From Theory to Practice: Exploring the Science of Interpersonal and Group Communication and Its Effects on Social Cohesion

1. Introduction

This article will discuss communication processes between members of a social group. It aims to show that communication is not merely the mechanical and passive transfer of information between a sender and receiver via a simple message. On the contrary, communication is a complex social interaction between two human beings, both part of a complex ecology called a human system.

Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks, above all, to its unique language.

— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The article is organised as follows:

  • We start by looking at the story of human language and the consequences of its emergence on the social life of the human species.
  • Next, we zoom in on communication processes within a social group, like organisations. These will be our core objectives in this article as they directly impact how we operate and perform in our teams as software engineers.
  • We finally conclude with a discussion on the subtleties of communication when the primary aim of the speaker is to hide, distort, or subvert the truth.

2. Communication in the Animal Kingdom

2.1 How Is Human Language Different

As most of us have learned in natural science classes at school, animals like bees, ants, wolves, and chimpanzees work effectively in groups. They must, therefore, be able to communicate, if only at rudimentary levels, to coordinate their actions. Unlike human communication, animal communication is very basic and consequently does not afford large-scale collaboration.
As most of us have learned in natural science classes at school, animals like bees, ants, wolves, and chimpanzees work effectively in groups. They must, therefore, be able to communicate, if only at rudimentary levels, to coordinate their actions. Unlike human communication, animal communication is very basic and consequently does not afford large-scale collaboration.

Communication is not restricted to humans but is equally observed in insects (ants, bees…), birds, and primates. Communication between animals can be vocal or non-vocal; its purpose is to transmit vital environmental information. In the animal kingdom, communication is sparse, rigid, and has limited utility. This was the case with Homo sapiens until roughly 70,000 years ago when the Cognitive Revolution occurred.

The Cognitive Revolution resulted in a radical change in cognitive skills among humans. The language used became sophisticated, rich, and supple. A finite set of words can now be combined to produce infinite ideas.

In addition to sharing information on the whereabouts of food or predators, two other consequences of the emergence of sophisticated language have been observed in humans:

  • Gossiping, or the ability to talk about other humans. It turns out that gossiping is vital for collaboration in large groups as it allows members to understand who can be trusted, who is collaborative, and who is doing what.
  • Abstraction, or the ability to discuss objects and concepts that do not exist, such as art, myths and religions, gave humans unprecedented collaboration tools. While collaboration is not restricted to humans (bees, ants, chimpanzees, and wolves also collaborate), they do so on far smaller scales, along more rigid rules, and are restricted to close relatives.

2.2 Gossiping and the Social Brain Hypothesis

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, proposed the theory of gossip as a consequence of sophisticated language in human social groups. In the early 1990s, Dunbar developed the Social Brain Hypothesis, which suggests that the size of an individual’s neocortex (the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions) is correlated with the complexity of their social relationships.

Dunbar’s research pointed out that as human societies grew larger and more complex, individuals needed to maintain social cohesion and keep track of the relationships within their groups. He argued that language evolved to facilitate and manage these social connections.

According to Dunbar’s theory, gossip plays a crucial role in human communication because it allows individuals to exchange information about others within their social network. Gossip serves various functions, such as reinforcing social bonds, enforcing social norms, sharing knowledge about group members’ reputations, and building alliances. By engaging in gossip, individuals can navigate complex social interactions and maintain the cohesiveness of their social groups.

2.3 Narratives, Fiction, and Large-Scale Collaboration

Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and author, proposed that narratives and fiction play a role in enabling large-scale collaboration among human social groups.

In his best-selling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, published in 2014, Harari argues that one of the key factors that allowed Homo sapiens to thrive and dominate the planet is their unique ability to create and believe in fictional stories and narratives.

Harari suggests that through the power of storytelling, humans can create imagined realities and shared fictions, such as religious beliefs, cultural myths, and ideologies. These shared narratives act as social constructs, uniting people under common values, norms, and goals. They create a sense of identity and belonging, enabling large groups of strangers to cooperate and work together toward common objectives.

Scholars such as the German ethnologist Kurt Ranke and the communications theorist Walter R. Fisher underscored the unique story-telling aspects of humans by coining the term Homo narrans, or the story-telling human.

3. Interpersonal Communication in Everyday Life

3.1 Communication in Teams

Verbal and written forms of communication are widely used between group members to convert factual information about the environment or themselves.
Verbal and written forms of communication are widely used between group members to convert factual information about the environment or themselves.

