Let us look at a model that has been around for a long time, The Johari Window. This model was born in 1955 so you may have been exposed to it.
According to the model, what is "you" can all be drawn as a box. You know a lot about you: When you were born, your favorite flavor ice cream, your shoe size, whom you had a crush on in 7th grade…
But there are also facts that you don’t know about you. I am pretty sure you don’t really know what you look like from behind. You may not be aware that when you are stressed, you click your pen driving your coworkers nuts. We can thus divide “you” into what you know about yourself and what you don’t know about yourself.
Even if I had known you for 20 years, I might not know whom you had a crush on in 7th grade, so “you” cannot only be divided into what you know or don’t know – “you” also can be divided into what I know and don’t know about you.
Look at the illustration. The whole box is all of you. The things you know about yourself (left half of the window) are divided into what you are open about (top left) and what you unknowingly or knowingly for whatever reasons hide (bottom left).
There may be perfectly good reasons to keep some things close to you. Disclosing your age in the workplace may not be wise if ageism is rampant where you live. In for example Denmark, your birthdate is a part of your personal registration number (equivalent of the American Social Security Number) and thus public knowledge. It is commonly included in a resume and your birthday may be celebrated both in and by the company you work for.
Some things may be hidden just because there hasn’t been a good reason to disclose them, not because you specifically wish them to be secret. But if people don’t know much about you, whether these things are controversial or not, they start jumping to their own conclusion based on their prior experiences with people who either look like you, talk like you, have your job, are your age - not from an explicit wish to pigeonhole you but because they have little else to go by. And if things hidden have a strong influence on how you behave, react, or express yourself, it can be difficult for others to communicate with you since they keep running into a minefield of hidden triggers or don't understand "where you are coming from".
Next are the things you don’t know, the right half of the window. Some of them are common knowledge among your family, friends and/or coworkers. Those are your blind spots (top right). You can learn more about them by asking for feedback. Example: As an immigrant to the US I often ask for feedback on my use of the English language. Perish the thought, that I unknowingly walked around insulting people by using an expression in a wrong way.
Often you get the feedback without asking, when you are not ready for it, or it is delivered in an unproductive way so you can’t accept it. Once you are defensive, it is difficult to benefit from any feedback - as well intended as it may be. A lot of feedback is very subtle; it is in the raised eyebrows, crossed arms, non-replys, or exuberant greetings. Most of us are subconsciously experts on body language - at least when we communicate within our own culture. But which behaviors elicit what kind of feedback, direct or indirect, positive or negative, also differs according to where we are.
Finally there is the unknown area (bottom right), things about you that neither you nor other people are fully aware of. Some of these things are what psychoanalysis was made for. One of the fathers in the field, C.F. Jung, talked about the shadow, the parts of us that we deny. Sigmund Freud talked about things pressed into the subconscious by the Id, the “I in charge”, because we don’t know how to handle these “things”. Regardless what we call them, blind or unknown,the parts of us that we don’t take ownership to have a tendency to creep up upon us and kick us in the pants at inconvenient times.
How does this relate to communication? Good communication builds trust. The more I walk into your minefield the less you will trust me. The more you trust me, the more willing you will be at disclosing things from your hidden area, reducing the chance that I will step on a mine. With this Catch 22 in mind, how do we go about building trust, not tearing it down?
A key to building trust is to hold our assumptions out of the communication. In the previous sentence, I used Catch 22 to illustrate one type of assumptions that often hinder open lines in communication. By loading our words with expressions or references specific to our profession, culture (Catch 22 is the title of a book and a movie, describing a circular reference dilemma), or history, we often ignore that the recipient is not equally proficient in our field, language, or culture.
We often assume that what we know, others probably know as well. That is not the case. You didn’t spend years going to medical school, become a mechanic, study law, if everybody could pick up you jargon from reading their daily newspaper or watching ESPN. I wouldn't be publishing this website if there was just one way of doing things around the world.
