The strength of your social life is largely determined by how effective you are in communication. Having been a victim of several heartbreaks because of poor communication skills, I took out time to study how humans understand what we hear so I can be better at making people understand what I say.
Here’s the result: the Message Interpretation Framework
Whether we choose to admit it or not, we really do not take people’s words in isolation to understand what they mean. For instance, in an interaction between a couple where there is a heated argument, if all of a sudden one of the couple says “it is fine” and stops talking, it would be insensitive for the other couple to smile back and say, “I’m glad you now understand me.”
But if there is no argument and the same couple is trying to choose which restaurant to go to for a date and the wife insists on going to a restaurant with low-quality customer service because she wants to see her friend and the husband says “it is fine,” in such a case she can smile and say he understands.
So there’s so much nuance to message perception and interpretation and it is good. If we only interpret what a person says by the words they speak, communication will be more stressful and monotonous since we would all be trying to find words to express messages that can easily be expressed with simple nonverbal cues.
So how do we truly interpret what people say?
How Messages Are Interpreted
There are 5 parameters we use by default to understand and interpret what we hear. I call them the 5 C’s default interpretation.
1. Content (what is said)
This is the primary signal our brains get from a message that is sent to us. It is the exact words in expressed verbal language that our ears pick. The solidity or questionability of this element of perception is what determines to what extent other elements of perception will be employed if they will be employed at all.
For instance, if a child wakes up in the morning and greets his parents with “good morning,” there is mostly no question of what the child means except situations arise that make the greeting questionable.
So in that case, the minimum required element of interpretation is used and the parent interprets it as, “my child is up from bed and he greeted me.”
2. Conduct (how it is said)
The next element of perception is how the person says whatever they said. When attention is drawn to this element, communication is getting a little more complex.
Apart from the exact words, at this point, you begin to pay attention to their facial expression, the intonation they use, and their body language or non-verbal cues. What our brains seek to pick when using other elements of communication in addition to content is the intent of the sender of the message.
So if that same child comes to his mum with a wide grin to say the same good morning and refuses to leave, the mum knows there’s more to be interpreted than “my child is up and is greeting me.”
If she is in a position where she cannot ask him why he’s so excited, her brain goes into action trying to find his intent for smiling. “what did I do?” “What did he do?” “What’s happening today?” “what did I promise him?” “what did he hear?” “Where is he coming from?”
These and many more questions will be raised just to interpret the same good morning because of the difference in conduct.
3. Context (when and where it is said)
The next parameter we employ in getting to interpret the message being communicated to us is when and where the message is sent. This is employed when the conduct of the individual is not sufficient to give us a satisfying interpretation.
Side Note: Many times what we end up with (interpret) is not what the person actually says but what we find logical and convincing enough. So we will continue to employ more parameters until we find a logical basis to interpret what we perceive.
The questions the mum asks… “what is happening today?” and so on are questions of context. Context is what gives meaning to conduct. If a grown-up man comes to you crying, it wouldn’t mean anything to you until you find the context for his conduct.
Did he lose his wife? If yes, then maybe he needs comfort. The message of “he needs comfort” is a result of the context.
4. Concepts (who said it)
The next parameter employed to interpret the message we get from people is our perception of the person communicating. If we can’t find a satisfying link between the content, conduct, and context, we try to infer the concept of the person speaking.
This involves judging their IQ, judging their savviness in the use of words and/or expressions, and judging their complexity as a person to infer hidden meanings behind the content and conduct.
The good morning mum example might not suffice here any longer because this has gotten to a much more complex level of communication.
A better example is after you, a thirty-year-old, are done with a presentation and a 15-year-old girl tells you, “the presentation was great; just add a little more energy next time.”
In this case, the content is clear, the conduct is right, context is appropriate, but to fully interpret it you need to dig into the concept (IQ) of the child. Does she really know what she is saying?
This parameter might become less relevant if you got the same message from your boss.
