Feedback: A Communication Safety Feature

We’ve all experienced communication breakdowns. Sometimes there are technical factors, like bad reception or ambient noise. Sometimes there is a problem with effectiveness; the communicator is doing a poor job of selecting words. And sometimes there are semantic problems, those times when the intended message doesn’t match the received message.

In day-to-day life, semantic problems in communication can cause some damage. Especially when they elicit identity triggers. Last week, Jacob Milicic used a personal anecdote to explain how identity triggers work, why they are so devastating, and how to overcome them.

Today I want to share my strategy for overcoming identity triggers by tackling any underlying semantic problems. To do so, I’ll use an anecdote of my own. In fact, I’ll give you my side of the story here, and you can read the other side of the story here.

But first, I want to show you a model of what successful communication looks like. This one is a little technical, so here’s a version of what it would look like in a conversation:

On a simple and straightforward level, a person’s brain is the information source, and their voice is typically the transmitter of the message. Another person will usually receive the message through hearing, although sometimes visual cues are important also. And there’s a nice little safety feature here. The receiver provides the information source with feedback (like a message in response or even facial expressions) that help the information source know whether the message was successful. Sometimes this kind of receiving is called active listening.

But you had to know this model is a little too simple; otherwise communication breakdowns wouldn’t happen so often. Here’s the problem: NOISE.

Technical noise, like static, makes it really difficult to hear. It can come from the transmitter, the receiver, or something in between. When the problem is effectiveness, there may be a bunch of distracting words (or missing words) that make the message difficult to comprehend. But with semantic problems, the noise can be inside your own head. The same place where identity triggers can spark up and cause trouble.

That’s where my story comes in.

One fine Grand Prix Friday, I showed up to scorekeep sides. I was feeling good since I’d been assigned the late shift all weekend and could sleep in. Not long after I reported to the stage, someone handed my fellow scorekeeper a giant stack of Mini Masters registration slips to enter into WER. She looked at the slips, mentioned how tired she was, and asked if I minded taking the slips.

My brain was fresh, and I knew I’d be able to mow through the slips faster than she could. So I started typing away when Joe Hughto came over and asked what I was doing. I briefly explained the slip registration, and he asked why I was entering the slips. I thought the question was odd, but I mentioned that the other scorekeeper had asked me to.

Joe responded, “See, this is why people like you. You do what you’re told.”

Here’s what should have happened. I should have considered the information source (Joe), who has told me before that his mouth tends to get him into trouble. I should have remembered that he admittedly speaks without thinking sometimes and is often sarcastic. I should have factored in that he spoke offhandedly and probably didn’t mean much by the comment, or maybe even that he somehow meant it as a compliment at the time.

If I’d done all that, then I might have relied on the communication safety feature called feedback. Calling Joe’s attention to the potentially offensive undertone of the comment would probably have resolved things immediately. He would have apologized and explained what he meant, and we’d both move along.

Instead, KABLAM! Joe’s comment produced an identity trigger. Specifically, the comment triggered some longstanding anxiety, insecurity, Imposter Syndrome, and memories of negative experiences. In other words, here’s what happened to our communication:

Notice what’s missing? Feedback. Joe went on his way, oblivious to the problem, because I shut down inside. I had trouble concentrating the rest of the day. I felt sick and self-conscious. The next morning I journaled for hours trying to work through my anxiety.

As a non-confrontational person, I definitely didn’t want to address the problem directly with Joe. But I also knew that if I didn’t confront Joe directly, I’d be uncomfortable, thinking about this negative experience every time I saw him. Whatever happened, I didn’t want my fear to be the reason I lost a friend.

It took me all weekend to work up the courage to say something. Sunday evening, I pulled up a chair next to Joe and talked through what happened. I restored the feedback mechanism to the communication process. Joe apologized, I felt immensely better, and we’re still friends.

Interested in another perspective on this experience? Read Joe’s version of the story here on The Feedback Loop.

Oklahoma judge Sydney Townley deserves a special thank you for her stellar work creating custom illustrations for this article. Thanks, Sydney!

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