Signal Strength Bad by Richard Wiseman

Topic: Communication

Years ago when anyone was tuning an analogue radio there would either be ”white noise,” an unclear yet understandable radio broadcast, or a totally clear signal. Digital radio is different though. On my digital radio there is either a signal as clear as a sprinter’s windpipe or a whole range of signal qualities in a descending scale of comprehensibility.

Some digital signals miss out just bits of words or parts of songs as sections of the incoming digital signal are missing. Other incoming digital signals are more corrupted, giving me a radio broadcast where not only are words missing, but the broadcast sounds as if it has come from another time or dimension.

Finally there’s what I call the “voice of the devil” signal, which sounds like nasty voices from the ‘dungeon dimensions’ making incomprehensible threats in a garbled stream of vicious ranting.

The fact is that the signal being broadcast is perfectly good. At the point of broadcast there is a good message, suitable for the intended audience, being beamed out by some decent people dedicated to communicating clearly and thoughtfully. Of course digital signals travel in straight lines and so they get corrupted. Things get in the way and as the signal passes through them, if it can, it gets broken up and turned into something that the broadcaster didn’t intend for me to hear.

At the happy point in my life when I’ve pretty much seen enough of the world and the human race to be broad minded, understanding, and easy going in any company, I’ve discovered the interesting parallel between the digital signal corruption and talking to some people.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes no matter what you say to a person they just take it the wrong way? You can be as careful, kind, and thoughtful about the way you speak and yet the person receiving the broadcast reacts as if you had just urinated on their living room rug.

I’m closing on fifty years old. I’ve ground all my axes. I’ve completed the “how to be a reasonable human being to do list.” It was hard work, but I made the effort to work on myself and make sure that I became a reasonably decent guy with a well disposed and friendly attitude toward the rest of humanity. Part of that process was learning how to listen, really listen, to what other people were saying. Another part was to choose what I said carefully and say it in a way that hopefully was not going to cause any unhappiness.

So why is it that there are times when I make a well chosen comment in a casual conversation and the person I’m talking to reacts in a way that suggests I’ve insulted them?

The answer, for me, is that the person I’m talking to is dysfunctional, emotionally or psychologically. They have at least one axe to grind or they have a lengthy “things I need to iron out on my personality” list. You know I’m right. You’ve experienced it too. I know you have. You say one thing and they don’t even respond to what you said. They seem to be responding to an agenda in their head or continuing an argument with someone else, who isn’t actually there – maybe their angry dad or neurotic mother.

You say, “Hey, there was a cake sale on at the mall. I got quite a few because I know you like cake and I thought we could share them.”

They say, “I’m not greedy and selfish, you know” or “I can get my own food. I’m not helpless.”

Neither response is a balanced reply to what was said, and both responses indicate that they haven’t noticed that you thought of them and did them a kindness. Both responses to the cake buying remark are examples of how they aren’t really hearing what you said; they just haven’t correctly interpreted or accurately decoded your communication.

I’ve recently become fascinated with this. I’m so mellow and level in my maturer years, really I am, that I’ve started to notice what I call “dysfunctional reactions.” I’m amazed at how many people I encounter who have these emotional or psychological agendas in their heads; agendas so strong that whatever anyone says to them their reply is addressing the agenda they have and not responding directly to what has been said to them.

It’s exactly like the digital signal problem. I broadcast what I know is a carefully thought out remark, in a consciously chosen tone of voice, and they hear something that is in a signal range of “occasional missing word” to “voice of the devil.” It’s nothing to do with me. Believe me when I state that I’m careful what I say and how I say it. I also listen carefully to what people say to me and so I’m absolutely certain when what they have said has little to do with my remark. I’m broadcasting a neat little digital message and stuff is getting in the way – the chilly stone walls of an angry mountain made by the frosty ice age that was their childhood; the steep valley of despair carved out by the rapid turbulent river of their mother’s unfulfilled ambitions; the high rise fear-filled city of personal insecurity built by an over critical father. All of these “get in the way” and corrupt even the most friendly and happy of broadcasts. What they hear is nothing like what I have said.

Communication is a funny thing. Even when we learn to consciously choose our words, tone of voice, body language and facial expression carefully, the chances are that things we say are sometimes being broadcast to a dysfunctional receiver.

What can we do?

Well, when I find myself getting a response that indicates the person has an agenda I tend to listen carefully to their broadcasts to see if I can work out why their receiver isn’t working properly. More usefully, to avoid conflict and for future reference, I picture, printed in grey LCD style letters across their forehead, the words “Signal Strength Bad.”

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Comments
7 Responses to “Signal Strength Bad by Richard Wiseman”
  1. Anne Katherine says:

    This is so funny, and so spot-on, about how certain people are, especially some of my very own family members! Which makes it clear why it’s so hard to really communicate!
    I’d add to the cake scenario: “Oh, I’m glad someone can throw their money left and right on cakes. Me? I bust my butt and work paycheck to paycheck. You have no idea what that’s like.” OR “Okay, so you think I sit around and eat cakes all day and that’s what’s caused my weight gain. I’ll have you know the dr. thinks it’s my thyroid. And I do not eat cake all day. So thanks a lot.”
    And if you really contemplate it truly is a talent that if they could only channel and get handle on… well, they would be stellar politicians!

    • That’s it exactly! You’ve hit the nail on the head! It’s exactly like those interviews with politicians where the journalist asks a question and the politician’s reply is only remotely related to the question. Spot on; wish I’d thought of that; would have made the blog entry better!

  2. Jen Hurowitz says:

    Love, love, love this. “I’m amazed at how many people I encounter who have these emotional or psychological agendas in their heads; agendas so strong that whatever anyone says to them their reply is addressing the agenda they have and not responding directly to what has been said to them.” Such an amazing observation, and had I read this post a few years ago, I may have saved myself some heartache.

    “Communication is a funny thing. Even when we learn to consciously choose our words, tone of voice, body language and facial expression carefully, the chances are that things we say are sometimes being broadcast to a dysfunctional receiver.” Awesome post!

    • Thank you very much! The question is what do we do? I decided that I can’t change other people so if I encounter a ‘bad signal strength’ person I switch to ‘stealth mode’. I try not to have an opinion, always agree and fix face to ‘understanding smile’ mode. It’s a bit sad really, I’d like to help, but I’m not a therapist. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. talleygilly says:

    So enjoyed this – it’s so true how we have bizarre filters that often keep us from really understanding what someone is saying. So much of someone’s reaction is not in response to what we said, but what they heard and somehow twisted around. I too struggle with this, but am working on building better “hearing” and a thicker skin. Thanks for this great post!

    • I agree with you; having better hearing and a thicker skin is a good approach. I’d like to help the ‘bad signal strength’ people, but I don’t have the skills. Thanks for the comment and the praise is most welcome; talking of which do you notice also that ‘bad signal strength’ people can’t take a compliment? Sometimes I’ve said lovely things and they won’t ‘receive’ the praise. I find that sad in the sense that I assume that’s caused by insecurity and it makes me sad for them. Anyway once again thanks for the comment and praise.

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