While the consequence of a sophisticated language was our ability to describe the world in infinitely different ways, with some of these emerging worldviews being entirely fictional, we don’t normally think of it this way when communicating in a professional environment.

On the contrary, most of us believe communication is only about sharing factual information about the group (projects, tasks, objectives, progress, mood, etc.) or team members’ thoughts and feelings. However, this view is inaccurate in describing how communication is conducted and its influence on group behaviour. This section and the next two will focus primarily on intergroup communication processes. More specifically:

  • How group communication processes work.
  • How communication impacts the group and its performance.

Our ideas are heavily influenced by a small and wonderful book called Process Consultation: Its Role in Organizational Development by organisational consultant and psychologist Dr Edgar Schein, of Organisational Culture fame. Schein shares his views and experience with clients seeking organisational development consultancy services in this book.

The author is interested in helping his client diagnose interpersonal problems and find solutions. Communication, decision-making, leadership, and problem-solving are essential processes in a group, and Schein dedicates a significant portion of the book to describing these in some detail. In the next paragraphs, we will build on those ideas to give the reader a comprehensive view of group communication processes.

3.2 How People Communicate

We communicate facts, feelings, perceptions, innuendos, and various other things, all in the same “simple” message. We communicate not only through the spoken and written word but through gestures, physical posture, tone of voice, when we speak, what we do not say, and so on.

— Edgar Schein, Process Consultation: Its Role in Organizational Development

The first message in Schein’s view was that communication goes beyond the manifest meaning of the uttered or written words. Communicated messages typically contain the following:

  • Factual information about the world. This does not necessarily cover all data on a specific topic but can be selected and filtered to suit a specific agenda (knowledge sharing, manipulation, persuasion, dissuasion).
  • Information about the sender, such as their character, mood, and feelings about the topic. This information can be gleaned from the speaker’s tone of voice, gestures, and body language. Also, this tells us how much trust the speaker has in the receiver. It is indicated by the quality and quantity of information shared and whether it’s intimate or common knowledge.

The central theme of our discussions is that communication always carries a manifest and a latent meaning. To examine group communication processes and their successes and failures, we must first understand which parts of the self communicate what information. We must also be aware that nonverbal cues carry powerful meanings that can radically alter the manifest meaning.

3.3 Nonverbal Communication (Kinesics)

Kinesics studies nonverbal communication through body language, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and posture.

  • Ray L. Birdwhistell, an American anthropologist, is often considered one of the pioneers of kinesics. In the mid-20th century, he researched nonverbal communication extensively and coined the term “kinesics” to study body movements and gestures.
  • Another significant contributor to the field, Paul Ekman, was an American psychologist who extensively researched facial expressions and emotions. His work on facial expression analysis and recognition profoundly impacted our understanding of nonverbal cues related to emotions.
  • Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist, focused on proxemics (the study of how people use space during communication) and its relation to culture and interpersonal relationships.

Kinesics plays a significant role in how messages are interpreted and understood since nonverbal cues often provide additional context and meaning to the verbal message. For instance, a smile can indicate friendliness, while a frown might suggest displeasure. By incorporating kinesics, the intended message becomes clearer and easier to interpret.

Below is a list of ways in which nonverbal cues can help us better interpret spoken messages:

  • Expressing emotions. Facial expressions and body language are powerful tools for conveying emotions and feelings. Sometimes, emotions may be difficult to express through words alone, but kinesics can help bridge that gap and provide insight into a person’s emotional state.
  • Reinforcing or contradicting verbal messages. Nonverbal cues can reinforce or contradict the spoken word. For example, saying they are fine while crossing their arms and avoiding eye contact might indicate feeling defensive or upset.
  • Cultural and contextual implications. As anthropology strongly suggests, patterned behaviours vary across cultures and situations. Understanding and appropriately using nonverbal cues are essential for effective cross-cultural communication, as different gestures or expressions can hold different meanings in various societies.
  • Building rapport and trust. Nonverbal communication can be crucial in building rapport and establishing trust between individuals. Positive body language, active listening cues, and appropriate eye contact can foster a sense of connection and understanding.

Nonverbal communication can convey a broad range of data about the participants’ moods and reactions to the topics discussed. In meetings, a correct interpretation of nonverbal cues helps build strategies for more effective communication as the discussions progress.

