Communicating models: A psychological perspective

Simon Morley posted a very interesting post about Challenges with communicating models about two weeks ago. Mental models are what we unconscously use to understand a situation, and communicating models to others is an interesting challenge: “[…] models do not transmit themselves – they are not necessarily understood on their own – they need the necessary “synch’ing” to align both parties to achieve comprehension, communication and dialogue”, as Simon summed it up in a comment on the blog post.

Simons post and the very good discussion he and I had about it started me thinking on the psychological perspective and how important empathy is: The “synch’ing” relies on empathy.

I really liked Simons blog post because above all it highlights the subjectivity of mental models. Models are not something you can implement in an organisaton just by e.g. e-mailing them to all employees. If you want someone to ‘get’ your model, you need to actively communicate it. Which is not possible without empathy.

Empathy is something that we associate with friendship and love, but it plays part in all communication processes between human beings, including those we as testers engage with at work.

From time to time we come across people who seems to have a total lack of understanding of what we’re doing: Colleagues, managers, customers. Most of the time, people who don’t understand need only a good explanation of the situation and our point of view. But sometimes, an explanation isn’t enough: Some people just don’t seem to want to understand.

People under pressure or in stress can be like that, and we often associate this with aggressive behaviour, rudeness. Or maybe we just see the rudeness, and only later realise that maybe there was a problem with understanding.

Empathy seems to exclude this behaviour. Empathy relies on a cognitive ‘feature’ of our brain which attempts to copy thoughts and feelings of other people: It tries to decode what those who you interact with are thinking based on verbal as well as unconscious ques, e.g. body language. It’s quite obvious that having ‘a notion’ of what someone else thinks and feels can make communication much more successful – if you feel sympathy for the other persons feelings and thoughts.

This can work both ways: Loss of empathy in a situation can mean that you think everybody else thinks and feels the same as you, and it can cause quite a lot of confusion and frustration when you realise that other’s are’nt thinking the same as you.

It can happens to all of us: The brain is not a perfect and consistently operating machine, but rather a very adaptable and flexible organ. For example in situations of crisis, empathy is one of the first things to go. A person in a crisis shift from being a social creature to goal oriented and focused, typically on survival – at any cost.

There are people who don’t want to understand, e.g. due to politics. But there are some people who involuntarily just aren’t able to get to ”the other side” of the argument, for example because they’re having ”a bad day”.

(Some people with autism and ADHD can be characterised by having problems with empathy. This is a quite severe handicap for them, since not only do they have problems decoding what other people think og feel, they can also have problems seperating their own thoughts and feelings from what other people are thinking and feeling. The sad situation for empathy impaired people is that they often don’t have a choice: Even when everything is good is it extremely difficult for them to decode other peoples thoughts, feelings and intentions – and therefore extremely difficult for them to communicate and interact successfully. Noticing how successfully others interact often just makes them feel plain stupid. This can lead to severe depression.)

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