Words and Music

We discussed two features of data that need more attention than we have given them. The first was they are easy to gather, and the second, they are what and how someone says and does something. Data aren't as easy to gather as we may have led you to believe. How someone says and does something can be difficult to discern.

When we communicate with each other, we send messages on two levels, the content level and the process level. The content level is easy to observe and describe. On this level we send and receive the what of the message. The process level involves the hows of what is said and done. We cannot be as certain about the process information we get from others because it is non-verbal and implicit. We also can think of the content level as the words of communications and the process as the music; the content as the rational part of the message and the process as the emotive; or the content level issues from the cortex and the process comes from the gut.

Data on the process level take many forms. Music is sent in our gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice, rates of speech, eye contact, body positions and movements, vocal inflections, enthusiasm levels, and the energy with which we send the message. At least 50% of the meaning of a message maybe found in the music; some people suggest as much as 75% of a message is sent on this level. Obviously, the music of a message is very important.

How many ways can you say "I love you"? Can you send two messages at the same time, one on the content level and the other on the process level? The words may be indisputable, but the music may lead us to infer something entirely different.

If I told my wife, "I love you," and at the same time mumbled the words quickly, let out a sigh, and in turning away from her, put my hand to my forehead and dragged it down my face, what would this mean?

If I told my wife, "I love you," and at the same time got up from my chair, walked over to her with my mouth turned up at the corners, and put my lips to her forehead while I stroked her cheek with my right hand, what would this mean?

If I told my wife, "I love you," and simultaneously grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her very hard, and slapped her across the face, what would this mean?

In these instances, what part or level of the message do you think my wife would pay the most attention to? Do my words always convey what I mean? Does the music I send carry more information? What are the possible inferences my wife could draw from what I said and did and how I said and did it?

When the words and music of a communication flow together and send the same message, we say the communication is congruent. When the words and music do not fit together, when the words say one thing and the music seems to say something else, we consider the communication to be incongruent.

Dr. Timmons often told a story about one of his students, Bruce, who was presenting the concept of words and music to a group. Bruce asked the group to imagine he was holding two signs. One sign was green and had the word "go" on it. The other was red and read "stop". He said, "What if I were waving these signs at you, what would you do?" Dr. Timmons was very proud of Bruce's example of incongruency. However, it appeared the group was still somewhat confused. Bruce noticed this and thought for a moment. He walked up to another of T's students, Steve. Bruce grabbed Steve by the shirt, lifted him from his chair, glared into his eyes, and yelled in a threatening voice, "I LOVE YOU!"  Bruce turned to the group and asked, "To which message do you think Steve might  attend? The words or the music?"
A famous example. A great example.

I can't help but think of the women who stay with their husbands even though they are battered by these brutes. I don't mean to make the dynamics of their relationships seem so simple, but I often see words and music operating when these women share their stories. The caring interviewer, seeming very confused and frustrated, eventually asks the battered wife, "Why in the world do you stay with the bastard if he beats you?" The woman looks up and glares at the interviewer with an exasperated look and wimpers out, "Because he said he loves me." She appears to hope beyond hope that the words her husband utters mean more than the music he hits her with.

You have probably heard one of these declarations, "This is going to hurt me more than it will you" or "This is for your own good," as one of your primary your significant others prepared to plant a few well-placed strikes on your posterior region with a strip of a cowhide, a fourteen inch stick, or an openned hand. Did you really believe these people? To which part of their message did you attend? What level of the communication did you think had more meaning? How much congruency did the message have? If the big person had said "I'm angry or mad or frustrated or disappointed or scared or fed-up" while spanking you, the pain in your rear would not have been lessened, but the words and music would have flowed together and been congruent.

Our western culture puts a great deal of importance on the words or content of messages and minimizes the role of the process level. It is almost as if our societies have said that we should pay attention to what is said and done and not how it is said and done." Little boys are particularly taught to be rational, that emotions aren't very important, and it is best not to respond to or show feelings. On the other hand, little girls are usually taught that both levels of a message are very important. I don't know but it seems to me this worked well around our prehistoric campfires and on the hunt. Women were expected to be the relationship managers of the tribe To do their jobs effectively the mothers and other females had to pay attention to the little messages the babies and children sent when they were in need. Men were out on the hunt where it really didn't matter if you understood the music in messages. It was more important to organize quickly and identify where the mastodons roamed.