4. Analyzing Group Communication Processes

Three levels can be used to analyse group processes, including observable behavioural patterns (frequency and durations of bilateral discussions, parties involved in bilateral discussions) and filtering mechanisms.
Three levels can be used to analyse group processes, including observable behavioural patterns (frequency and durations of bilateral discussions, parties involved in bilateral discussions) and filtering mechanisms.

Consultants have the advantage of being able to separate themselves from the group they observe. While still heavily biased by their culture and beliefs, external observers can spot behavioural patterns, anomalies, and other phenomena that team members are unaware of. In Process Consultation — Its Role in Organisation Development, Schein takes the vantage point of an external consultant with the relevant qualifications in organisational psychology and proposes studying group communication processes on three levels:

  • Recurring behavioural patterns, such as the frequency and duration of discussions between communicating parties, can be observed and documented in group communications. Who talks to whom, who interrupts whom, and who dominates the discussions are all relevant questions that can be answered by recording group interactions.
  • Latent vs manifest, verbal vs nonverbal cues in messages. Once we acknowledge the complexity of social interactions in group communication, we also recognize that messages may carry more than one meaning, can be interpreted in various ways, and are enriched with information written between the lines. Using the Johari window (see following sections), consultants can explore the rich tapestry of communicated information and the variety of channels involved.
  • Filtering, or how messages are constructed, received, and interpreted. This covers all sorts of individual, social, and cultural biases that affect our selection, construction, and interpretation of information in messages.

The next three sections will explore these three levels in detail.

5. Group Communication – What Can We Observe

5.1 Frequency and Duration

Schein maintains that the relative duration and frequency of discussions between group members is a great start to understanding how the group communicates. By measuring these two attributes bilaterally between participants, the observer can gain insight into the following:

  • Whether the conversations are dominated by a minority of influential figures
  • If all participants have had the chance to present their points of view
  • If all participants had enough time to argue their opinions
  • What the group feels about the topic being discussed, which can be seen through active participation or passive silence

Frequency and duration measurements offer valuable information on group communication dynamics and are the first steps in an inquiry into the effectiveness of communication processes in a team.

5.2 Communicating Parties

Let us now turn to the other kind of behaviour […]: who interrupts whom. The importance of observing this type of communication behaviour derives from the fact that it gives us clues as to how members perceive their own status and power relative to the status and power of other members. […] the person of higher rank, status, or power feels free to interrupt someone of lower rank.

— Edgar Schein, Process Consultation: Its Role in Organizational Development

In the next analysis level, Schein proposes to observe the communicating parties (typically in meetings) to understand the following about the group:

  • Preferred audiences for certain members to whom they direct most of their discussions
  • How members react when their managers or peers direct their discussions towards them
  • Who is interrupted by whom
  • How often people are interrupted
  • Who triggers whom

Schein emphasizes how little such observations mean by themselves while maintaining that visible regularity in group discussions can often lead to more meaningful questions being posed.

Some of these observations are possible only in face-to-face meetings. This poses challenges in today’s almost exclusively virtual space, where reading facial cues, body language, posture, and other non-verbal cues is impossible.

When examining how members of a group communicated, Schein identified the following phenomena:

  • Asymmetry of responses. A team member stating their position on a specific topic might expect to receive a mixture of “Attaboy” or “Yeah, but…” responses. Schein rightly points out the weight asymmetry of the two types of responses. Our reaction to negative stimuli is typically much stronger than positive ones, and it takes 3-5 times more positive stimuli to undo the effect of a negative one. Daniel Kahnemann has thoroughly examined this asymmetry in his seminal book Thinking Fast and Slow in various other contexts.
  • Politeness and overt surface behaviour. When a team member tries to make a point, other team members can undo it “in the most elaborately polite forms”. This brings us to the “Yeah, but…” discussion above and the necessity of going deeper than overt surface behaviour when trying to understand group dynamics. Without insights into how people feel about each other, a resilient form of collaboration is difficult to establish
  • Formation of subgroups and coalitions. Of the regularities one can observe in meetings, the formation of subgroups and coalitions within the team is the most noticeable. After a few exchanges, people’s reactions can become fairly predictable.

5.3 Limitation of Observable Patterns on Group Communication Processes

So far, we have looked at observable phenomena that we can measure and document. However, this information can be explained in many ways. For example, if person A constantly interrupts person B, it could be evidence of personal rivalry between them. It could also be understood as an efficient way of tuning out undesirable vibes.

