Social Construction: a Better Human Communication Model

How do you penetrate the conflicting demands and mental clutter that are part of everyday business life in the twenty-first century? How do you penetrate the assorted messages the media constantly bombard everyone with?

To answer these questions, let’s first look at the prevailing misunderstanding of how communication works, and then I will show you a much better way to think about it.

Most people intuitively use a communication model that originated in 1948 and was published by Shannon and Weaver in 1962. Although this model was great fuel for the information revolution, it is completely inadequate when it comes to person-to-person meaning making—which is what drives the rapid spread of new ideas.

In its own domain, the Shannon-Weaver model is extraordinarily useful and can be credited with initiating much of modern information theory. It has been called by some the mother of all models. It states that you have an information source that develops a message that is sent using a transmitter. The signal travels and encounters noise on its way to areceiver where the subsequent message is delivered to a destination. For a visual depiction, see the picture below:

The unquestioned assumptions that percolate in the minds of a typical communication team betray their use of this model. They go something like this:

We will talk to our president [Information Source] and craft a message that is easy for people to understand [Message 1]. We will place this message in various media including newsletters, posters, e-mails, Web sites, and town halls [Transmitters]. If we can get people to stop and read what we wrote, take the time to attend our events and listen to what we say, they will be exposed to our concepts and ideas [Signal]. Although they are uninformed, distracted and overloaded [Noise], they will hopefully read our writing when it appears in their inbox, come to our events, and listen to our presentations [Receivers]. They will then interpret what they have read and heard (Message 2) and understand what we are about. We will have reached them [Destination].

Although the Shannon-Weaver model is great for sending digital signals, it is horrible for people trying to make sense of their world. We thinking humans are just not as simple as this model.

Making meaning is a much more complex task. For example, we don’t just decode information and understand it. If we did, you could pick up any book in a university library, read it cover to cover, and fully absorb what the author intends. But you cannot. You also need teachers and other students.

The reason we need teachers and other students is that we construct meaning socially, through interactions. We need the input of others to help us develop our ideas, place them in context, and make them relevant to our world, our experience. It is a collective project. This is called social construction.

We construct our understanding of the world through our relationships. As human beings we thrive on liaisons and partnerships. Social construction gets to the heart of how people make meaning together. It opens possibilities for reaching people who understand the world very differently, creating collaboration among diverse participants.

It is also a humane way of looking at communication, enabling compassion and kindness. Importantly it makes it possible to extend these qualities to technical and business-oriented interactions, bringing people together and generating esprit de corps even when people are from widely differing cultures. This is a critical milestone in communication.

How does this help you penetrate information overload?  It means you must remove all messaging that is meaningless to your target audience. Instead, make your communiques useful, something they can use. Better, make them an invitation to participate with you in something they care about.

I have had great success creating symposia and other interactive events to attract participation. The topics are selected because they will advance stakeholders’ position, not mine. By improving their situation, I connect.  Through the connection I build relationships. These relationships form the foundation for all future interactions.

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