No doubt you’ve heard that the key to rebuilding a broken relationship is “good communication.” But what, exactly, is communication?

This column begins a monthly series that will explore “good communication” and how it applies to real life—among partners and families, between friends and neighbors, in the workplace and the media, and in relations between the groups that comprise our community.

So, let’s begin at the beginning: What is communication? The best-known model is called “SMCR,” which stands for “source, message, channel, receiver.” The SMCR model is built on the analogy of a telephone. In everyday conversation you (source) speak words (message) using a common language (channel) to the other person (receiver).

Yet the SMCR model has two additional elements that are crucial to “good communication.”

The first of these elements is feedback. When you speak words through language to another person, that person will acknowledge by word or gesture if your meaning was understood. Communication isn’t merely speaking words. If the meaning of your words isn’t understood, then communication hasn’t taken place.

The second element is noise. Like the static on a telephone line, noise will distort, disrupt or even stop your message. The noise can be a physical noise that prevents you from being heard. The noise can be a mental noise if, say, your vocabulary is unfamiliar to your listener. But the “noise” can also be psychological.

Psychological noise is the greatest barrier to “good communication.” For example, having a partner, family member, friend, neighbor or coworker who can bring you a different perspective is refreshing and helpful. But difference can also bring disagreement, which can lead to conflict. When that happens, it’s easy to accuse the other person with “You never” or “You always.” But those words will trigger psychological noise in the other person that will distort, disrupt or stop your communication.

Now, let’s take two recent examples from the life of our community.

People of goodwill can debate the merits of a school bond. But once the words “tax hike” enter the conversation, the phrase can generate psychological noise that may stop some people from hearing what others have to say. Or as Victorians debate the Confederate statue on our town plaza, the phrase “cancel culture” may trigger in some people a psychological noise that shuts off listening to others’ viewpoints.

A recent counterexample of “good communication,” though, is Victorians’ response to the 2017 arson of our Victoria Islamic Center. People of all faiths, and of no faith, didn’t let “noise” determine their response. Instead, the message about neighbors in need was received, understood and acted on. Relations in our community are the better for it.

In addition to the SMCR model, another model of communication suggests why people stop actively listening to a message. Active listening ceases when you pay more attention to “peripheral cues” than to the message itself. This can happen when you listen because the speaker is famous, powerful, attractive—or is someone who looks and talks like you.

Such peripheral cues can only be overcome if you actively motivate yourself to engage the message and set aside any psychological noise that could hinder you from listening. The payoff is better relationships—personally, professionally and in our community.

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Mark Ward Sr. is an associate professor of communication at the University of Houston-Victoria and author of the forthcoming book “Introduction to Public Speaking: An Inductive Approach.” He may be reached at wardm@uhv.edu.

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