Since human groups are complex systems, their unique evolutionary paths (shared history) must be analysed to provide a context for interpreting data.

6. Group Communication — What We Must Uncover

6.1 Introduction

Important as they are, manifest meanings of communication events such as those described in the previous paragraphs are insufficient for a complete understanding of group communication processes. Most of the time, messages carry two meanings, manifest and latent. The latent meaning requires more effort to interpret and depends on cultural, social, and psychological factors. Let’s see how that works.

This section will explore those two dimensions of meaning, their sources within ourselves and outside, and their implications on the effectiveness of our communication with peers.

6.2 Manifest vs Latent Meaning: The Two Levels of Communication

If you had to carry one message from this article, it would be the dual nature of message meanings, latent and manifest.
If you had to carry one message from this article, it would be the dual nature of message meanings, latent and manifest.

Sociologist Harold Lasswell introduced the concepts of manifest and latent meanings in the 1930s. These concepts are often used in communication and social sciences to describe different layers of meaning in a message.

  • Manifest Meaning. Manifest meaning refers to the sender’s surface-level, explicit, and obvious message. It is the straightforward, literal interpretation of the communication. When you decode the manifest meaning, you take the message at face value without delving into underlying implications or hidden intentions. For example, in a simple conversation, the manifest meaning might be: “I am hungry. Let’s go get some food.”
  • Latent Meaning. The latent meaning goes beyond the explicit words in the message and delves into the underlying or implied connotations, emotions, or intentions. It involves analyzing the message more deeply to uncover the hidden or symbolic meanings that may not be immediately apparent. For example, when someone says, “Come by on a weekend”, but leaves it there, they are probably being polite rather than expressing a genuine desire to have you over the next weekend.

In communication, latent meanings often involve underlying attitudes, beliefs, or cultural influences that shape how the message is perceived. Sometimes, people may not be fully aware of the latent meanings they convey, as subconscious thoughts or societal norms influence them.

6.3 Four Easy Tips to Uncover Latent Meanings

To better understand manifest and latent meanings in communication:

  • Pay attention to context. The context in which the message is delivered can offer clues about hidden or implied meanings.
  • Analyze nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues like body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions can provide insights into the latent emotions behind the message.
  • Consider cultural factors. Different cultures may have varying implicit meanings attached to certain words or phrases, so cultural awareness is crucial for decoding latent meanings accurately.
  • Ask for clarification. If you suspect there might be a hidden meaning, don’t hesitate to seek clarification from the sender to ensure you understand the message fully.

6.4 The Johari Window

All of us have, in the process of growing up, been rewarded for being certain kinds of people and punished for being other kinds.

— Edgar Schein, Process Consultation: Its Role in Organizational Development

The Johari Window is a psychological model that helps individuals and groups better understand their communication patterns and interpersonal relationships. It was created by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955, combining their first names to form “Johari.”

The four quadrants of the Johari window are Open, Facade, Blind Spot, and Unknown.
The four quadrants of the Johari window are Open, Facade, Blind Spot, and Unknown.

The Johari Window is made up of four quadrants, each representing a different aspect of information known to one’s self and others:

  • Open or Arena. This quadrant contains information known to both the individual (self) and others. It includes aspects of personality, behaviour, feelings, and attitudes that are openly expressed, and there is a high level of mutual understanding and communication in this area.
  • Blind Spot. The blind spot represents information about the individual that is unknown to them but known to others. These things in the individual’s behaviour, personality, or actions tend to leak out occasionally without the individual noticing.
  • Hidden or Façade. This quadrant contains information known to the individual but not shared with others. It includes private thoughts, feelings, or experiences that the person keeps hidden or chooses not to disclose to others because they might be considered antisocial, rude, or inconsistent with his self-image.
  • Unknown. The unknown quadrant represents information that is unknown to the individual and others. It includes subconscious thoughts, emotions, skills, and aspects not yet explored or discovered by anyone involved.
The Johari Window is a powerful tool that allows us to understand the information we share and the channels we use in our daily conversations. Most of us focus only on the open-to-open channel, ignoring other, more influential channels.
The Johari Window is a powerful tool that allows us to understand the information we share and the channels we use in our daily conversations. Most of us focus only on the open-to-open channel, ignoring other, more influential channels.

The following sections will examine the communication channels between the different selves of the Johari window and how these channels enrich and complexify communication.

