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Who needs to understand, the Communicator or the Listener?



Communication skills are supposedly the most important skill. It is defined as a transactional process that involves exchanging ideas, information, feelings, attitudes or beliefs and impressions that the receivers can understand.


There are times, even after communicating properly and the other person listening attentively the task doesn’t get done as per the expectations. Doesn’t it get frustrating when people can’t understand simple instructions? Whose fault is it? In communication, there is a potential problem where the information we know and our feeling seem obvious to us, while to the listener they are a meaningless bunch of words or taps.


Let me explain the above by sharing a great example with you. An experiment known as “The Tapper and Listener’ was conducted in 1990 by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford for her PhD in psychology. She invited her peers to participate and played a simple game where she assigned one of the two roles, “tappers” or “listeners” to them and made a study based on the experiment.


In the game, each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday or Jingle bells” and tap out the rhythm on a table using their fingers. The listener’s job was to guess the song.


Out of the 120 times, a melody was tapped, and the listener could guess it correctly only thrice. A success ratio of 2.5%. But here is the interesting part of the story. Before the tappers began to tap the tune, Elizabeth asked them to predict the probability of the listeners being able to guess the song correctly.


The tappers predicted a 50% chance that they would be able to get the listeners to guess the tune correctly. So, while they thought that they would be able to get the listeners to guess correctly one of the two times, the reality was that listeners could guess the tune only once in forty attempts.


Well, here’s what was happening. The tappers could hear the song playing in their head clearly and were able to synchronise it with the tapping. However, the listeners couldn’t make any sense of the taps as there was no music that they could hear and relate to in their heads, so they couldn’t guess the song.


As a result, it was noticed that all of them were getting frustrated. The tappers couldn’t understand why it was so difficult for the listeners to guess such a simple tune and listeners were frustrated as they were trying hard to make sense of ‘tap sounds’.


You see we face a similar kind of problem on our personal and professional front. The tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day across the world. The tappers and listeners are CEOs and frontline employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers etc. As leaders, we often fall into the tapper’s trap. We give instructions to our colleagues or subordinates which are very clear in our heads assuming they understand.


At home too we face a similar situation where we often share feelings or delegate tasks to our spouse, kids, friends or family members and get upset or frustrated with them because they don’t meet our expectations, even when we see them putting effort to understand. This results in anger and conflict between everyone.

You are the tapper here. You have clarity in your head, you know what you want them to do and how and then assume that it will be clearer to the listener as well.


Few points to remember:

  • What is obvious to you, may not be obvious to the person listening to you.

  • Don’t assume as our assumptions can hinder communication effectiveness.

  • When the listener says he/she cannot understand what you are saying, don’t lose your temper or get irritated.

  • The clarity you have in your head as a tapper, the listener does have the same.

  • It is very important to consider that everyone has a different level of knowledge and understanding

  • Be more specific, more detailed and more explicit.

  • Always check if the listener is on the same page as you, if not, clarify again.

  • Be empathic! You might be the listener someday.

In summary, Communication is not what is said but communication is what is understood! So communicate effectively!

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