Schemas and Communications

Our intuitive mind automatically refers to schemas. A schema is a concept or framework used to organize and interpret information. Schemas are mental molds into which we pour our experiences, like data stored in database tuples. We then, in our cognitive unconscious, use these schemas to organize and interpret unfamiliar information. We draw on these schemas to understand our world and to communicate with each other. During communication, we endeavor to connect the schema in our own minds to the schemas in the minds of others such that it correctly describes our message. When our schemas are different, when we do not have the same experiences, when we do not use the same language or use unfamiliar jargon, communication becomes difficult. When there are no references between the data in our databases and the data in our communication partner’s databases, we can’t understand each other.

When the ideas we formed about reality are wrong, and we are not seeing the same truth, communication becomes even more challenging, as the schemas we draw from would not make sense to our communication partners.

It takes very little effort to create a first impression. When we take things at face value in conscious thought, and when we are wrong, we create an erroneous schema within the mind of our communication partner, a schema that becomes the basis of decision making. When we use abstract words and judgmental language to explain ourselves, but the listener does not understand and does not ask for clarification, the listener applies his or her own schemas to fill in the blanks, whether correctly or incorrectly (most likely incorrectly when little effort is expended). It is easier for the listener to make assumptions—assumptions easily regarded as facts—than to make the effort to obtain clarification and understanding. These assumptions will most likely be made based on their past experiences—different schemas that are not relevant to the situation at hand. The easier it is to recall those experiences, the more likely our communication partners believe their recollections and associations are true (Kehoe, 2011).

The more abstract our talk, the more we leave out information, and the more we rely on others to fill in information using their own schemas, which may be different from ours and not what we intend. As mentioned earlier, meanings are in people, not in words. Our communication partner fills in this information at the cognitive unconscious level; it is filled in automatically and faster than the conscious mind can process the data. The conscious mind then draws conclusions based on the stimuli from the cognitive unconscious, stimuli that is packaged with emotions and memories, stimuli that our conscious minds integrate with our beliefs. Once our beliefs are added to the package that includes our emotions and assumptions, we are ready to respond through words and actions —a conscious response that can be far removed from the current reality, a response that could be based on a distorted and garbled message.

No wonder Osmo Wiio, a Finnish professor of communications, was so sarcastic when he developed his communications “laws.” He said, “Communication usually fails, except by accident.” He also said, “If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.” Finally, he said “There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message” (A Commentary on Wiio’s Laws, 2015).

Organizations have their own norms for communications, influenced by society. Similar to the manner in which organizations have different dress codes, organizational norms dictate the methods and forms of acceptable communication: who is allowed to deliver messages to whom; acceptable ways to express emotions. There is knowledge, processes (habits), history, and tradition in organizations that create common schemas in their members’ minds. When new people join those organizations, they are indoctrinated into those schemas. To effectively communicate, leaders must understand the organization’s norms and know when to utilize them to deliver and receive information, or when to exercise the courage to defy them when important messages are not being heard.

I once led a Microsoft Active Directory and Exchange migration project for a critical government customer. Our team was not getting the information we needed from the infrastructure group to move the project forward. I had numerous meetings with the project sponsor to stress that we needed their cooperation in order to stay on schedule. The senior members of my project team and I became frustrated, and together we crafted an email message that expressed our concerns and frustration. We were less than diplomatic, calling out senior members of the infrastructure group in our message. As we were contractors, we violated a norm or two by sending this message without clearing it with our government sponsor. Our message caused political problems for our sponsor and his superiors. They had to perform political damage control. If I were not the PM for the contract, and if the project were not as critical as it was, I could have been relieved of my position. Partly because of our courageous act, we did eventually get the cooperation we needed. However, it came at a political cost.

The schemas in our minds help us organize and interpret information about the world we live in. Let’s take a look at how our interpretations of these data influence our behavior.

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