Communication Currents

What are the common misperceptions people have about communicating and how do those lead to mistakes when they communicate?

August 1, 2007
General Communication Studies

Communication is a topic that people assume they know a great deal about, particularly because they interact with many individuals on a daily basis via multiple channels—face-to-face conversations, phone, and email, for example. Yet there is much more to the discipline of Communication than many realize. Communication Currents invited five Communication scholars—Kevin Barge, Brant Burleson, Dennis Gouran, Lynn Harter, and John Heineman—to respond to questions people typically have about the discipline of Communication as well as how the issues studied in the discipline relate to everyday life. See the full column in Communication Currents (Volume 2, Issue 4) for answers to all of the questions posed to our expert panel.

What are the common misperceptions people have about communicating and how do those lead to mistakes when they communicate? 

John Heineman: The most common mistake that I think so many people make is that they think communication just happens. “I talk, I listen, I hear, I’m an expert.” And really what we miss is the fact that we need to be constantly aware of the messages we are receiving and the messages that we are sending. We really need to make sure that people understand that communication either written and especially oral, good communication doesn’t just happen. It really comes from thoughtful, precise planning, it comes from really evaluating the kind of communication that’s happened in the past, and really trying to predict the outcomes.

Kevin Barge: Most people think that communication is about getting your point across clearly. Regardless of the context, regardless of who you’re talking to, regardless of the situation, you need to be clear in your communication. I think that’s a misperception because I think there are times at which being ambiguous can be very effective in your communication. Think about for example organizations when they issue PR statements during a crisis. They want to be as clear as possible about what they’re doing. They also want to be a little ambiguous sometimes so that they give themselves some wiggle room in case they have to adjust their strategy. I think one of the reasons that this is a misperception—that we need to be clear—is that our dominant way of thinking about communication is that it’s about getting your point across, or what some people call transferring information.

I think we need to think about communication differently and change the perception of what communication is, that communication is about creating relationships, whether that’s creating romantic relationships, whether that’s creating relationships in a team, whether that’s creating relationships in the workplace, say between an employee and his or her boss, or whether that’s creating relationships among nations or countries. You’ve got to think about communication creates a relationship. So how we communicate creates different things. A simple example is what happens when you call me Dr. Barge. What relationship do you create? Well, you create a relationship where there’s hierarchy. I’m a doctor, you may be in a subordinate position. You create a position that’s more formal, in terms of the relationship. We are now talking about my educational role and position. What changes if you call me Kevin? Well, now it’s an informal relationship, we’re peers. So those small things we do in language create different kinds of relationships and different ways of working together. So I think one of the biggest misperceptions is thinking that clear communication is good communication. And I think the reason we think that is because we have a model of communication that says that communication is about transferring information. I think that misperception goes away if we change our perception to one in which communication creates relationships.

Lynn Harter: I think the biggest misperception is that communication represents ideas, rather than constitutes those ideas. So often times, we think that when we communicate an idea, that we’re simply transferring information. And certainly, that’s accomplished when we turn on CNN and the reporters are outlining the latest developments and tension in the Middle East. But those reporters don’t simply transfer that information. They also construct our sense of reality. That communication serves to shape our orientation to the world. It shapes our understanding, both of the past as well as future possibilities. So one of the mistakes people make is that we forget the power and the agency that we have to reconstruct our sense of reality. A reflexive communicator is a person who is constantly aware of and reflective about what our communication choices suggest about our worldview, how those choices reinforce that worldview, and how they both enable and constrain us . . . I think a more powerful way of thinking about the way we communicate is the constitutive view, that communication constitutes, reconstitutes, reconstructs, disrupts our orientation to the world, rather than just simply transferring or transmitting information.

Communication Currents is a publication of the National Communication Association.

About the author (s)

Lynn M. Harter

Ohio University

Steven and Barbara Schoonover Professor