What Signals Engineering Taught Me About Empathy
We send each other signals all the time. Our speech, writing, and body language are pieces of data that originate from inside of us, travel through space and time, and get interpreted by other people.
It is tempting to think that as long as we present our thoughts accurately, the person we are communicating with should have no problem understanding us. “I said exactly what I meant, so if they misinterpreted me, that’s their fault!”
Indeed, when we’re talking to close friends with similar backgrounds and worldviews, it’s easier to communicate successfully. We can speak our minds without thinking about it too much and our peers will usually understand what we mean.
On the other hand, sometimes we communicate with people who have a vastly different understanding of the world. They have different histories, philosophies, and expectations about reality. Maybe there are differences in religion, nationality, gender, sexuality, age, class, native language, or personality. Maybe their perceptions have been altered by abuse or mental illness.
Even though we’re saying exactly what we mean, the way someone hears us can be totally different than what we intended. Our data passes through so many different filters that the message is lost.
When you send files over a cable — for example, when you transfer photos from a digital camera to a computer — something called “serial data communication” is taking place.
The transmitting device sends “ones” and “zeroes” (high and low voltage states) down the cable in rapid succession. It looks something like this:
The receiving device decodes this pattern of ones and zeroes into data you can use. Simple enough.
There’s a catch, though: the above diagram is an idealistic representation of the signal. The transmitter creates its best approximation of that signal, but it is always warped by the cable it travels down.
In the real world, data often looks more like this by the time the receiver sees it:
That’s a bit harder for a receiver to interpret.
The longer a cable is, the more warped the signal tends to be. If these distortions become severe enough, the signal can suffer so much that the receiver begins to incorrectly identify ones and zeroes. At that point, the data has errors, and communication fails.
This is similar to the way communication breaks down between humans. When we communicate with like-minded people, it’s as though we’re using a short, clean cable. When we talk to people who are very different, it’s like a long, lossy cable, and misunderstandings happen.
Fortunately, engineers have come up with solutions that allow for successful data communication over longer cables — and we can apply some of these same concepts to interpersonal communication.
By understanding the way a signal becomes warped over the course of its journey, an engineer can design a transmitter that compensates for that distortion.
For example: a high-frequency segment of data, like 01010101, tends to lose power as it passes through a cable. By the time it reaches the receiver, this part of the signal might be very weak. Lower-frequency parts of the data, like 00001111, tend to come through at a higher amplitude.
Since it is known that the higher-frequency components of the signal will suffer, the transmitter compensates by sending the high-frequency components with more power to begin with. That way, even after passing through the cable, those parts will still have enough amplitude to be read correctly by the receiver. This is called “pre-emphasis”.
The signal might look a little funny leaving the transmitter; but by the time it reaches the receiver, it looks much more like the intended signal.
When a transmitter uses pre-emphasis to improve its signal quality, it becomes possible for devices to communicate successfully across a much longer cable.
This is, essentially, a type of empathy. The transmitter goes out of its way to deliver an understandable message to the receiver.
Similarly, if we want to communicate clearly with people who are different from us, we can learn to account for the ways our messages might get altered along the way — and change how we express our thoughts so they are better understood by the recipient.
To develop this skill, think like an engineer. Pay attention to the ways communication tends to break down. Notice patterns. Work to understand what causes these misunderstandings. Then, with that knowledge in mind, adjust the way you communicate.
The more you can empathize with the person you’re communicating with and understand the kinks that exist in the cable between you, the more you can learn to speak in such a way that your intended message gets through to them; and the more you can decode what they’re trying to say and receive their information accurately, too.
Here are some ways you can improve your ability to converse with someone who is different than you:
- Learn about their background
- Observe them with curiosity instead of judgment
- Notice how they communicate with their own peers
- Imagine yourself in their situation
- Be slow to react with anger, and assume the best about them
- Use plain language instead of specialized jargon
- Ask clarifying questions
- Be patient when it takes time to figure each other out
If you practice these skills, you may be able to cultivate a greater capacity for successful exchanges with all kinds of people.
Some messages are inherently easy to get across, like “it’s snowing outside.” It’s an objective fact. Everyone knows what it means, so it’s unlikely to suffer from distortion when communicated.
Other signals are very complex and prone to getting mixed up along the way. Statements related to religion and politics are almost guaranteed to result in some degree of communication breakdown if your recipient is of a different mindset than you. You need to be especially aware of distortion when you’re sending or receiving these kinds of complicated messages.
Sometimes, people who seem to hold contrary values actually agree about the core of an idea but because they talk about it so differently, they perceive each other as adversaries.
Maybe deep down the vast majority of humans want the same things in life. Maybe we simply haven’t learned how to see our commonality because the messages we send each other are distorted in so many ways.
If we make an effort to understand different types of people, listening closely to their experiences and gaining a sense of what they’ve been through and why they think the way they do, perhaps we can start to bridge the gaps that divide us.
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