6.3 The “Open” to “Open” Channel

Most of our communications occur between our Open selves. This is where we openly share factual information about ourselves and the world. We are fully aware of the message’s contents and that we are conveying that information to the audience.

Open to open channels are the simplest to observe and study. For this reason, most discussions on group communication tend to focus on them, ignoring the more subtle, less obvious, and more impactful messages we communicate via other channels.

6.4 The “Facade” to “Open” Channel

The communication between the “Facade” and the “Open” quadrants is primarily unidirectional. In this mode, the “Facade” self chooses to disclose private or intimate information, or what is commonly known as “levelling up” or “confiding” in someone.

The communication from the “Facade” to the “Open” quadrant may occur indirectly over time. As trust and comfort increase in relationships, individuals might gradually confide in each other. This can happen through deeper personal connections, increased self-awareness, and a sense of safety in sharing more intimate or private details.

6.5 The “Blind Spot” to “Open” Dialogue

Each of us thus has feelings and traits which we feel are not part of us, and we are blind to the fact that we do communicate many such feelings to others. We may also be blind to the fact that some of the feelings we try to conceal do “leak out”.

— Edgar Schein, Process Consultation: Its Role in Organizational Development

The communication flow between the “open” and the “blind spot” is asymmetric because it is imbalanced regarding the direction of information exchange. In the “open” quadrant, individuals voluntarily disclose information about themselves, and others receive it. It is a deliberate and intentional act of self-disclosure.

On the other hand, in the “blind spot” quadrant, the information flows from the individual to others without any conscious effort on the individual’s part. The information that “leaks out” may contradict our self-image, declared values, or past statements.

6.6 “Blind Spot” to “Blind Spot” or Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion refers to the phenomenon where individuals “catch” or are influenced by the emotions and moods of others. It involves the rapid and automatic spread of emotions from one person to another, often occurring without conscious awareness. Emotions can be transmitted from person to person, affecting the overall emotional climate of a group or social setting.

Key points about emotional contagion include:

  • Nonverbal Communication: Emotional contagion is often transmitted through nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. When individuals observe and interpret these cues in others, they may unconsciously mirror or mimic the emotions they perceive.
  • Positive and Negative Emotions: Emotional contagion can involve positive and negative emotions. For example, if someone is excited and enthusiastic, their positive emotions can spread to others and enhance the overall mood of the group. Conversely, if someone is anxious or upset, their negative emotions may be “caught” by others, leading to a collective sense of unease or tension.
  • Social Environment: The social context and the level of emotional connectedness between individuals play a significant role in emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is more likely to occur in close-knit groups or when people have a strong emotional bond.
  • Emotional Regulation: Emotional contagion can be both beneficial and challenging. On the positive side, it can foster a sense of camaraderie and shared emotional experiences. However, it can also be challenging if individuals within a group are experiencing strong negative emotions, as it may lead to a collective emotional spiral.

7. Filtering

7.1 What Are Communication Filters?

The final and perhaps most difficult complexity to consider in the communication process is that both the sender and the receiver use a number of filters in selecting what they will send and what they will receive.

— Edgar Schein, Process Consultation: Its Role in Organizational Development

Schein defines filtering as follows:

  • Filtering is a complex set of decision rules we employ when deciding what information to share, how and when to share it.
  • Filtering may not be deliberate. It is mostly an unconscious activity, very different from active censorship of information.
  • The complex decision rules used for filtering are acquired over a lifetime and are stable enough to analyse.

Factors that affect filtering can be grouped and studied and will be the subject of the next paragraphs.

7.2 Examples of Communication Filters

7.2.1 Self-Image

Self-image plays a crucial role in shaping how people communicate with others. Self-image refers to individuals’ beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes about themselves, significantly impacting their interactions and communication style.

Self-image is not fixed in time and space but depends on the context the individual is in. Self-image is a manifestation of the individual’s perception of their rank and status within the group, which can vary between groups and situations.

Here are some ways in which self-image affects the ways people communicate:

  • Confidence and assertiveness: People with a positive self-image tend to be more confident and assertive in their communication. They are more likely to express their opinions and ideas clearly and without hesitation, which can lead to more effective communication.
  • Self-consciousness and hesitation: On the other hand, individuals with a negative self-image may feel more self-conscious and hesitant in their communication. They may fear judgment or rejection, leading them to hold back their thoughts and ideas or avoid certain conversations altogether.
  • Receptiveness to feedback: A person’s self-image can influence how they receive feedback from others. Those with a strong self-image may be more open to constructive criticism and view it as an opportunity for growth. In contrast, individuals with a fragile self-image might perceive feedback as a personal attack, causing them to become defensive or avoidant.
  • Self-disclosure: Self-image affects the level of self-disclosure in communication. People with a positive self-image may feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities with others, leading to more intimate and meaningful conversations. However, individuals with a negative self-image may be more guarded and reluctant to reveal personal information.

