In life, the most important skill is communication. It’s the bottleneck to almost every problem in almost every area of our lives. Effective communication is similar to magic, for it transmutes the unseen concepts in our minds into tangible form, so that they can once again disappear into, and transform, the unseen structures of other minds.
There, however, is a large divide between expression and communication. Expression consists of our raw utterances, free of any translation or refinement. Communication, on the other hand, is expression that has been modified and honed in order to fit into the mental models of an intended audience. It’s expression with empathy.
Most of us are in expression mode most of the time — it’s our default mode of operation. It’s also quite possibly the purest expression of who we are. Through someone’s quick replies and off-the-cuff statements, you can get a sense of their understanding of the world and their place within it. For example, research has shown that those who are introverted tend to speak more precisely, using a highly diverse vocabulary with relatively few social and “positive” emotion words. If we pick up on these patterns, and get a sense of how introverted that person may be, we will likely have a good sense as to how faddish, gossip-hungry, and socially conforming they are.
Our communication to a person of this sort shouldn’t be filled with pleas to “fit in” or stories about how Mark, our new coworker, is thinking about buying a new car. Conversation like this isn’t communication; it’s mere expression, since it doesn’t fit well with the values and mental models of the audience. Expression, after all, can be quite draining to attend to, since it’s often like listening to a subway car screeching down the tracks or the incomprehensible chatter of crickets in the night. Enduring messages that conflict with our values is probably one of the more frustrating, even infuriating, experiences in life.
Unfortunately, life is filled with value-conflicted expression, which is one of the leading causes of conflicts in personal and romantic relationships, and between and within teams at work. The guys in finance will use a much different vocabulary and set of mental models as compared to the people over in HR or design. Nothing is more alienating to designers than questions about the “Return on Investment (ROI)” of a re-design, or other chatter about the “marginal benefit” of a new visual flourish or new logo. But these are the rifts that poison organizations and cause fractionation and alienation.
Luckily, we humans have been endowed with gifts of impulse control and imagination. While it may not always be easy, it’s possible for us to tighten the reins on our runaway mouths and take a moment to think about what language and metaphors others will understand. By slamming the brakes on our impulse to yammer, we can buy ourselves enough time to get into the Euclidean minds of those guys in finance. We can reframe our message just enough to get it to lodge in the gray matter of our audience, instead of going in one ear and out the other — into the great graveyard of gab, where most words lie.