October 31, 2019 ~ 4 min read

Thinking about higher order communication

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I've written a few updates recently that have talked about exploring different types of communication.

I've talked about mixing up modes, between speaking, writing, add sketching.

I've talked about acronyms, and how they can help specialists communicate faster and in more depth.

I've talked about creating shared language between specializations.

What all of these have in common is they involve communicating about how we communicate.

I was going to call this meta-communication, but it turns out that already is used to mean something else.

Instead, I'll borrow from mathematics & computer science and call this 'higher order communication'.

Defining higher order communication

In mathematics, a 'higher order' function is a function that accepts as an input another function. In computer science, the same definition holds.

So I'll define 'higher order communication' as communication that is itself about how we communicate.

Examples are in our world are wide-spread. In the work world these include things like defining "rules of engagement" for debates or discussions, creating shared language and acronyms to encapsulate bigger ideas, and setting out agendas and processes for running meetings.

Outside of the work world, this can involve debates over what types of language or topics are okay for television, books about the ways men and women tend to communicate differently, or even discussions about [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Five_Love_Languages](prefered love languages)

Why engage in higher order communication

There are two huge reasons I think a focus on higher order communication is extremely valuable.

First is the direct reason: the more you work with someone (or a set of someones) on how to best communicate with them, the better your ability to connect to, communicate with, and understand them will be.

The second is a more indirect, but possibly even more important. By becoming increasingly aware and explicit about the ways that communication can differ, and having conversations about both your own preferences and others, you can create a huge shift in the emotional reaction and interpretations around misunderstandings.

If you and I have never had a conversation about how we communicate with each other, and there is a misunderstanding that results in negative consequences, we'll have a tendency to blame the other person. This is part of being human - we have a tendency to attribute mistakes to malice or intention.

However, if we have had a conversation about how we communicate, and we've started to discover that there are differences there and make explicit that improving how we communicate is a part of our relationship, the immediate reaction to a misunderstanding is different.

Instead of instinctively aiming blame at the other person, we have a natural target: a gap in our communication. We need to spend more time on higher order communication, improving how we communicate.

It doesn't remove the negativity of a misunderstanding, but it channels the reaction into something far more productive.

The first step is awareness

There are many different dimensions along which our communication preferences vary; I feel like I learn new ones every week.

But the biggest change for me was becoming aware that this type of difference exists.

The first I was aware of it was from the book 'You Just Don't Understand'. It was incredibly eye opening to learn that there are very different approaches to handling complaints. Some people (typically but not always men) jump directly into trying to solve problems, while other people (typically but not always women) offer sympathy.

There is nothing wrong with either approach, but when there is a mismatch it causes tremendous problems. Offer problem solving to someone looking for sympathy and they'll bite your head off. Offer sympathy to someone looking for solutions and they'll be disgusted with how unhelpful you are.

Becoming aware of the difference, talking about that difference, and then checking in before reacting - "hey, let me check in right now, are you looking for help problem solving or sympathy?" - drastically improved both my intimate and other relationships.

And ever since then, I've had my eye out for more dimensions along which these variations exist.

If you've got time, help me out - What are some ways you've noticed that you communicate differently than other people? Or that you've encountered someone preferring? Shoot me an email and let me know.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at Zendev.com.