The Universal Conversation Killer: Noise

Imagine walking along a city street while talking to a friend on your cell phone. You’re discussing something important, and you’re both engrossed in the conversation. Suddenly, there’s static on the line, so you can hear only bits and pieces of what your friend is saying. Then a truck drives by, honking loudly, followed by a police car and ambulance with sirens blaring. What happens to your conversation, and to your frame of mind? The more noise there is, the harder it is for someone to get their message through to you, and for you to get your message through to them. This can be extremely frustrating.

Static, horns, and sirens are all examples of external, physical noise. These sorts of barriers to communication may be maddening, but at least they’re obvious. When people are competing with loud sounds in their environment, there’s no mystery about why they’re having trouble understanding one another. Much more difficult to perceive are factors within a conversation that make it hard for information to get through.

Noise within the communication itself can cause just as much misunderstanding and frustration as external, physical noise, but all too often it goes unnoticed. We’ll describe this type of noise briefly here, and show how it relates to the specific communication behaviors that can make or break a conversation.

Noise within conversations takes three distinct forms:

1. Ambiguity. An ambiguous message is one that’s unclear or that could be interpreted in more than one way, making it hard for listeners to figure out what the speaker means and how they should respond. For example, suppose your business partner asks, “Don’t you think Kevin is doing a great job?” (a leading question), and you don’t think Kevin is doing particularly well. What do you say? It’s not clear whether your partner wants your honest opinion or just wants you to say yes.

You face a similar problem when friends make vague remarks like “What an unusual pair of shoes” or “That’s an interesting perspective” in a flat voice tone that gives no clue as to what they’re really thinking. These comments are so ambiguous that it’s impossible to know whether you’re being complimented or insulted.

2. Contradiction. In contradiction, two opposing messages are coming through at the same time. Often the tone of voice contradicts the words, as in sarcasm (“I can’t wait to spend three hours in another committee meeting”). Yes-buts represent a different type of contradiction, saying yes and no simultaneously (“Yeah, it would be great to get away, but I’m too busy right now”). It’s always difficult to take in two conflicting pieces of information at once.

3. Redundancy. In a redundant communication, the message is so repetitious that listeners tend to tune out. Think of any class or talk you’ve attended where the presenter went on and on, saying the same thing in five different ways. That’s the most obvious form of redundancy: repetition of what’s being said. Repetition of how something is said can also be a problem. Hearing the same communication behavior over and over can be as off-putting as hearing the same idea over and over. Although people generally aren’t used to noticing this sort of redundancy, it has a significant impact on many conversations. You saw one instance of that in Chapter 7, where we discussed the complaint-proposal-complaint-proposal pattern, in which one person repeatedly complains and the other person keeps making unsuccessful attempts to help.

Another common example is a redundant string of narrow questions. Imagine being stuck on the receiving end in the following exchange:

“Have you started your new exercise program?” (Yes.)

“Do you do it every day?” (Pretty much.)

“Did you miss any days last week?” (I don’t really remember.)

“Do you ever skip more than two days in a row?” (Well, doesn’t everyone?)

After answering a few of these questions in a row, you’d probably start to feel irritated, though you might not understand why. The discussion starts to feel like an interrogation, not because of the topic you’re discussing but because of the redundant pattern of questioning. 

These three forms of noise—ambiguity, contradiction, and redundancy—work against the very purpose of communication. The whole point of communicating is to get information from one place or person to another, and noise makes that significantly more difficult. As a result, noise tends to increase stress. When information isn’t getting through, people generally start feeling frustrated and annoyed. The converse is also true: stress tends to increase noise, because when people are frustrated, they’re more likely to use noisy behaviors. The result is a vicious cycle—noise in the conversation generates frustration, which in turn generates more noise, and so on.

The concept of noise ties in directly to the nine-square grid in Figure 9-1 (page 206). That grid is part of a comprehensive framework that categorizes all verbal behaviors in terms of how they affect the flow of information, including whether they increase or decrease the level of noise. This framework, developed in 1965 by Anita Simon and Yvonne Agazarian, forms the foundation for all the communication skills we teach. It’s called SAVI® (pronounced savvy), which stands for the System for Analyzing Verbal Interaction.

SAVIgrid

In the remainder of this chapter, we’ll introduce you to some fundamental elements of SAVI theory and practice. We won’t go into a lot of detail, but we’ll give you enough background so you can see how this system unites everything you’ve learned about the six most common communication challenges (including the strategies to resolve them), and how it holds the key to tackling many other communication challenges you might encounter.

Information Traffic Jams

 Take a look at the full version of the SAVI grid in Figure 9-2 on the following page. (To access a full-color downloadable grid, visit CTsavvy.com/grid) Notice how the rows are labeled. They’re based on the model of a traffic light, with each row having a different color: red, yellow, and green. Whenever you’re unsure about how to get your message across effectively, or how to respond to a difficult message coming at you, these colors provide an invaluable guide. (You may also notice that the columns of the grid are labeled as well. We’ll talk about those later on.)

