Communication Fail! (Why handshakes are good in poly, as well as computing)

Shall We Try That Again?

So a couple of weeks ago I announced (sort of…) my nifty new (and still in progress) website, The website has on it a Relationship Continua Worksheet, which I invited you all to download. Earlier this week, I found out that the links were not all properly installed, so those of you who tried to use that form to get that worksheet were likely frustrated in your attempts!


I THINK I have this fixed now. Of course, I’m never quite sure, because coding–or even using drag and drop builders, and the like–is NOT my area of expertise. So this is me, red-faced, asking you to PLEASE let me know ( if you try to down load the worksheet and either get nothing, or two copies, or some other thing that doesn’t look right to you. I’d really appreciate your assistance while I sort this out, and your forbearance if you clicked the link a dozen times and got nothing (which I know at least one person did!). I sincerely apologize, and hope that it’s all fixed now.

Handshake Communications

In the meantime, I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about the concept of “handshakes” in communication. It’s a concept I learned from my far more tech-savvy partners, many of whom are computer programmers for a living. See, in any communication there are actually several steps that need to happen before the communication is actually delivered and both sides know that fact.

Let’s look at an example, with two people, Person A (we’ll call her Amy), and Person B (we’ll call him Bill.) The sequence goes like this:

1) Amy speaks the original communication [hand outstretched]
2) Bill hears the original communication [notices hand]
3) Bill responds to the original communication [hand outstretched in response]
4) Amy hears the response [handshake completed]

Two stylized hands clasping, forming a heart. Copyright-free symbol designed by Ravi Poovaiah, Professor, IDC, IIT Bombay.

Communication is actually a mighty tricky thing, because it can fail at ANY one of these points. For instance, in Step 1, Amy might mumble, or speak a language that Bill doesn’t know. In Step 2, Bill might be hard of hearing, or have had a coughing fit right when Amy spoke. Bill might never DO step 3, if he thinks that what Amy said was “obvious,” or if he does, he might deliver his response in a tone that causes Amy to become triggered and unable to absorb his response. Or maybe the wind picked up right at that moment, taking his words away. If Bill never did Step 3, then obviously Amy can’t do Step 4. Or even if he did Step 3, her kids might have demanded attention at that moment, or maybe she turned her head away, or had a banana in her ear. A seemingly simple communication like “please pass the salt” is actually fraught with opportunities for failure.

“Speaker-Responsible” vs. “Listener-Responsible”

One of the first communication challenges that my almost-ex and I ever identified, is related to all of this. We called it “Speaker-Responsible” vs. “Listener-Responsible” communication. In his family of origin, the usual model was “Listener-Responsible,” which meant that it was up to the listener to indicate if they didn’t get the communication, and ask for a clarification. So in his family, steps 3 and 4 weren’t ever assumed to be necessary.

Now, MOST of the time, this is ok. Amy usually delivers her communication in an intelligible fashion, and Bill usually hears it and understands it. But sometimes, there’s a failure in either 1 or 2… but Amy doesn’t know that. So SHE thinks she delivered a communication, but Bill never heard it. In my experience, this style results in less potential conflict right upfront, but more potential for conflict later as the lack of communication is discovered.

In MY family of origin, however, the default mode was “Speaker-Responsible.” So if I didn’t get a response to my communication (Steps 3 and 4), I’d assume that there was a failure in Steps 1 or 2. My default behavior at that point was to REPEAT the communication. If I STILL didn’t get a response that I understood to mean that the communication was delivered, I’d likely ask if my partner needed more information, or didn’t understand something, all the while continuing to search for the “handshake” communication to let me know that my original communication had been received. This made lots of sense to me! Unfortunately, to someone raised with the other mode of communication, repeated attempts would come across as nagging, or generally annoying. That would increase the likelihood that Step 3 would happen in an angry tone, leading to a failure in Step 4, which would lead me to repeat the steps AGAIN, ad nauseum, until we were both angry and frustrated at the seeming impossibility of getting the salt passed, dammit, and why was it such a BIG f-ing DEAL already??

Such a simple thing, to have such a huge effect.

So bringing it back to human communications… right now, I’m going to recommend — rather strongly! ;^) — that you think about your communication style, and whether you default to a “Speaker-Responsible” or to a “Listener-Responsible” mode. Do you get a “handshake” so that you know your communication was received? Or do you just assume that it was? If that’s your mode of communication, is it working for you?

Conversely, if people keep asking you if you understood, or if you heard them, you might want to consider adding a neutral response, just to let them know you did hear it the first time. Honestly, they don’t think you’re stupid or deaf — they probably just want to make sure that the handshake is complete, and the communication is received. It’s likely to be more about their need to confirm, than anything about you at all.

So wrapping back to the beginning, what happened with the web form failures of course, is that I failed to properly configure the program to execute Step 3 in that sequence above, so no response came back to people who tried to sign up through that link. Oooops. And because I didn’t yet have an understanding of the reports, I didn’t KNOW that Step 1 had happened at all until I started looking deeper into the code, to find a whole series of attempts, and the one tiny checkbox that wasn’t checked. Whoops again.

I do apologize, and I really would appreciate it if you’d let me know if anything isn’t working right here.

In fact, can we shake on it?Hand reaching toward viewer

~♥ Dawn


©2012, Dawn M. Davidson

One thought on “Communication Fail! (Why handshakes are good in poly, as well as computing)

  1. Pingback: (Over-)Communicate, Communicate, Communicate? | Love Outside the Box (formerly: Uncharted Love)

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