7.2.2 Situation and Context

The situation and context in which communication takes place have a profound impact on how we communicate. Different settings, circumstances, and relationships can influence style, tone, and communication effectiveness.

Here are some ways in which the situation and context affect communication:

  • Communication settings: The choice of language and tone can vary depending on the setting where the communication is developing. People use more professional language and a serious tone in formal settings, such as business meetings or academic presentations. In contrast, informal contexts, like chatting with friends, allow for a more relaxed and casual communication style.
  • Communication medium: The medium through which communication occurs can significantly affect the message’s reception. Face-to-face conversations allow immediate feedback and nonverbal cues, fostering more nuanced and effective communication. On the other hand, digital communication, such as emails or text messages, may lead to misunderstandings due to the absence of nonverbal cues and tone.
  • Social norms and expectations: Different situations come with their own social norms and expectations regarding communication. For example, there are expectations for professional behaviour and clear articulation of one’s qualifications during a job interview. People might be more relaxed in a social gathering and engaging in small talk.
  • Power dynamics: The power dynamics in a situation can influence how communication occurs. Communication may be more one-sided and formal in a hierarchical setting, such as a supervisor-subordinate relationship. On the other hand, in peer-to-peer interaction, communication might be more egalitarian and open.
  • Cultural considerations: Culture plays a significant role in communication styles and norms. Different cultures have varying preferences for directness, indirectness, and the use of gestures and body language. Awareness of cultural differences is essential in cross-cultural communication to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
  • Time constraints: The amount of time available for communication can influence how messages are conveyed. In time-sensitive situations, such as emergency scenarios or quick business decisions, communication might become more concise and to the point.
  • Privacy and confidentiality: The level of privacy and confidentiality in a situation can impact the level of disclosure and trust in communication. We are more likely to be open and candid in private, confidential settings, while we might be reserved in public or less secure environments.
  • Previous experiences: Our past experiences with individuals or situations can shape our communication. Positive experiences may lead to more open and trusting communication, while negative experiences might result in guarded or defensive communication.

7.2.4 Motives, Feelings, Intentions, Attitudes, and Expectations

Motives, feelings, intentions, attitudes, and expectations are critical in shaping communication processes. These internal factors greatly influence how individuals convey messages, interpret information, and interact with others. Let’s explore each of them and their impact on communication:

  • Motives refer to the reasons or goals behind communication. People communicate with specific objectives, such as conveying information, expressing emotions, persuading others, seeking support, or resolving conflicts. The motive behind communication can affect the choice of words, the level of assertiveness, and the overall approach to the interaction.
  • Feelings: Emotions and feelings have a significant impact on communication. They can influence the tone, intensity, and nonverbal cues used in communication. For example, someone excited may communicate with enthusiasm and energy, while someone upset might express frustration or sadness. Emotions can also affect the way individuals interpret messages, leading to potential misunderstandings if emotions are not acknowledged or addressed.
  • Intentions are the underlying purposes individuals have when communicating. A person may intend to inform, inspire, comfort, criticize, or motivate others. Understanding and being clear about intentions is crucial because misinterpreted intentions can lead to miscommunication and damage relationships. Intentions shape the content and direction of communication, ensuring it aligns with the desired outcomes.
  • Attitudes refer to individuals’ beliefs and evaluations about themselves, others, and the world. Positive attitudes towards the listener can lead to more respectful and empathetic communication. Conversely, negative attitudes can lead to dismissive or confrontational communication. Attitudes also influence how open-minded or receptive individuals are to new ideas and information.
  • Expectations are the anticipated outcomes or reactions individuals have from their interactions with individuals. These expectations can be based on past experiences, cultural norms, or social context. For instance, if someone expects a positive response to a request, they might communicate more confidently. Unmet expectations can lead to frustration or disappointment in communication.

