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Creating Shared Understanding

This model anchors our interpersonal workshop on creating shared understanding. It presents communications as a process with specific elements. The workshop breaks the model down into its components parts and provides tools to increase performance. Click on the model to explore the elements of the interpersonal communications process.

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Creating Shared Understanding

Our individual differences ensure that we all see complex and emotional issues differently. If we think of a complex situation as a jigsaw puzzle, our different perspectives provide each of us with pieces of the puzzle; some of those pieces are the same, and some are different. Creating shared understanding is the communications process by which we communicate our pieces of the puzzle to each other in order to solve the puzzle.

Communication is an extremely complex process that often breaks down because of the variation between individuals at each step in the process. This means that creating shared understanding is not a discreet task, but an on-going process of trying to understand each other.


Our intentions are what we want to communicate to others. We communicate our intentions in three ways — what we say, how we feel, and what we do. When our words, our feelings and our actions all send the same message we are “congruent” and we send a clear and credible message.

Communications can break down when we begin to speak before we are clear about our intentions; this is when we tend to say and do things that we later regret. When I am unclear about what I am trying to communicate my words send one message (I support that!), my feelings send a different non-verbal message (I look nervous and unsure about what I just said), and my actions send a third message (I have not followed through on support in the past). In this case I sent three messages different messages — Yes! Maybe! No! When this occurs I am not clear and I cannot be credible.

Observable Behaviors

Others can not read our mind, so they only way they can come to know our intentions is if we turn them into an observable behavior; something that can be taken in through one of their five senses. In a business setting we rely mostly on verbal (hearing) and non-verbal behaviors (seeing) behaviors to communicate with others.

Communications breaks down because we are trying to communicate complex thoughts and intentions with a very limited number of words and behaviors. An exclamation point at the end of a sentence can communicate anger, happiness or sarcasm. Therefore the ambiguity of both words and behaviors makes creating shared understanding difficult.

Another cause of miscommunications is when part of the message gets deleted, distorted or added to because of channel noise. “Channel noise” often causes addition, deletion, and distortion in what we are trying to communicate. A noisy room, miss-spelling a word, speaking too soft, poor punctuation and poor hearing are examples of how the channel the message is sent through often changes the message.

The majority of the meaning in a message is not in the words, it is in how the words are said. Therefore channel noise is perhaps at its worst when we put things in writing because the majority of the meaning in a message — the non-verbal part — is missing.


We take in other people's observable behaviors through one or more of our five senses. Perception is the process by which we select, organize, and interpret observable behaviors. We select which parts of a message we pay attention to based on our expectations, needs and wants. We organize the message based on what is important to us. We interpret the message based on our past experiences and attitudes. The process of selecting, organizing and interpreting observable behaviors creates our own unique filter for how we perceive what others are saying.

Since we all have different expectations, needs, wants, importance, experiences and attitudes we often perceive the same message quite differently. This causes tremendous problems in large group communications when trying to create shared understanding on a complex issue among a group or team.

“I know you think you heard what I said, but what you heard is not what I meant” is an accurate description of most communications. Through the process of perception we interpret what we think the other person is trying to say. In other words, we can never directly know what other people are trying to communicate; we only know what we perceive. Since the process of perception results in addition, deletions and distortion of what someone is trying to communicate, what we hear is often not what they meant. Communications is when two people realize they do not yet understand each other.


The effect that someone’s observable behaviors has on us is often quite different than they intended. Unclear intentions, channel noise, and our filters of perception often create an effect that is quite different than the sender had intended. When this happens we have an interpersonal gap in our understanding. Interpersonal gaps are extremely problematic because we tend to judge people not on what they intended (indeed this can not even be know directly to us) but on the effect their observable behaviors have on us.

We react to the effect someone’s communication has on us by forming our own intentions. When this happens we are ready to switch roles and send out intentions back to the other person.


Up until this point we have had one way communications. Now roles switch and the listener becomes the speaker and the speaker becomes the listener. The new sender communicates their intentions by turning them into observable behaviors that the other person can perceive through their filters.


The first “loop” through the communications process is completed when the return message has an effect on the original sender. If the effect is what the sender had intended, the two people will have created shared understanding. If they effect is different than the intention, they have miss communicated. The high degree of addition, deletion and distortion at each step in this process typically requires additional loops through this process to reach shared understanding on a complex issue.

This process is maximized when the sender is a good communicator and sends a congruent message and the receiver is a good listener and minimizes the addition, deletion, and distortion caused by their personal filters.

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Creating Shared Understanding (PDF)

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