Today, however, especially in this so-called age of information, communications matter to us all. If we attend to only one level of communications we receive, we miss half the message. Women are still better at attending to the rational and emotive parts of messages. They bring a skill to the formerly exclusively male domains that men still have not mastered. My hope is that the guys become more like the gals, instead of the other way around, at least on this count.

When our messages are incongruent, when the words and music don't jive, we run the risk of confusing the receiver. The receiver of our messages must decide which data is more important and runs the risk of inferring something other than what we mean. Incongruent messages tend to be ambiguous. And as we know by now, ambiguity leads to anxiety which leads to defense. We shouldn't be surprised that the receiver may feel threatened, may sense that his zig zag will be attacked, or he will be made to feel like less than somebody. It is our responsibility as message senders to be congruent, and if we are not congruent, to explain what we are up to. Otherwise, others have to guess and they could guess wrong.

As receivers of messages we have responsibilities as well. If we receive a message that appears to be incongruent, we can check out the message. If you said to me, "Gee, Tom, I really appreciate that," and I sense some sarcasm in your voice, I can surface my confusion with your message. I might say, "You said you appreciated that, but I get the feeling you really don't mean it. Perhaps I hurt your feelings or maybe you were pulling my leg. I just don't know. Could you help me understand what you meant?"

In surfacing what you said and did and how you said and did it, I give you as much of the data I received from you as possible. I also offer you some of the conflicting inferences I made based on that data. You then have the opportunity to clarify your message and make sure I receive the meaning you intended to send. You may have intended to confuse me or hurt me or put me off balance or keep me confused. However, it is just as likely you may have meant your words and not meant your music. If this was the case, you would have no chance to help me understand unless I surfaced what I heard and saw.

The written word is a wonderful medium. Without it, I couldn't convey the information I am sharing with you now. But I have a problem with the written word. It doesn't allow for the music of communications that face to face, verbal and nonverbal communication does. Throughout the writing of this book, I wish I could see your eyes and facial expressions as you read different passages so I could respond to the music you are sending to my words. I also wish I could be there to put emphasis here and sarcasm there, caring in this and irony in that. If I were a great narative writer and wrote each of my expressions next to the content of each sentence, you might begin to see what I really mean. This would be awfully tedious and even useless, because the descriptions are still only words.

The written word has no music. We use punctuation, type-faces, explanatory comments, and modifiers in an attempt to put music in our written words, but these attempts are often feeble. Consider the infamous office memo someone receives from her boss that reads:

Date: June 5, 1991

From: Boss

To: Sue

Subject: Appointment

Message: "Report to my office at 10:00 am Friday."

What the hell does that mean? Does it mean Sue should be excited at the prospect of getting a raise, a promotion, or a sabatical leave? Or is it equally possible her boss intends to find out how the office could get along without her starting Monday morning? If she had met her boss in the hall and he had given her exactly the same words, she'd have twice as much data. She'd be able to check out the meaning of the words and the music. But the memo is all she has, so what does she do and what should she feel when she is at home Thursday night? How will her perceptual filters tint the data she has? One friend may tell her not to worry and another may say she had better be prepared for anything. Who is right? Who is wrong?

What about minutes from meetings? Do they convey who was upest? Do they identify how someone brought up a particular subject? Do they explain the ferocity of someone's arguments? Do they describe the facial expressions and gestures of others when a topic is discussed? Nope on all counts. Minutes from meetings cannot begin to express the content and process of a meeting fully. Even if the meeting were recorded on audiotape, the full impact of a long silence in the room could be missed. You may say a videotape would take care of that. Not necessarily. Unless each person is videotaped individually, we still won't get the true flavor of the get together. We'd certainly have more information, but not that much better.

Memos, minutes of meetings, letters, bulletin board notices, phone messages, notes, newspaper articles, books, and every kind of written message runs the risk of sending only half a message. The only suggestion I can make about this dilemma is this: If your message has some emotional content or could be emotionally charged, do it face to face. Your message will be more complete and the receiver will have the chance to respond to your words and your music. You will also be able to watch his nonverbal responses, and if you see confusion, you can clarify what you mean immediately. Memos and letters are useful and necessary to communicating, but not in some situations.

Words and music are the stuff of communicating. They are all we have to convey our meanings to others in the hope we will be understood. They are all we receive from others as they try to help us understand them and what they mean. Paying attention to both levels of a message increases the amount of data with which we infer others motives, truths, meanings, and purposes. If we miss the music, we miss most of the message. Listen to the music just as the Doobie Brothers suggested.

Next Page: How We Can Operate More Effectively- Part 1