How can an old parlour game help us reflect on the way we communicate? Quite a lot it would seem.
Many of us will have played the game where we tap out the rhythm of a tune or song and ask our partner to guess the name of the piece. The challenge for the person doing the listening is that they have to use only limited information (the rhythm) to piece together something much more complicated in its whole. It is a different story for the person tapping out the rhythm. For them, the whole tune is in their head and it seems obvious that what they are hearing (in their head), is also what is being heard by the recipient.
In a study using the game to explore expectations in communication, over 90% of the people tapping the tune expected the recipient to guess correctly – some admitting to be dumbfounded that their recipients could not understand them. Sadly, this expectation was not matched by the results, where only 14% of recipients managed to guess the tune correctly. Imagine the frustration on both sides!
The fact that the large majority (over 9 in 10) of the tappers (as we will call them), felt they had supplied all the information required for their message to be understood, makes a useful reminder of the difference between the message we think we are communicating and the meaning that is created by the recipient. It is interesting that in the study of the exercise referred to above, the recipients did not just say they didn’t know the answer – over 8 in 10 of them named a tune they were sure was correct even though it was often some distance from the one in the head of the tapper. In other words, they created a meaning from the message which was quite different from the one being communicated by the tapper – which, of course, led to even more frustration: ‘How could you possibly misunderstand that? It’s so obvious!’ Worryingly, when it comes to communication, what seems just so obvious to us, can lead to confusion or misunderstanding for those on the receiving end.
The tapping game might also make us reflect on just how limited words can be when it comes to communicating the thoughts and feelings we carry. Like the complex melody, much of the nuance may be lost without access to the pitch, timbre and colours which make up the detail. As humans, we are meaning-seeking creatures. If there are gaps in our understanding, we will fill them in an effort to make sense. But in those fillers, we often go awry – gloriously so in many cases, which is why metaphor and symbolism can be such fun – but awry, nonetheless.
It takes a lot of work to be really understood and a great deal more to understand fully. But when we feel anger or frustration at others for not getting our message, or when we deal with similar feelings when our friends or partners never seem to appreciate our understanding, we would do well to remember that the gap between what is being communicated and what is being understood is considerably wider than what might at first appear.
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