The Conduit Metaphor of Communication

I find myself telling and retelling this story about the Conduit Metaphor by way of explaining that how we talk about communication is important to understanding where breakdowns in communication can occur in Standard American English speakers.

Michael J. Reddy described in 1979 the Conduit Metaphor used by Standard American English (SAE) speakers. This demonstrates how we think about communication.

The Conduit Metaphor (via Michael J. Reddy, 1979) states: ideas are packaged by a speaker into words, then sent effortlessly along a conduit to listeners. Listeners ‘unpack’ the ideas received along the conduit from speakers. Mistakes in this process are considered the speaker’s fault. The way we talk about communication demonstrates this. We say an idea “isn’t getting across” or someone is “coming through loud and clear.”

However in practice, communication is more complex. Each speaker & listener is sharing/receiving info through filters of their experiences. For example: you could describe a rake to someone who lives in the tundra, but it won’t make sense to them. Why rake snow? Or, they assume you were just poorly describing a shovel, which is a tool that makes sense to them, based on the environment in which they live.

In practice, communication is more of a deliberate negotiation than an effortless transmission of ideas between minds. We must do work to achieve a shared understanding of each other’s ideas. But we talk about the process of communication as if this work never needs to occur. The work to find common ground, common terms, common premises for communication is erased by the way we think about communication as SAE speakers.

What does this matter to Business Analysis? Being conscious of effort needed to achieve understanding is first: building skills comes next. And recognizing communication skills as worthy of merit, and needing time to practice, hone, and maintain is key to retaining good communicators in companies in any industry.

Reddy, Michael J.
1979         The conduit metaphor: a case of frame conflict in our language about language. In Metaphor and thought. Andrew Ortony (ed.) pp.284-324. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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