8. Spinning, Lying, and Concealment – The Many Ways of Not Communicating the Truth

8.1 The Nature of Lying

A few years back, I stumbled upon a lecture by Professor John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago titled Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. The lecture was insightful as it quite interestingly articulated the various communication methods used when people lie. What was more interesting than the thorough dissertation was how well it resonated with our everyday experiences. I found the following ideas in Dr Mearsheimer’s lecture utterly fascinating.

  • Telling the absolute truth does not come naturally. Dr Mearsheimer defines “truthful” as someone who goes to great lengths to lay down the facts correctly and objectively. I found that a bit intriguing, as I always thought truthfulness was second nature to people. I did not realise that communicating the absolute truth is a laborious (possibly System 2, see Thinking Fast and Slow) function.
  • Between truthfulness and deception. While we normally think of truth and deception in binary terms, Dr Mearsheimer prefers to place communicated messages on a spectrum. Between both extremes (truthfulness and deception), other forms of “lying” can be well-defined. Two of these terms are spinning and concealment, which we articulate in the next section. Dr Mearsheimer also distinguishes between lying for selfish vs noble reasons.
  • Some forms of lies are necessary for social cohesion. National narratives, also known as national stories or national myths, are collective and often idealized accounts of a country’s history, identity, values, and achievements. These narratives play a crucial role in shaping a sense of belonging, unity, and identity among the citizens of a nation. National narratives are typically constructed and promoted by governments, educational institutions, cultural institutions, and other influential societal entities. While many other forms exist, national narratives are great examples of “constructed stories” we use to help us cooperate on the largest scales (see Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind).

Let’s now look at the three different kinds of deception: Spinning, Lying, and Concealment.

8.2 Spinning, Lying, and Concealment

Spinning, Lying, and Concealment are three distinct forms of deceptive or manipulative behaviour, often used to mislead others or present a false narrative. While they share some similarities, their specific strategies and intentions differ. Here’s a brief explanation of each:

  • Spinning refers to presenting information or events in a way that portrays them in the most favourable light, often while downplaying or omitting negative aspects. It involves shaping the narrative to influence the listener’s perception or opinion. Spinning can be used by individuals, organizations, or even governments to control the narrative and manage their reputation. While it may involve stretching the truth or cherry-picking facts, it doesn’t involve lying or fabricating information.
  • Lying, on the other hand, is intentionally giving false information to deceive. This can be done by providing false statements, fabricating stories, or distorting the truth. The goal of lying is to mislead others and make them believe something untrue. Lying can be employed for personal gain, to avoid consequences, or to manipulate others for various reasons.
  • Concealment involves hiding or keeping information secret to prevent others from knowing the truth. It may involve suppressing evidence, burying facts, or hiding certain details to manipulate perception or maintain an advantage. Unlike lying, concealment doesn’t necessarily involve telling falsehoods; instead, it centres on withholding relevant information that could alter how others perceive a situation.

9. Worldviews and Message Interpretation

Messages we receive from our external environment are necessarily interpreted in the context of our culture, beliefs, values, and unique history as individuals. This context, or worldview, allows two recipients of the same message to interpret it in radically different ways.
Messages we receive from our external environment are necessarily interpreted in the context of our culture, beliefs, values, and unique history as individuals. This context, or worldview, allows two recipients of the same message to interpret it in radically different ways.

Worldviews play a significant role in shaping how people interpret messages, as they provide individuals with a framework for understanding the world, making sense of information, and forming opinions.

A worldview is a person’s overall perspective on life, encompassing their beliefs, values, cultural background, experiences, and assumptions.

Here’s how worldviews influence the interpretation of messages:

  • Filtering Information: Worldviews act as filters through which people process incoming information. Individuals are more likely to pay attention to and retain messages that align with their existing beliefs and values while dismissing or ignoring messages that contradict their worldview.
  • Confirmation Bias: People tend to seek out and favour information confirming their beliefs. This bias leads individuals to interpret messages in a way that supports their worldview, even if the information is ambiguous or open to multiple interpretations.
  • Cognitive Framing: Worldviews provide cognitive frames or mental frameworks that influence how individuals perceive and categorize information. Messages that fit within a person’s existing framework are more likely to be understood and accepted, while messages that challenge this framework may be met with scepticism or resistance.
  • Interpretive Lens: Worldviews serve as interpretive lenses through which individuals make sense of complex or ambiguous messages. A person’s worldview may emphasize certain aspects of a message while downplaying others, leading to different interpretations among people with different worldviews.
  • Cultural Context: Cultural factors within a person’s worldview, such as language, symbols, and norms, can influence how messages are understood. Cultural differences can lead to varied interpretations of the same message among individuals from different backgrounds.
  • Emotional Resonance: Messages that align with a person’s worldview may evoke stronger emotional reactions, making them more memorable and persuasive. Conversely, messages that challenge a person’s worldview may evoke negative emotions or cognitive dissonance, leading to resistance or dismissal.
  • Value-Based Evaluation: Worldviews shape how individuals evaluate the credibility and relevance of messages. Messages that align with a person’s values and beliefs are more likely to be perceived as credible, while those that contradict their worldview may be viewed with scepticism.
  • Worldview Shifts: While worldviews tend to be stable, exposure to new information, experiences, or persuasive messages can gradually or suddenly lead to shifts in worldview. These shifts can change how messages are interpreted and integrated into a person’s belief system.

