public" acts, revealing us to others as "smart" or "stupid," "impressive" or otherwise, so we tend to concentrate more to do them well. Reading is by our own choice and effort. "Listening" seems to require no effort: one easily looks alert, but half-asleep, "hearing" sounds but "listening" to nothing. Masters of the "art" even sense exact instants to nod affirmatively at the speaker, with no idea of what he's talking about.   Usually more damaging are the errors of "/lay-listening" (understanding only parts of a message), combined with all the barriers discussed above: stereotyping, polarizing, bypassing, assumptions, etc.

For managers, non -listening or /icy-listening is a route to failure, since most of the information we use to make vital decisions comes through our ears. We get (or miss) this information based on how well we listen for it. The lack of critically needed information - or distortions and misunderstandings of it, cause many communication disasters. I'm sure the reader will recall one in his own organization.

Experts call the remedy "Active Listening."   An "active listener" (a) works hard at it, concentrates intensely on every word spoken and the speaker's non-verbals, "hangs on every word" with 100% attention;  (b) listens patiently to understand the full message (not interrupting: (c) analyzes and compares the parts of the message for coherence to be sure first that he understands it fully; (d) "feeds back" his understanding to be sure it matches the speaker's; (e) then, and only after fully understanding the message, evaluates and judges it (its logic, feasibility, costs and other relevant criteria). 

"TA" (Transactional Analysis)

The above completes our list of the major barriers to communication - and their remedies. We conclude with a necessarily brief description of a final - and most practical - communication theory.

The Three "Parts" or States of the Human Personality

TA is the analysis of communication "transactions" between humans.   Created by Doctors Eric Berne and Thomas Harris, it builds on Freud's widely accepted tripartite model of three personality states ("Superego," "Ego" and "Id") which TA renames respectively the "Parent^' "Adult" and "Child," each functioning always within us throughout our lives (totally distinct from our literal, chronological age).

The Child in us, whether we're age 7 or 70, is the most basic level of our mental life (Freud's "Id," the Latin word for "That" or "/("). "It" (the Child in us) is the seething mass of felt needs, driving us daily for food, sex, home and bed, safety, self-defense, companionship, love, pride, status, achievements. Our Child is our emotions, our deep feelings and needs, from mild to intense; pleasure, pain, fun, fear, love, hate. It's how we felt as children, insistence on immediate gratification of every need, the joy when satisfied, the anger when denied.

The Adult is the cool, unemotional, rational thinker in us, the problem-solver, logical "computer," the objective and reasoning realist, - reining in and controlling our Child. Even at an early age, we learn and "calculate" that actually getting a desired goal (a cookie) doesn't happen by letting our Child "want" and scream at Mom, but by doing some helpful act with the cookie as reward. (A grown-up in the real world, lacking a strong "in charge" Adult," dominated by an "uncontrolled Child," is typically a chronically "unemployed on welfare," alcoholic, drug addict, glutton, neurotic or criminal.)

The Parent is our memory bank, storing all the "rights" and "wrongs," "Do's" and "Don'ts" taught by Dad, Mom, priests and other authorities throughout our earliest years.  Then, tiny and helpless, dependent on big parents for food, love, safety, needing their approval to survive, we accepted unquestioned all their beliefs, attitudes, religion, biases, rules. For most, these remain implanted in the mind, controlling one's life till death; some few use the Adult in them to reexamine, critique and reject some or most of early parental "programming." The Parent is also, importantly, the supportive and soothing - or critical. Parent in us (like Mom and Dad), helping often but sometimes scolding.

"Crossed" Transactions and Communication Trouble

The practical, often miracle-working, use of TA is the keen awareness (and feedback) it provides about how he and others are communicating; which of the three "parts" of each personality (Parent, Adult or Child) is actually "in real/ contact" with the other's. Failing to detect how and when we - or others - are "coming on" (as Parent, Child or Adult) causes instant, harsh, communication collapse. TA calls such breakdowns, igniting severe personality clashes, "crossed" transactions: where one person's personality state clashes with a different part of the other's. A typical husband-wife "cross" (the same as a boss-subordinate "cross") is diagrammed in TA below (where husband's Child "comes on" seeking her supportive and soothing Parent, she missing the cue and reacting from her own frustrated Child):

He: "What a day at the office! My head aches something awful."

She: "Your head aches! What about mine "after ten hours of this house, your kids, your bill collectors phoning and the washing machine breaking down! "


There is no real communication here, only harsh, frustrating "communication noise," like radio static.   Or, soon, silent non­-communication, each "silent treatment" assaulting the other. In TA, real communication happens only when arrow lines are parallel: if, for example, she had reacted as a soothing "P" to his pleading "C," then soon he in turn, lines still parallel, as he reciprocated. Marriages (and careers) are built - or ruined - depending on this TA daily awareness of "crossed" versus "parallel" transactions.

TA surely demands the same and best use daily of all fundamental communication habits already listed as "remedies" above: especially Concentration, Empathy, "Anticipation" and Feedback.