What are we communicating, really?

What We Communicate: Introducing The IOE Model

What Are Conversations About? A Model to Help Understanding

Conversations: Lots of Stuff

Let’s imagine a conversation. It could be going well, it could be a disaster, it could be just dead boring, and you wish it would stop. Perhaps it’s fabulously engaging and you wish it could go on forever.

What’s making it work, or making it so difficult? What are the pieces of the conversation, and how do they relate?

A huge amount of stuff is being communicated when we talk to another person. Most of it is not “information”, in the sense of being stuff that our rational mind can immediately parse. In fact, in the most difficult conversations, “information” is the smallest piece of what is being exchanged.

Research suggests that 60–65% of what is exchanged in a conversation is non-verbal (there are estimates of up to 95%, but 60–65% seems the most supported). Most of that 60–65% we react unconsciously to, rather than hearing, understanding and making careful choices about.

What is causing the uncomfortable silences, the harsh responses, the joyful agreement?

The following is a simple model, giving us some conceptual hooks we can use to structure our understanding of what’s happening, and therefore create a chance, an option, to respond skillfully, rather than reacting.


The IOE Model

We break down communication into three components:

Information: facts! Those dry building blocks of everything we do. “The server is down” is a fact — we can verify it (if we can’t, then there are other problems). “The response time of the site is X”, is a fact.

Opinion: a point of view about the facts. “The fact that the server is down is bad”, is an opinion. “It doesn’t matter that the server is down”, is another.

Mixing information with opinion is one of the ways in which conversations get tangled. The statement “we are making more money than we’re losing” sounds factual, but it can hide a lot of opinions, as anyone who has tried to decipher the financials of a large company will confirm.

There’s nothing wrong with strong opinions. There’s a lot wrong with strong opinions being discussed as facts.

Emotion: what we feel about the information and opinion. “The server is DOWN!!!” might communicate fear, frustration, anger. With the “DOWN” uncapitalized, it might communicate boredom.

Emotion moves us. It’s a tool we use in conversation, both consciously and unconsciously, to transmit a significant part of our internal state, and align ourselves, at a deep human level, with others. Ignoring it, or downplaying it, in conversation loses a vast amount of what is being shared.


Using the Model: Types of Conversation

One way of using the model is to assign a number, or a level, to each component. This gives us a way to both characterize what kind of conversation we’re in, and prepare for different types of conversations in the future.

High information, low opinion, low emotion: great for analysis. “This is my analysis, these are the facts as I see them”. This is the way you might want to hear the financial results at an exec staff meeting, or the performance numbers during a product review.

Not great for motivation, or influence. Somebody who has this as a default communication mode is going to have difficulty motivating a group.

Low information, high opinion, high emotion: we’ve all been here, both sending and receiving. Usually not that productive! (Although there’s one place where this can work: the high emotion motivational speech).

High information, high opinion, medium emotion: the best way to influence: information helps people, a strong opinion suggests a way forward, and emotion expresses desire and commitment.

There are obviously many other styles of conversation. Feel free to try tweaking the levels to fit interactions that are either problematic or productive in your own life and work.

Not much information, some opinion, and a whole lot of emotion

Transmitting, Receiving and Aligning

Communication can only be judged on how it is received. So we need to extend the model to include how we think we are communicating, and how we are actually communicating.

What I’m transmitting, what you’re receiving

The question “what are you hearing?”, is a good one here. For example, you may think you are simply transmitting information, only to see a defensive reaction. Perhaps your audience is hearing your intensity around the information and reacting to it. This is not uncommon in technical conversations which are ostensibly about facts and analysis, but frequently have a very strong emotional component, which none of the participants acknowledge.

And the statement “This is what I’m hearing”, can set alignment in the conversation. “I’m hearing an opinion you are passionate about, but not much information to back it up”. Or “I’m hearing a lot of facts, but don’t know if you have a strong point of view is here”. The model allows the participants in the conversation to align around what is actually being discussed.

Aligning around what’s being communicated

Moving Pieces

Conversations have lots of moving pieces. Two, or more, very complicated systems (human beings) are attempting to transmit meaning through a set of channels with different uses and bandwidths.

The IOE Model is one of several that allow us to parse, and work with, the transmission of meaning with more consciously applied skill.

(also: if you’re interested talking about coaching, get in touch!)