Symbolism and Communication

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Symbolism and communication
One of the challenges in successful communication comes from the way people use symbols as part of the organization of their thoughts. Symbolic thinking and reasoning is an incredibly efficient process. It allows us to create representational views of the world that allow us to process much more information than our brains have evolved to handle.

What does this have to do with requirements?
We see from our earlier article on requirements gathering techniques that communication is central to the most important requirements elicitation methods. Understanding how people associate ideas symbolically helps us communicate more effectively.

History of symbolic association

40,000 years ago, arguably the last time humans developed any increase in cognitive capacity, we had a tough life – but we had much less information to deal with. We learned how to be hunters, and how to escape hunters. We developed interpersonal relationships and communities. We began specializing in skills. And we taught skills to, and learned skills from other members of our communities. We advanced in knowledge, but very slowly (compared to today).

The reason we advanced slowly is that we could only communicate, retain, and re-communicate a finite amount of information. While that amount varied by individual, it was still a finite amount. At some point, we began developing associations between pieces of information.

There have been studies that show that the average person can remember between 5 and 9 unrelated items in a list. Memory improvement techniques teach us to create associations that allow us to remember much more.

One classic technique is to take the items in the list, visualize them, and place them in rooms of your house. You can create a mental image of a walk through your house and see the items in each of the rooms, and thereby remember a longer list of items.

A trick for remembering people’s names is to create an association between their name and some characteristic about them, or about how you met them, or even just a play-on-words with their name. Amar Rama – the human palindrome. Linda from Lima. Red head Fred.

These tricks work by creating associations. By creating these associations, we’re able to retain much more information. And humans began to learn more, develop sciences and societies, and evolve (socially). We discovered (or created) associations everywhere we looked.

As associative learning took hold for people, abstract reasoning skills became more important, and symbolic associations began to accelerate our intellectual development. As our societies and knowledgebase evolved, we had to do more than learn the same things our ancestors knew – we were building on their knowledge, and had to learn everything they knew and then learn even more. Symbols became an accelerator for knowledge retention.

Symbols represented incredibly dense, compact, and efficient tokens that embodied complex ideas. We live in an age of symbolic reasoning, and we use symbols to communicate complex ideas with a minimum of prose. Freedom is a symbolic word. Just reading the word conjures up dozens of ideas and images. Honor, work, fairness – all are symbolic words. The challenge is that different people recall different images and ideas when they read or hear these symbols.

Communication with symbols

double edged sword

Symbolic reasoning is a double edged sword. It makes communication more efficient, but it also makes miscommunication more efficient.

When we wrote Top five requirements gathering tips, we highlighted the use of prototypes to quickly validate requirements with people who have an “I know it when I see it” mindset. This leverages the associative reasoning centers of the brain too. We also touch on this with our post, A picture is worth a thousand requirements. In that post we use visual, symbolic diagrams to communicate very dense information efficiently.

When we wrote The top five ways to be a better listener, the most important technique we identify is active listening. Active listening allows us to resolve the different meanings that people associate with the same symbols.

Use symbols, but use them wisely.

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