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Shared meaning

, June 27, 2013, 2 Comments

Sample the following piece of conversation.

John: Hey Mark, was just curious to know how my test went.
Mark: Sure. Your test was OK. We’re waiting for the senior manager to review it.
John: “OK”? You mean it was passable?
Mark: You’ve done fine, don’t worry. We’ll wait for the manager’s feedback.

It probably isn’t very often that we have such a conversation with a prospective employer, but an OK may not always translate to a cause for elation. So, as a communicator, did John do a bad job? Maybe not in this instance. A slightly harder dekko into the conversation will probably tell us that John may have indeed meant to convey that Mark had done good enough to be considered for subsequent stages of selection, but hadn’t particularly smashed the test. Or Mark wasn’t absolutely wrong in qualifying the affirmative response from John.

What we have here is shared meaning, which has worked well between the sender and receiver, failing which the conversation would have spiralled for a good while longer. To put things in perspective, we are talking about something that is the bedrock of effective communication, not in the least business communication.  Shared meaning essentially means the import of a message is understood rightly, even when the receiver doesn’t register the same words being said. This paraphrases the idea that effective communication can never happen in a vacuum. Let’s look at the example below to get a clearer idea.

A leading software solutions vendor makes a pitch at a prospective client’s office about the revolutionary product they have on offer. Their product is a smart and useful documentation tool. However their pitch is loaded with jargon, which probably might make sense when analyzed deeply. Prima facie, it appears like they are peddling a product that has a much wider scope. The audience sit through the presentation, alternating between amazement and incredulity.  The lights are back on, and the person who makes buying decisions is ready with his questions.  However, he has been hanging on a couple of value propositions that appealed to him instantly. So, his questions are based on his beliefs about the solution. The vendor company starts fumbling for answers after a few questions, not long before rushing to clarify about the exact purpose of the product. The prospective client, who naturally has to consult his coffers, is not too excited about betting his bottom dollar on an apparently ancillary product at this point in time.

In retrospect, both the parties to the communication above were hardly on the same page. If one has to point a finger of blame, it will be at both ends of the line. The vendor must have presented the message ‘clearly and in detail, radiating authenticity and integrity’, as Susan Heathfield, management consultant and communications expert says. The message they were trying to convey needed to resonate with the beliefs of the audience, for which, good homework and prefatory communication would have helped.   Similarly, the prospective client would have done better to listen in intently and ask questions first hand, to set the expectations straight. The presenters may have done better if they had deliberated on the medium of delivery of the communication as well. Say, some sort of a brochure to refer to before the presentation, or a customer case study, would have helped the audience with the essentials.

Shared meaning is synonymous with effective communication without doubt. I hope the lines above serve their intended purpose and not mean something entirely different to the readers.

  • Aarti Iyer

    Great piece! Absence of shared meaning is as good as no communication having taken place at all…

    • Anoop

      Thanks Aarti. We’re talking fundamentals indeed. 🙂