Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Reiteration as an Important Component of Communications

Originally posted on June 17, 2008

Reiteration in communications means saying something repeatedly in slightly different ways. The point is that saying it just once may not be effective, not only because the information is not adequately processed by the audience, but also because the receptivity to the message is embedded within a context of a perceived relationship. What is communicated through reiteration is not just the content but also an emotional attitude of support. (I realize that, on reflection, some re-iteration could come across as nagging, scolding, or mocking, but in this essay I want to focus on the more positive forms of reinforcement.)

I’m reminded of the way the crowds in the bleachers can root for a sports team. The calls are encouraging (at least to the favored side), and they are repeated, chanted, yelled, on and off throughout the game. I am suggesting that we need to repeat our encouragement and reassurance in personal relations, in group dynamics, and in large organizational systems and social networks.

In addition to statements of positive intention, these reiterated statements might include messages that are aimed at communicating patience, playfulness and a lightness of mood, willingness to explore alternatives, interest in receiving feedback, willingness to hang in there, enthusiasm, delight for small gains, and the like. The point is that the transmission of instructions or factual information operates withing a broader and deeper relational field. However important the message itself may be (i.e., the content), it is equally important to sustain the effectiveness of this emotional matrix (i.e., the process).

The technology of writing is for the most part a relatively one-way mode of communication, in contrast with, say, the telephone, where the process can go back and forth with “yeah,” “uh-huh,” “ohhh, that’s too bad,” and other murmured feedback and frequent intervals. This rapid feedback of encouragement and drawing the other out is what I’m referring to as reiteration. Because so much of school involves lecturing, talking-at, and then there are similar dominant media of movies, newspapers, magazines, and the like, it is easy to begin to imagine that what is essential in communications is the message, the words themselves. We forget the power of nonverbal communications—the quality of facial expression, head nods, and the like, and “non-lexical” communication—the quality of voice tone, pacing, inflection, pauses—all those elements that suggest that aside from what is being said there is encouragement in the “how” it is being said. (More about nonverbal communications on my website.)

One of the paradigm shifts in our own time is the growing sensitivity to the prevalence of subconscious vulnerability. Even confident people are to some degree asking at some deeper level the following kinds of questions: “Am I getting it right? Am I understanding? Are we tracking with each other? Is what I’m doing helpful? How much do you care? What if I make a mistake?  Why do you care about me when I forget why I’m worth caring about? Will you be patient with me?” … and so forth.

Not only students or subordinates are asking such questions; supervisors and teachers, doctors and others in helping roles also are seeking feedback. That’s what we’re talking about in describing reiteration in communications—repeated feedback, reassurance, and encouragement.

Dr. Alfred Adler, the founder of Analytical Psychology—the fellow who came up with the concept of the “inferiority complex,” among other principles—was asked in the 1930s to sum up his ideas—a presumptuous request by an innocent (or possibly impudent) young journalist. Adler rose to the occasion: “Encourage the child.”  The concept of encouragement is profound, with many different and useful implications and nuances. In larger organizations this overlaps with the idea of “morale building.”

The appeal here is to recognize that in many situations there is a tendency to focus on the content, and when that is the focus, it seems not so foolish to say (or at least think), “I’ve told you once! I don’t want to have to repeat myself!” But, because that focus is mistaken, the expectation is therefore foolish, because it denies the psychology of relationship, a psychology that requires frequent feedback and reassurance. Even seemingly confident people, teachers and leaders, need that feedback to let them know that you’re with them. Even if you disagree, that’s better than just sitting passively and smiling blandly.

Another support for this idea is the psychology of reinforcement, of supporting a desired behavior by frequent praise, reward, recognition. (Of course this can be overdone, but the point of this paper is that all too often folks err in the direction of not enough.) Recognizing the need for reiteration also implies the willingness to offer the messages in different modalities. In addition to words of praise or feedback, perhaps there might also be pictures, certificates, small tokens, things that can be seen, tasted, felt, and in other ways sensed

In summary, and in the spirit of reiteration using different modalities, here’s a little Yiddish lullabye my mother used to sing when I was little:
Auf’n pripichick brent a feierel, un in shtub is heis,
(On the hearth  burns a little fire, and in the house it’s warm.)
Und der Rebbe lerent kleine kindelech auf dem alef bays. (x2)
(And the teacher teaches little chldren about the ABCs)

Sugt zhe kindele, gedenksche tierele vos ir lerent do,
(Say it, children, think my dear ones, what you’re learning.)
Sugt zhe noch a mol un take noch a mol, kommitz alef oh. (x2).
(Say it once again and, sure, once again, with an A and an O)

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