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Communication Breakdown Part 2: The Science of Commitments

You gave me what I asked for, but not what I wanted.” ~You (at some point in your life)

There is a science in asking and committing to specific actions. Last week we explored the wide variability that we may find in our individual understanding of single words. As we combine words into phrases and use those phrases to convey ideas, make requests, or communicate actions, the complexity increases significantly. This week’s post explores the world of comments and commitments – the foundation of conversation. The scientific basis of this exploration comes heavily from the work of Fernando Flores, Humberto Maturana, and the fields of language-action theory and nonviolent communication.

The basis of all conversation follows a basic action workflow:

1) A request or offer is made by Person A

2) A promise is made or offer is accepted by Person B (potentially after some negotiation)

3) The action is completed (either by A if #1 was an offer, or by B if #1 was a request)

4) The customer (either A of B) declares that they are satisfied.

There are several different types of requests or offers that can be made by an individual. In his 1976 paper, reknown philosopher, John Searle, introduces five basic types of illocutionary acts that make up almost all of our speech:

  • Assertives – These commit the speaker to something being the case (e.g. “the delivery is late”). The listener may dispute that fact or argue that there is additional context that is important, but the end result is that both the speaker and listener arrive at some common understanding about the truth of the comment.

  • Directives – These attempt to get the listener to do something (depending on the forcefulness, these may be questions or commands). There may be some negotiation and discussion to clarify or modify the request/command, but ultimately (if accepted) the listener will complete the requested action and the speaker will evaluate whether it meets their conditions of satisfaction.

  • Commissives – These commit the speaker to some future course of action. There may be some discussion or negotiation to modify the commitment so that it better meets some broader needs, but ultimately the speaker is committing themselves to an action and the success of that action will depend on whether it meets the collective conditions of satisfaction.

  • Expressives – These express a psychological state about the state of affairs. While these are based on the speaker’s subjective opinion, there often is a desire to feel that that view is shared by others or validated somehow. Similar to assertives, the goal may be to reach some common understanding about the state of affairs (or to at least feel that one’s perspective and feelings have been heard).

  • Declarations – This class of comments makes a connection from previous statements to some new reality (e.g. pronouncing a couple as married at the end of the marriage ceremony). These statements make a larger leap than assertives in that they don’t reflect “fact” but “intent” or deeper meaning that pulls from social, cultural, and/or historical context. Others may require some further explanation or persuasion to accept a declaration, but the eventual goal is for the declaration to be accepted by the broader community.


Every language act has consequences for the participants. At a very basic psychological level, any of the types of comments listed above makes the speaker vulnerable but also allows them to be heard. Our words are a significant factor influencing other people’s perception of us (and therefore part of our identity). Defensiveness, confidence, wisdom, insecurity, curiosity, kindness – these are all characteristics that come through in the types of comments that we make and the way that we make them. Every time we speak, we commit ourselves a bit more deeply to being “that kind of person” (whatever that may be for each of us).

On another (more direct) level, every comment we make leads to some immediate action and/or future commitments. My comments commit me to some perspective of reality (e.g. Andreas thinks words can be fuzzy and communication is complicated – because he said so). I may also make comments that commit me to some future action (e.g. “I will meet you for lunch”). Every comment that we make commits us (sometimes subtly, sometimes boldly) to a projected identity, an expressed mental model, and often some future action.

Conditions of Satisfaction

Regardless of the details surrounding requests, negotiation, counter-negotiation, actions, reactions, etc., the one area of communication that has the greatest potential to increase effectiveness is clear conditions of satisfaction. Conditions of satisfaction are the requirements that need to be met for “success”. When you think about it, conditions of satisfaction are the entire reason that communication is even necessary – we communicate to achieve some aim – whether that aim is an action or some common understanding.

To take a common example from today’s corporate setting, conditions of satisfaction are the major difference between micromanagement and delegation. Micromanagment is the insistence that a person follow every step precisely often without any line of sight to the end goal – there is a lot of room for confusion, miscommunication, frustration, and conflict when every detail of every step needs to be communicated perfectly. Delegation, on the other hand, is being very clear about what the end goal is and how success will be defined, but allowing the actor to figure out the best means for arriving at that goal. Delegation allows the focus of communication to be on the end result and key elements of the process (e.g. regular check-ins) that are deemed critical to success.

The key to simple and effective communication is mastering conditions of satisfaction. By focusing on and becoming skillful at conveying/understanding conditions of satisfaction, we can focus our effort on the most critical part of what we are trying to communicate and best ensure that we will receive or deliver the results that are desired.


Grounding is the common foundation from which two different individuals can build a common understanding. Fernando Flores talks about three types of grounding – experiential (e.g. go see for yourself), formal (e.g. by following a set process you will arrive at the same conclusion), or social (e.g. we all believe that Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain in the world because that is what we were taught, but very few of us have formally deduced or experienced that first-hand). In most professional settings, we like to think that most of our comments, conversations, requests, and commitments follow some purely rational and logical thought process that can be universally understood. In school, we learn to debate, justify, and convince based on logic, however, there is almost always an emotional portion to our communication – sometimes significant - especially when dealing with expressive comments. This is an area were we often lack the appropriate skill set to develop solid grounding and navigate artfully. Here is where insight from the theory of nonviolent communication can be extremely valuable.

Nonviolent communication is a communication process developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960’s. It’s a process that has been used by corporations, organizations, global conflict areas and numerous other contexts. It’s something that teams or organizations can hold entire trainings around, but basically this system has four steps:

  1. Observation: Individuals need to be able to articulate the facts (what they are seeing, hearing, or touching) as distinct from their evaluation of meaning and significance (e.g. “I’m noticing that there is very little discussion about the ideas that I am sharing”).

  2. Feelings: Individuals then need to be able to communicate their emotions or sensations, free of thought and story. “Emotions free of story” means that we need to notice when we are using words that place a judgment on ourselves or others (e.g. avoid using words such as “unfair”, "inadequate", "unimportant", "misunderstood", "ignored") and find a way to convey that in a more neutral way (e.g. “That makes me feel unheard”).

  3. Needs: Then individual need to be able to express the basic human need that is not being met for them (e.g. “As a member of this team, I need to know that my contributions are valued”).

  4. Request: Finally, individuals need to request a specific action - free of demand and open to the possibility that the response may be "no” without getting triggered. In the case of a "no", the need to try to further understand what is preventing the other person from saying "yes," before deciding how to continue the conversation. Building on the exampled in 1-3: “So, in the future when I offer an solution or idea, could you let me know whether you think it is a viable one that we should pursue or provide me with constructive feedback on the types of ideas that would be more suitable?”

So much of our communication is expressed verbally. Our words and the way we structure them in conversation are one of the few means we have available to share with others what is going on in our hearts and minds. Conversations (and the commitments that result) are one of the few tools we have to learn from others and aspire to goals that are beyond the reach of any one of us individually. Most importantly, however, our ability to use our words to connect with each other is what allows us to transcend the limited perspective of our own minds, hearts, and experience and become a valued part of a much bigger community that only grows and strengthens as ideas are shared and connections are made.

Next week we’ll look at how language enables transformation….

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