(Almost) Everything We’ve Been Taught About Communication is Wrong

Illustration by  Nick Kirk

Illustration by Nick Kirk

As soon as I walked into my boss’s office I knew I was getting fired. In the middle of the table was a brown envelope – my severance package. I’d been through this before, I knew how it worked.

I knew to some degree why this kept happening. It wasn’t because I was bad at my job. I loved my work and I tried really hard, but I just couldn’t seem to fit in. People found me difficult or abrasive and it seemed like no matter what I said it came out the wrong way. I’d learned a hard truth – if you can’t communicate in a way that works for other people it doesn’t matter how good you are at your job, eventually they won’t have the patience to deal with you.

My struggles with communication had affected more than just my professional life. After a series of misunderstandings and arguments I’d lost contact with most of my friends and family and I was feeling isolated and unhappy. After getting a divorce on top of it all, I was desperate to solve my communication crisis.

I spent years trying to figure out why people couldn’t understand me. I studied all kinds of theories, attended dozens of workshops and implemented everything I read. But I wasn’t getting any better – in fact, I was getting worse.

I realized that the problem with a lot of the advice out there about communication is that it’s usually developed by someone who is naturally a good communicator. Since it’s worked for them, they assume that their techniques will work for everyone else. This approach is inherently flawed since we all think and behave differently – it will never feel authentic to ourselves or to our audience if we follow someone else’s playbook.

That’s when I switched gears from trying to understand how we should communicate to how people think. This led me to some cognitive science that explained virtually everything I was struggling with.

The idea of cognitive preferences originated with the work of Ned Herrmann in the 1970s and was later refined by Dr. Geil Browning. The concept is very simple – our brains like to process information in predictable ways. Our brains will constantly default to their preference – or preferences plural since most of us have more than one.

I soon realized that these cognitive preferences could be used to understand our communication. We give and receive information in certain ways based on how our brain prefers to process it. This means that we usually speak in a way that we would like to be spoken to – but that style of communication will simply not work for some people. In fact, most people communicate in a way that doesn’t resonate with a quarter to half of the general population. My situation was even worse – my unique cognitive profile meant that I often wasn’t reaching three-quarters of my audience.

So how do you figure out the cognitive preferences of your audience so you can tailor your communication? You can’t. Research shows that we’re terrible at assessing how people like to process information. Plus, as soon as you’re speaking to more than one person it’s statistically highly likely that all preferences are represented in the group.

I realized that you have to speak in a way that works for everyone, irrespective of their preferences. I developed a communication methodology based on this cognitive science and became obsessed with it when I realized that it really worked. It was a game-changer for me and it went against everything I’d learned – because unfortunately, almost everything that we’ve been taught about communication is wrong.

I’d spent years trying to figure out how to interact with others and now I had the answer. There are still times when I look back at my life and wish that I’d figured this out earlier. But mostly I’m driven by a constant desire to help the thousands, millions of people like me – the people who desperately want to be heard and deserve to be understood.

Gregor Jeffrey