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Role of Sender and Receiver in Communication

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 @ 05:08 AM

Recently I was in a design meeting and we were talking about listening.  One of the team members said listening isn’t actually hard to explain—it’s always comprised of a sender and a receiver.  I sat there trying to digest what he said, knowing something was missing from the simplistic response.

So I went back to my research, confident that I’d find something to shed light on my quandary.

Malcolm Gladwell in The Outliers agrees that listening is comprised of a sender and a receiver, but that cultural norms play a big role in how that plays out.  In the western world, for example, we believe the responsibility for the communication lies with the sender.  Just think about the impact of that norm on interactions.

Managers are trained to be clear, precise, concise, consistent, and timely.  That advice comes directly from the belief that the sender has control of the interaction and the receiver only has to grasp what is directly presented.  If the manager (sender) doesn’t get it right, it’s not the fault of the employee (receiver).  There are lots of expressions to support that norm:  “You didn’t tell me, that’s not what you said, you weren’t clear, …”

The quality of the interaction is dependent upon the ability of the sender.  I’m not implying that the receiver is nothing more than a pair of passive ears, but it does put the onus for the effectiveness of an interaction upon the person talking.

On the other hand, Gladwell says that relationship flips in Asian cultures.  The responsibility of good communication rests with the receiver.  Employees are trained to understand the words and intent of the sender, often the manager, because they will have to execute what is said, and there’s little room for error.

Regardless of what role one takes in an interaction, each party has to send a message that has all the necessary properties to make it understandable (and maybe actionable) in that situation.  We all have to be both Western and Asian-capable listeners.

So, if I circle back to that design meeting, if it were happening today, I’d surface the complexity of the sender-receiver relationship that goes beyond the function of ears and sound waves and delves into the influence of culture on listening.

There’s never a simple answer or model for something as challenging as good listening.

4 Comments to “Role of Sender and Receiver in Communication”

  1. Gail Storey says:

    I agree with you that the team member’s explanation of listening as requiring just a sender and a receiver is a bit reductionist, and am fascinated by the cultural emphasis on one over the other. Whether sending or receiving, could it be that presence determines the quality?

    • Marian Thier says:

      Great observation, Gail. I suspect presence or intention trumps all. If the sender or receiver isn’t “Here,” words are left unattended.

  2. Thank you for commenting on my blog. I read your articles with interest. Indeed there seem to be a good parallelism between listening and what I call “customer enlightenment” in new product development (i.e. reaching enlightenment about customer needs to build winning products). We should talk.

    • Marian Thier says:

      yes we should–I’m at 303-440-1278 MT and you? Wednesday afternoon next week would work, then after 9/13.


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