The nature of communication
There’s a phenomenon in communication that’s quite common, but that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.
That’s the phenomenon of a feedback loop in communication.
I think of this as an important tool in our society as human beings. It allows us to orient, and react to others by noticing how they orient and react to us.
Think of what you typically say to the people you care about and see each day.
“How’re you doing?”
“How did you sleep?”
“Do these pants match this shirt?” (Okay, maybe that last one is just me.)
After each of these questions, we expect a response that goes beyond just the information. We’re looking for a connection.
The more comfortable we are with someone, the more likely we are to do this without noticing it. Put most of us in a situation where we feel as though we have to make an impression or have an important connection, and things can go sideways fast.
Which, is how we get into some challenging feedback loops.
How are we doing?
I recognize that some of you might already get where I’m going with this, while others might have no idea what I’m talking about.
The more sensitive and hyper-aware you are about your relationship to other people in the room, the more likely you will understand what I mean by a feedback loop.
We know that adults who experienced difficult childhoods tend to have a heightened sense of empathy and awareness of others, which can be helpful in their ability to manage people.
In other words, they can’t stop reading the room.
If this all sounds foreign to you, then congratulations, you probably had a healthy childhood. (Or, maybe you’re on the spectrum.) 😄
Those ways we have of asking questions to build a connection are most likely not just information gathering so much as they are ways to reach out and reestablish connection.
It’s a way to orient within the relationship. The answers give us feedback, which we then use to develop a loop.
“How did you sleep?” (Shows interest.)
“Great. How about you?” (Affirms interest and responds with showing interest back.)
“I had some trouble sleeping last night. Up late thinking about things.” (Shows some vulnerability. Invites concern.)
“Oh no. What were you thinking about?” (And on it goes…)
When communication goes awry
The problem with feedback loops is that they can go sideways when we don’t get the responses we expect.
If you’re nervous at a party or on a date, and you tell a joke that goes flat (meaning no or little response), chances are that you will begin to feel even more nervous. Typically, when we get nervous, we try to do more, which is almost never a good idea.
The joke was most likely a tool that you brought out because you thought it would please the group.
Maybe it’s worked in the past?
Perhaps it was funnier in your head?
Whatever the reason, when the date or the group doesn’t respond, panic might set in. (Comedians have to train themselves to overcome this response.)
And when that fear begins to rise in your body, your ability to project confidence, likability, and calm go out the window.
In our desire to seek out the feedback that we had expected (in this case, laughter) we will typically choose to try harder, which leads to poor results.
Pilot induced oscillations
I learned this term from a client early on in my career. He was bright and self-aware, with multiple degrees, but who struggled to communicate with clarity and simplicity. When I met him, he could take any question and make it impossibly complex.
We were working on answering questions with simplicity and conciseness, when I noticed that he had an easier time with me than he was having with his bosses. When someone with authority asked him to explain something, he would often spin (meaning he would talk in circles, using lots of jargon). We had a long discussion about what was happening, and he made an instant connection to something that picked up from his days of learning to be a pilot.
That’s when I learned the term PIO or pilot induced oscillations.
Basically, it’s when a pilot causes the plane to go out of control by overreacting to the feedback she receives from the plane. The more the pilot does, the more out of control the plane becomes.
I liken this to what can happen when we stand on a tightrope for the first time. We feel the rope move, so we adjust our position, which makes the rope move more. Within seconds, we’re vibrating and losing our control as though there were someone else shaking the line.
In communication, this looks like trying too hard, which is what my client had been doing way back then.
The more he tried to sound smart, the more annoyed his bosses were with his answers.
The more annoyed they were, the harder he tried to sound smart.
It’s like everything you do causes the communication and the connection to get worse and worse, just like with the airplane.
What you can do
When the feedback loop becomes negative, the first thing you can do is to stop looking for more feedback.
The only way to stop the loop from continuing is to stop participating in it.
If you notice that you’re in a negative loop (meaning that you keep trying to get a response and the other party keeps reacting negatively), then congratulations, you have a chance at stopping it.
1. Name it for yourself. This is perhaps the most powerful tool in your arsenal. When you are able to raise your awareness that the loop is happening, you have a greater chance at changing the pattern.
2. Take a clearing breath. Just the act of breathing deeply and letting it out will help to reset your nervous system and allow you to see options other than the one that you keep trying. Breathe into your belly, and allow the oxygen to settle your parasympathetic nervous system. (See link here about this from the National Library of Medicine.)
3. Lower the stakes. In communication and presentation work, we will often try to psyche ourselves up to do better by trying harder when we speak. We think that we can push through the resistance that we experience. (Think of a time when you really wanted someone to like you. Did trying harder work?) Remind yourself that no one will die here. You will be okay. Everything will be okay, as long as you can be yourself.
4. Make friends with the fear. I wrote about a version of this a few weeks ago when I talked about the “obstacle within.” If you can be curious about what you might be feeling, notice the thoughts and assumptions you have about yourself at this moment (example: I have to be funny, or I have to be impressive) and see if they are helpful.
The goal is to be yourself
The ultimate goal in this work is for you to learn to be yourself in any setting, and to feel confident, trustworthy, and calm.
That’s what I want for myself and for my clients.
If you can notice when you’re in a bad feedback loop, and you can reset your nervous system and focus more on connecting with the audience, rather than on coming across to the audience, you will find that you have a greater impact.
Let me know if you have questions or comments. I will put together a small workshop for those who are interested in learning more.
May you trust yourself and love yourself completely,