5. Custom (what they have done or said in the past)
This is the last resort in interpreting messages. The aim here is to get a clearer basis to judge their concept. You are assessing experiences you have had with the person before, what you have heard them say or do, or what you have heard people say about them.
If it is someone you don’t know, you assess what experiences you have had with people you perceive to be like them.
So when your friend tells you to shut up and you have always known them to be someone who doesn’t get angry or jokes a lot, you wouldn’t pick offense because, based on their custom, shut up is not likely to mean they’re shutting you down.
It could just mean “wait let me speak first”. Even if their concept and complexity and the context demand them to shut you down.
Message Interpretation Framework (MIF) In Action
Here are 2 examples of the use of the Message Interpretation Framework
A guy walks up to you as a girl and tells you you are beautiful.
- The content is clear so you move to the next
- What was his conduct? Was he smiling (joking) when saying it? If he looked and acted sincere, you move to the next
- What was the context? Did he say it because you just complimented him? it could be he was just deflecting your compliment and didn’t mean it. Or where did he say it? We were sitting alone in a bus station waiting for a bus. The context seems right so you move to the next
- What are his concepts? Is he someone (or looks like someone) that has a high standard of judgment? So does this mean he thinks I am really beautiful? But what exactly is his message? You then move to the next
- What are his customs? Since he is not someone you know before, you try to infer based on the experiences you have had or heard about guys. Could this just be a compliment or is he on a path to asking me out?
This entire process happens within split seconds except in cases where the situation is so complex and we need much time to get our inferences.
Side Note 2: As I said in side note 1, your interpretation, in the end, is largely dependent on your concepts and experiences. All we try to do with this framework is infer what we think they are saying but whatever we come up with is still only what we think, not a perfect representation of what they are truly saying. Communication happens seamlessly when both parties have similar concepts. Varying concepts are what lead to misconceptions.
Your boss emails you a spreadsheet and says you should collate the data and prepare for a board meeting presentation you have never done before.
- The content is certain. You are the one presenting tomorrow
- What is the conduct? It is presented in simple and formal terms explaining what is required of you. This also supports the validity of the content
- What is the context? Receiving an email at 10 p.m. carries no context but your mind flashes back to the office. What have I done for him to request this of me? Is it a punishment? Is it a promotion? Okay, nothing really different happened at the office today.
- What are his concepts? He is a smart and intelligent man meaning the mail was pre-thought and means what it says
- What are his customs? He is an objective man that means what he says and makes decisions based on what he feels is best. This means he must believe I can do this.
Although this second example is less dramatic, it shows, again, the process of how we get full insight into what people say to us even in regular everyday interaction.
How To Communicate More Effectively Using MIF
The purpose of this is not to just enjoy learning the process but to use it to our advantage when sending messages to people.
- Pay attention to your content (the words you say), ensure it means what you’re saying, and avoid ambiguity
- Pay attention to your conduct. Ensure your nonverbal expressions are truly supporting what you’re saying. Don’t tell the person their artwork is great with a sarcastic smile
- Pay attention to the context. It is difficult to tell someone “you need to read more” after they asked you for feedback on their writing, then cap it off with “you are a very good writer” and expect them to believe you truly think they are a good writer. In such situations, you need to break down your communication and let them see why you think they are good and why you think they should read more.
There’s not so much you can do about people’s perception of your concepts and customs during a conversation because they are built over time and highly dependent on how developed their perception is.
But for close friends and family, you can help them by being a person of consistent character. Let them know how you express your jokes and how you express seriousness, as well as pain, anger, excitement, appreciation, and so.
This way, you have fewer issues trying to continuously update them with your concepts and conduct in every conversation. In more sensitive conversations, you might need to give a little definition of terms, especially with someone you don’t spend so much time with.
Like when telling a girl that you like her, you might want to add that it doesn’t mean you want to date her to avoid misconceptions— differences in concepts.
Olusegun Iyejare is a career coach and certified counselor. He helps individuals discover and maximize their potential to live satisfying lives regardless of obvious limitations holding them back.