Red Light: Blocking the Flow

 The behaviors in the top row of the SAVI grid have the same effect on information as a red light has on traffic. They don’t stop everything from getting through, but they do tend to block the flow. Why? Because they’re so noisy. Conversations containing a lot of red-light behaviors are filled with ambiguity, contradiction, redundancy, or some combination of the three.

All that noise makes it hard to get information across. This, in turn, makes it hard to accomplish whatever it is that we’re trying to do, whether it’s negotiating a budget deal, planning a course of medical treatment, making a hiring decision, resolving a marital conflict, deciding where to move or go on vacation, or any of the countless other things we try to achieve through talking. That helps to explain why the results of the best/worst experiment keep turning out the same; no matter what people talk about in their “worst” conversations, the behaviors causing the trouble come mainly from the top (red-light) row. It also explains why, as you may have noticed, all the communication challenges we’ve covered in this book are red-light behaviors.

While the consequences of using red-light behaviors are often negative, we want to emphasize that the behaviors themselves aren’t bad. Yes-buts aren’t bad. Complaints aren’t bad. Even attacks aren’t bad. The people who use these behaviors aren’t bad, either. In fact, we all use many of these behaviors every day. Red-light communication actually carries very important information, often including information about the emotional state of the person who’s talking (for instance, the fact that they’re angry or frustrated or worried about something). The problem is that this information comes embedded in a murky haze of ambiguity, contradiction, and redundancy, which makes it difficult for other people to get the message and do something useful about it.

The three red-light squares on the SAVI grid carry different types of embedded information.

In square 1 (fighting), what’s embedded is mainly personal, with strong feelings and other deeply meaningful information coming out in noisy ways. For instance, in Chapter 8, we saw Katie venting her frustration indirectly at her mother, through verbal attacks. Likewise, the sisters in Chapter 7 didn’t directly state what they both intensely wanted (time off from working at their store to take a vacation). Instead, that desire got buried in complaints about how bad their situation was (“We don’t do anything fun anymore,” “I’m fed up with being in the store all the time”).

Square 2 (obscuring) behaviors talk about other people, activities, or events—not directly but through gossip, assumptions, tangential jokes, and other highly ambiguous remarks. Any actual data about the topic at hand is embedded in so much noise that the reality of the situation gets obscured.

Remember from Chapter 4 that Ben’s untested mind-reads of his friend Alan (“Clearly Alan was still upset,” “He had no interest in talking to me”) blocked him from discovering the reality that his friend had actually forgiven him, or from even considering that possibility. Similarly, when the school negotiators in Chapter 5 got caught up in negative predictions (“If we try to present the facts, he’ll just laugh and make sarcastic jabs,” “It’s the students who will lose out in the end”), they failed to see the options they had for improving their chances of success.

In square 3 (competing), the embedded information is a point of view that differs from what’s previously been said. Rather than being stated in a clear, direct way, this different perspective introduces competition by opposing, contradicting, interrupting, preempting, or putting down previously expressed viewpoints. For example, in Chapter 3, you saw how Rob and Amanda Parker kept expressing their concerns in the form of yes-buts—“I don’t expect you to be over it, but that was almost a year ago,” “Sure, it was almost a year ago, but we don’t even talk about it anymore”—with the result that neither of them really heard and understood the other person’s point of view. For Ricardo Garza, from Chapter 6, presenting ideas in the form of leading questions (“Isn’t that right?” “Wouldn’t you agree?”) contributed to the near collapse of his sales team.

Once a conversation starts moving into square 1, 2, or 3, it can quickly get stuck in red light. Remember the vicious cycle in which noise increases frustration, which then further increases noise? Whenever you use complaints, mind-reads, yes-buts, or any other noisy, red light behaviors, you make it more likely that other people in the conversation will get frustrated and join you up in red light.

Green Light: Greasing the Wheels

Now let’s look at the other end of the communication spectrum: the behaviors at the bottom of the SAVI grid. Just as a green light is a welcome sign at a traffic intersection, green-light behaviors are usually good news for a conversation. These behaviors contain a minimum of noise and therefore make it easier for information to get through. In addition, each of these behaviors gives evidence that information has already gotten through.For instance, when someone states a mind-read of you and you accurately paraphrase it, you show that you understand what they’ve said. When someone asks a question and you answer it, you show that you understand their question. Green-light behaviors grease the wheels of communication, encouraging a free and open flow of information and ideas.

When a conversation is in trouble, green-light behaviors are often the safest bet for turning things around. You may have noticed that many of the strategies you learned in this book involve green-light behaviors like mirroring, paraphrasing, and building. By meeting red-light behaviors with a green-light response, we help ensure that the embedded information they carry doesn’t get lost but instead gets actively processed.

