How do we communicate?

How do we communicate?

“He does not understand, and I see that.  So I speak again, weaving another piece of cloth, but this time with a different design.  I come up with what I think will reach him and be perceived by him.”

Jacques Ellul


Communication is complex and having taught communication theories to administrators and management apprentices for a number of years, the more I unpack the layers of these models and theories, the more I recognise this. Models of communication can help to simplify in a visual context this complexity.  Having this understanding can help to identify what could be going on behind the words of our mentees as we actively listen to attain more meaning.  I have found that this has influenced my own mentoring practice and honed my skills further.


Shannon and Weaver, is a simple linear transmission model of communication (1949) and consists of a sender, a message, a channel, noise or interference, and a receiver. This was created by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver who worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories and reflects the mathematical context of communicating a message.  The barriers to communication are shown as ‘noise’ which in 1949 could refer to connection issues. This theory still applies where the noise element refers to both environmental elements such as a noisy setting and semantics where assumptions are made as to what the sender originally meant in their message.  This simplistic model has formed the basis for wider research and theories.


Wilbur Schramm developed this model further in 1954 with the interactional communication model.  Schramm included three elements; source, message and destination and developed the encoder, interpreter, decoder adding listening and responding with feedback which enables a two-way interaction; exchanging messages in a feedback loop. The physical environment is also relevant to this model as with the linear model.



Schramm’s model conveys another element pertinent to communication which has an influence on the way we communicate: the field of experience. For example, personality, beliefs, attitudes, values, language, past experiences, gender, education, race.  Add to this the psychological elements, they all have an impact when we engage in dialogue.



Communication is not just about the message itself that we are communicating but our nonverbal communication is equally important.  This affects the way our message is conveyed and received by the decoder.  Mehrabian’s Communication Theory (1967) concept of 7-38-55 rule is where 7% of meaning is in the spoken words, 38% paralinguistics and the way words are said in voice and tone, and 55% in relation to facial expressions. Through tone of voice, body language, gestures, and facial expressions our feelings and attitudes can be conveyed. For example, arms folded can demonstrate a defensive attitude, unease, or insecurity.  More clues though, could be gained from facial expressions as our faces are the most expressive part of our bodies: a smile, frown, nod, or grimace.  Critique of Mehrabian’s research is that it was performed in simple, artificial situations based on experiments on feelings and attitudes and has been misinterpreted. Even so, further research has found this is still an important factor in how we communicate.


What these models look like in everyday conversations was blatantly demonstrated in a linear conversation between two parents I overhead recently while sat drinking my latte.  Parent A and B were chatting together while their children were running around enjoying an open area.  There was nothing too meaningful spoken, otherwise I may have moved out of earshot.  Parent A was in full flow, recalling some facts about her child’s experiences at school and their talents, etc.  However, parent B was not given any opportunity to reply, trying to butt in with a confirming statement, but parent A was moving onto the next snippet of information she wanted to share.  I could visibly see parent B’s body language as she switched off during this exchange.  They later sat on the grass embankment and both buried their heads in their phones. Is this the result of our technological interactions?  That thought is for another blog.

Effective communication is circular and not linear where the receiver can both receive and send messages.  Interpretation is involved by the recipient of the message and feedback sent to confirm that the message has been received and understood. Without this feedback there is no indication that the recipient has listened, received or even understood the original message.

When we converse in mentoring, we are provoking an answer, structuring our words to enable the recipient to answer our questions.  We cannot have access to another’s thoughts or emotions, ideas or perspectives. Only God has direct access and understands us; perceiving our thoughts from afar before a word is on our tongue, He knows them completely (Psalm 139:2-4), and we have the Holy Spirit who can help guide our conversations.  We rely on how our mentee’s answer, how they express and formulate their reply, checking their nonverbal cues and then making a judgement. Leaving our own perspectives to one side long enough to be able to engage with another’s. The better we understand communication the more we can relate to our mentees and improve our mentoring practice. Proverbs 20:5 the ‘purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out’.

Bio Lesley has over 30 years’ experience of working in public and private sectors. She has been involved in setup, development and management of the operational infrastructure for various charities. She is now a Work Based Learning Tutor in management and administration working with apprentices. After completing the Certificate in Mentoring at Cliff College, this enthused her to continue developing her mentoring skills resulting in an MA. She mentors her students on a daily basis; from 16 year olds to managers in their 50s. Outside work she is involved in one to one mentoring and has set up a mentoring programme at her church. She delivered mentoring training to new mentors for the church programme and supports Cliff College with the Short Course Certificate in Mentoring.

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