Particularly for people living in a foreign country, communication with locals can be challenging for both parties. If one party speaks the language less fluently, words can be misused or misunderstood. Even when both parties are fluent, the choice of words can be different as some words may have different meanings in UK and American English - or have different connotations depending on where you come from. "Liberal" may be used by a European talking about some parts of US politics where an American would have used the term "libertarian". An American may think communist where a European might associate "socialist" with a social democrat. To a person living abroad, "expatriate" may be a neutral description of a person living abroad - to people outside the expat community, it may describe a person who has renounced his country - a somewhat harsh behavior.
Aside from such language related traps, cultures influence expectations. What does it really mean if you are "invited to swing by if you are in the area"? Is it an invitation you can take people up on or is it a nicety? If people seem open and gregarious - Americans usually do - does than mean best friends forever or are we networking here? Conversely, does lack of an invitation mean lack of interest in me personally, in people in general, or is this person just more private and takes a longer time warming up to others? Does a yes mean "yes", or "maybe", "no, unless you pay me", or something else?
We normally have little idea of how much of our cultural norms are located in our hidden area; they may even be in our unknown area if we are not culturally selfaware. When we communicate with people from very different cultures, their interests, opinions, or behaviors may conflict with our norms and we react to that, not necessarily distinguishing if we have been personally insulted or if the other person just did something perfectly normal from his point of view that was reprehensible by our standards. But we can't assume that people know our standards. We have to take them out of the hidden area and be open - and somewhat flexible - about them.
Another type of assumption is that we think we know what the other party is trying to achieve; we second-guess motives for behaviors or words.
We all build “maps” of the world in our minds; that is how people make sense of the world. Is the world a safe or a dangerous place? Are people generally nice or out to get you? We rely on stereotypes, put labels on groups, draw on our previous experiences with men, women, dog owners, teenagers, doctors, mechanics, lawyers. When we listen to other people, we may twist what is being said to fit into our map of the world, often without checking if it really makes sense. Do you really think the doctor is trying to belittle you by talking in medical-speak? OK, I met one who had to let me know that she had gone to Harvard and that she never made mistakes. But in general doctors want you to be able to understand their instructions. It so increases the chance of a successful treatment.
Unfortunately, as we are vigilant by nature, these twists more often turn a perfectly neutral comment into a critique than a compliment, and we respond to the perceived slight rather than ask for clarification. If we have to rely on assumptions, the advice of Indra Nooyi, chairwoman of PepsiCo: ”Always assume positive intent” can't be repeated too often. People tend to live up – or down – to our expectations.
Instead of relying on our assumptions we can ask for feedback. “Does that make sense to you? I know that I sometimes express myself poorly.” This is an example but it is also an honest disclosure. By letting you know that English is not my first language, I have given myself a little freedom and I can chose not to be offended if you correct my pronunciation or use of the language. I can even ask you to correct me. If I indeed express myself poorly, there is a little less risk that you will think I am trying to offend you and a higher chance that you will dismiss any bloopers I make with lack of knowledge about either language or local customs. It also gives both of us freedom to ask for clarification. (Indirectly, I have also disclosed that my frame of reference is probably different from yours. How much you think about this may depend on your previous experience with foreigners.)
Have I exposed myself? Yes, there are risks involved when we disclose information, and we have to weigh the perceived risks against the expected benefits. However, it is my experience that the real risks are usually smaller than they are perceived and the benefits come in many more areas than anticipated. Somehow making ourselves vulnerable also makes us strong; we don't have to expend energy into keeping up a pretense, in this example a pretense of being American - or at least fluent in English.
When there is real trust, the “open” window gets bigger and bigger, the other areas shrink. You are willing to disclose things from the “hidden” area, invite feedback, and because it is given when you are prepared for it you will be less defensive. It is given in a timely, productive, and non-aggressive manner helping you reducing your “blind spots". Where these conditions exist, things may even come out of the “unknown” area. Somebody else may share an experience and suddenly you become aware of memories that have long been suppressed. Perhaps your mental “map” of the world around you changed by the information you received and the memories are not so scary or confusing any longer.
It all sounds very charming with a flavor of New Age. But it is as old as mankind and very hard work. Classes in authentic communication are some of the first to fill up when Stanford offers them to their MBA students. Perhaps we should all take them?