The behaviors in square 7 (resonating), on the following page, help to process feelings and other deeply personal information. For example, through mirroring, Laura (from Chapter 8) showed that she understood the emotions behind her daughter Katie’s attack and also helped to soothe those emotions. When feelings aren’t so high, we can use square 8 (responding) behaviors to demonstrate understanding and provide clarification. A good example is the leading question response strategy. By paraphrasing the embedded opinion, the embedded question, or both, you show that you understand the message while at the same time helping to clarify that message. (For instance, to paraphrase the leading question “Isn’t that too expensive?” you might say, “You want to know if I think this is too expensive.”)

The third green-light square, square 9 (integrating), contains behaviors that integrate previously stated ideas or experiences by joining, validating, or building on them. Recall the powerful shifts that happened when the Parkers (from Chapter 3) stopped yes-butting each other and started building instead; the very issues that had been driving them apart (grief over infertility and desire for a closer romantic connection) became areas of common ground that brought them closer together.

In addition to using green-light behaviors yourself, you can invite others to move into green light by asking a question. Any direct answer to a question is a green-light behavior, giving proof that information is flowing and making it easier for that flow to continue. It’s no accident that questions play a large role in many communication strategies, including the ones we’ve discussed in this book. In yes-but conversations, broad questions can help promote creative thinking and problem solving. In conversations dominated by mind-reads or negative predictions, questions can help replace assumptions with data. And when someone is complaining, asking the right types of questions can help them shift from helpless passivity to constructive action. Just keep in mind that for any question to be effective, it needs to get answered. It’s the potential to shift a conversation into green light—by soliciting an answer to create a two-way exchange of information—that makes questions so powerful.

Yellow Light: Food for Thought or Fuel for the Fire

Up to this point, we haven’t said anything about the central row of the grid. Look back at your pattern of Ws and Bs from the best/worst conversation experiment. You probably have more Ws on the top and more Bs on the bottom, but what’s going on in the middle? Results vary somewhat from person to person. Most frequently, there’s a mixture of a few Ws and a few Bs, meaning that yellow-light behaviors are showing up in both successful and unsuccessful conversations.

The behaviors in the yellow-light row—facts, opinions, proposals, questions, and so on—are quite different from those in the other two rows. They don’t make it harder for information to get through (like red-light behaviors), but they also don’t show that information has already gotten through (like green-light behaviors). They simply bring more information into the discussion.

Sometimes the information is personal, relating to ourselves, our preferences, and our relationships (square 4, individualizing: “I really like the blue version of the logo”). Sometimes it’s related to facts in the external world (square 5, finding facts: “The designer gave us three different logo options to choose from”). And sometimes it sets a new direction for the conversation (square 6, influencing: “Let’s see which option other people prefer”).

We refer to yellow-light behaviors as contingent because their effects on communication are contingent on the pattern of other behaviors that have been used in the conversation (the communication climate). Depending on the communication climate that’s been established, the same yellow-light contribution can be used either as a resource to help get work done or as ammunition to perpetuate a fight.

Say you’re in a meeting and you make a proposal: “Let’s look into hiring a new administrative support person.” If the meeting so far has included a lot of green-light behaviors (questions are getting answered and ideas are getting explored through builds and agreements), the odds are good that your proposal will be worked through in a productive way. People might build on your suggestion (“Having more administrative support could free us up to start new creative projects”), or they might ask broad, exploratory questions (“What tasks would this person take over?” “What would be the financial pros and cons?”). However, if the climate is predominantly red-light (people are yes-butting, discounting, attacking, and interrupting each other), your proposal will likely be ignored, criticized, or shot down (“That would be great, but we can’t afford it,” “We’d never get approval to make a new hire,” etc.).

There’s also a third possibility. Sometimes a conversation takes place almost entirely in yellow light. That means a lot of information is coming in, but it isn’t being used. You might hear one opinion, then another, then another, or a long string of different proposals. (In our example, your suggestion might be followed by several others: “Why don’t we cut back on a few projects?” “How about automating some of our systems?” etc.) Nobody shows any sign of agreement or disagreement, or builds on anybody else’s ideas. It’s hard to tell if anyone’s even heard what other people have said.

When people complain about tedious, boring meetings that don’t go anywhere, an all-yellow communicationpattern is often to blame. Particularly common are long strings of opinions: “This is the best time to buy,” “The best time to buy will be after the holidays,” “Maybe we should rethink this issue,” and so on. Groups that never make it from yellow light to green light can wind up having essentially the same meeting five, ten, or twenty times. SAVI cocreator Yvonne Agazarian has labeled this sort of pattern “as-if work,” because it sounds as if people are working, but nothing ever gets accomplished.

Ben Benjamin, Anita Simon, and Amy Yeager. Conversation Transformation, Copyright 2012, McGraw-Hill Professional; reprinted with permissions of the publisher.