A non-boring guide on how to use interpersonal communication effectively. This is Part One of a longer Stew’s Letter series (subscribe to receive future installments).
In 2013, a group of researchers traveled to one of the only remaining hunter-gatherer communities on Earth and they discovered something wild…
In an extremely primitive society, the most sought-after members were not the most talented hunters or fishers, it was those who were the best at storytelling.
Indeed… the Agta tribes deeply valued strong communication skills.
The most talented storytellers in each tribe:
Had greater reproductive success
Were preferred social partners
Had their wishes cooperated with more frequently
Were members of more cooperative tribes (everybody got along better)
Being a talented communicator makes people want to work with you and gives you some critical advantages over your less-articulate peers. Oh, and it helps you get laid apparently.
So... why do so many of us suck at communicating with each other?
I have a few theories, but first...
What is “Interpersonal Communication”?
Interpersonal communication is the act of transferring a message between two brains.
Let’s imagine that you have a message you’d like to transfer from your brain to another brain:
How to transfer a message from your brain to another brain
If you want to tell somebody about your new puppy, you could text them that you just adopted a puppy, you could tell them a story of something adorable the dog recently did, you send them a photo of the dog, etc., etc.
Typically, we default to using whatever channel of communication is easiest or quickest for us, but our default may not always be the most effective channel for getting our message across.
If we want to convey just how adorable our new dog is, a text or one-line anecdote might not be enough.
Let’s take a look at our interpersonal communication toolbox...
The most common interpersonal communication mediums
Verbal communication is the use of sounds and words to communicate a message. (Duh)
In our example, it’d be telling somebody in-person that our puppy is cute:
(The receiving brain processes the words and constructs meaning...)
Unfortunately, words alone may not be enough to get our message across -- what type of dog is it? What exactly does the dog look like? How cute is it really?
WE know all of these things, but the recipient of our message has zero clue what our dog looks like.
“I have a cute puppy” only gets a fraction of our message across.
Advantages (Verbal Communication)
Real-time feedback with the recipient of the message is possible
Collaborative: others can quickly build on your ideas and vice versa
Disadvantages (Verbal Communication)
Speaker often thinks while they speak, leading to half-baked ideas / information that might be confusing or unhelpful to recipient
Complexity ceiling: it’s difficult to explain complex concepts with words alone
Verbal messages can be drowned out if contradicted by body language or other communication channels
Written communication is the use of written symbols to communicate information.
When we write, we have an opportunity to think, clarify, and edit our thoughts more than when we rely on verbal communication.
However, we’re still tasked with the same challenge: we must use words to encode and transfer our message.
Our ability to be an effective communicator is largely constrained by our ability to use the most information-rich words for our intended recipient.
Advantages (Written Communication)
Sender has time to clarify, edit, and review their thoughts
Scaleable: there is a record of the message that can be easily shared or revisited
Focus: effective writing can cut noise and communicate a precise message
Disadvantages (Written Communication)
Lacks many of the subtleties and nuance of in-person communication. Example: messages can seem “colder” than they’re intended because there’s not a real, live speaker or feedback loop between the sender and receiver.
As with verbal communication, words alone do not capture the entire scope of human experience and often seem “lacking”
Writing well requires meaningful time and effort
Whenever I travel to a non-english-speaking country, I’m always reminded of a simple truth:
Humans can communicate tons of messages without speaking a word to each other.
If a person next to you in a meeting is nervously tapping their leg and scanning the room, then they have broadcasted a message: I am nervous and uneasy about something.
Similarly, when we talk about our new puppy, we can use body language to help communicate our message...
If we’re animated and glowing, the listener may be able to call to mind when they’ve felt that way about an adorable furry creature and visualize what our puppy must be like.
If we said “my new puppy is so cute” but this was what we looked like while we said it:
… people would be like, “uhhhh, it doesn’t seem like you’re excited about this puppy and also you are making me uncomfortable.”
Advantages (Body Language)
Fast, unambiguous transfer of emotions
Low-effort for the sender (our physical state does the talking)
Intent of sender is more clear. Example: if a person’s body language is calm/caring while they deliver bad news, we can trust their intent (vs. a cold-sounding email).
Real-time feedback between the sender and receiver of message (people play off each other’s body language)
Gives an extra “punch” to verbal messages
Disadvantages (Body Language)
Limited information bandwidth. You can’t teach math using only body language…
Can’t stand on its own for many circumstances and often needs to be coupled with other forms of communication (verbal) to be effective
Bonus: When Verbal Communication and Body Language Go Terribly Wrong
Intended message: “I am a suitable candidate for the city treasurer’s office.”
Actual message: “I am completely unhinged.”
Bonus: When Verbal Communication and Body Language Go RIGHT
Intended message: “A computer is like a bicycle in that it amplifies certain capabilities that humans already possess.”
Actual message: “A computer is like a bicycle in that it amplifies certain capabilities that humans already possess.”
Images, Video, and Other Media
Last, but definitely not least…
It’s never been easier to communicate a message using zero words!
We can use a photo, a video, a sketch, a graph, or some other visual or auditory representation of our message.
As the old saying goes… “A picture is worth 1,000 words.”
In the case of our puppy, that’s 100% true.
Why say “I have a cute puppy” when we could just show somebody a photo that captures nearly all of his cuteness?
Removes errors in how the recipient might “imagine” or otherwise construct their own understanding of a message (i.e. here is a photo that shows you exactly what my dog looks like)
High-bandwidth transfer of information. Again, “A picture is worth 1,000 words” -> often true!
Sometimes weak as a standalone medium. Could you imagine the Humans of New York Instagram channel without the stories/captions?
So, what’s next?
Okay, now that we have our interpersonal communication quiver ready, we’ll explore how to choose the most effective communication mediums to get the things that you want.
Stay tuned: it’ll be sent in the next Stew’s Letter.