Worldviews act as mental frameworks influencing how individuals process, interpret, and respond to messages. Understanding the role of worldviews can help communicators tailor their messages to effectively reach and resonate with their target audiences while recognizing the challenges of communicating with individuals with differing worldviews.

10. Four (Not-So-Easy) Ways to Improve Communication

From Schein’s writings and this author’s experience, we can propose the following to improve communication between group members.

  • Awareness of the depth and complexity of communication processes. To improve communication, we must be aware of internal and external factors and how they might influence our interactions. Effective communication involves self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to adapt one’s communication style to meet the needs and expectations of others. By understanding and addressing these internal factors, individuals can build more positive and meaningful connections with others, leading to clearer and more successful communication.
  • New communication channels. Opening up other communication channels (for example, between the Open and Hidden selves) might increase a group’s effectiveness. Feelings we communicate in private may be shared, allowing us to understand each other better. Opening new channels might sometimes require an intermediary (such as a consultant) who can help the group understand which channels are frequently used and which are yet to be tapped.
  • Increased self-awareness through feedback. As others provide feedback, the individual gains insights into aspects of themselves that they might not have been aware of or may have overlooked. The individual can then choose to accept and integrate this feedback, leading to personal growth and a more comprehensive understanding of how others perceive them.
  • Situational awareness. As we have seen in the previous section, the context in which the discussions are taking place, the mood of the people involved, and many other situational factors impact the style and content of the communication. Awareness of those factors helps us reduce biases, prior judgments, and stereotyping we might bring into the room.

11. Summary

In this article, we tried to establish the following ideas:

  • Group communication processes are influenced by many internal and external factors related to the individuals involved in the discussion and its context. A proper interpretation of the messages shared must consider the message’s content, any verbal and non-verbal cues, and the different cultures and backgrounds of the participants.
  • The complexity of the communication process is a direct result of the multiple identities, different worldviews, cultures, feelings, expectations, and motives that the participants have. People will also have different attitudes in different situations, which might depend on factors somehow unrelated to the topic of discussion.
  • The effectiveness of group communication depends on its members’ ability to place themselves in a heightened state of awareness when the situation requires it, such as when the topics are difficult or controversial. Increased awareness means the group and the individuals are more conscious of their biases and prior judgments. However, increased awareness requires more energy, focus, and preparation, making it a costly option.
  • Good communication cannot be achieved with surface-level skills or cheap tactics. Here, communication is strictly concerned with the sharing and interpreting of messages. Other topics, such as negotiation, problem-solving, information flow, and decision-making, can be aided or obstructed by good or poor communication processes but are distinct from actual communication events.
  • A good communication experience does not necessarily mean it’s honest. Humans share a cognitive bias that makes simpler statements sound more truthful. This bias (among other tricks), for example, provides populist discourses with underserved credibility. As we have seen, humans can be dishonest without uttering a single lie.
  • Worldviews provide the background against which messages are interpreted and are crucial in understanding the communication processes between individuals and within groups. Communication failures can often be attributed not to a lack of sharing or willingness to cooperate but to disparate worldviews with few common grounds.

12. Final Words

While challenges in communication processes have been exacerbated by increased cultural diversity, higher language barriers, and geographically separate teams, more has been achieved in understanding the subtleties.

This expansion of our knowledge frontiers and its availability afforded by technology and the internet means we are responsible for continuously improving our skills through research, practice, and awareness. We hope the information presented in this article was insightful and informative. We also believe that communication skills are essential not only for managers and leaders but for everybody, including software developers who wants nothing more but to return to their computers and create software.

13. References

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