Communication is a tricky at the best of times.  We are using symbols, vocalizations, physical gestures, pictures or writing, to represent meaning in such a way as to impress that meaning on others.  It is up to the receiver to interpret those symbols and react to them accordingly.  And every living being has experiences, possibly daily, the results of this when it goes amazingly right and terribly wrong.  Just think about ordering fast food through a drive through if you need a ready example.  I once ordered a single breakfast sandwich through a drive through and when I pulled up at the window I had 6 pancake breakfasts!  Communication is never easy.

Complicating the process is the fact that when we communicate we not only attempt to represent meaning, but we are attempting to elicit a response from the receiver.  We are not objective in what we are trying to achieve.  We have goals and motivations and desires attached to the end result.  We see the extremes of this in advertising and politics which use all communication to further aims both overt and covert.  There’s a reason why subliminal advertising was legislated out of television ads, although you can see it running rampant in photo ads, most notably for alcohol.

So what happens if you ask a question or request something and you don’t get the response you want?  Scientists have been dealing with this for hundreds of years.  And in a way it’s a bit easier for them because for a great many of them the questions or requests they are making aren’t of living creatures or they are of living creatures that have a set pattern of behaviors and/or are slow to respond to stimulus.  So when they don’t get the response they want, they are pretty sure that the issue is with the experiment (ie. how they asked the question) and not a recalcitrant receiver.  And not getting the response they want can be a wonderful experience because a non-answer or a different answer is still an answer and can lead to revelations not expected when the question was asked. So what do they do?  Well, try again to see if they get the same result, but then they also do something else.  They ask the same question differently.

And this can be the hard part for most of us to deal with.  When we ask a question or make a request and we are emotionally invested in the outcome or even in the receiver, there can be a lot of emotions and meanings invested not only in the symbols we are using to communicate but also how we are presenting these symbols and when.  There can be a depth of meaning in the communication that is not evident to the receiver.  And so when we get a response that is not what we expected or needed, we may not realize that perhaps part or all of the reason for this is the way we asked and not the meaning of the request at all.  Asking a partner a very loaded question right as they walk into the door from having worked a long and hard day is going to be received differently from asking them after they have walked in, changed clothes, relaxed, eaten something and are attending to personal desires for conversation, entertainment or rest.  Asking a person something in public in front of people they respect or are connected with is different from asking them at home in private.

How we ask the question, what symbols we use, when we use them, and with what meanings make a huge difference in the responses we will receive.  Communication is a complex art form that takes patience and mental/emotional flexibility and the willingness to try and try again.  Because it really is as much about how you say it as what you are saying.