Debugging Communication

Here is a thing I learned from J.B. Rainsberger at XP 2012 in May 2012. I used it in the past months quite extensively for debugging communication based upon the Satir Communication model. While doing some research for this blog entry, I discovered that some others have also written about the topic. I especially liked Dale Emery’s Untangling Communication which seems to go a bit deeper than my understanding of the topic. Anyways, here’s my write-up which might give a different perspective.

The Satir Communication model

Family therapist Virginia Satir developed model about communication. Jerry Weinberg wrote quite extensively about it in several books. However, the first time I really understood the model, was in the context of debugging communications.

Let’s dive into the model, first. There are four phases when a a human receives any form of communication: intake, meaning, significance, and response. Let’s dive deeper into them.


During information intake we humans take in the message the other person communicating with us is trying to give us. We take in the words the other person says, we take in the body language, we also subconsciously notice things the person is sending to us. For a web blog this mostly consists of reading what is there.

Needless to say that the amount of communication we may intake depends largely on the communication channel used. For face-to-face communication the amount of information that I can notice is much wider than for example for text chat exchanges on the internet, or asynchronous written communication like email or twitter.

We’ll take a discrete look on the things that may go wrong in a few.


After taking in the message as it was said we start to interpret the message based on our previous experiences with the person we are interacting with. That might mean that we come up with the worst possible interpretation, for example when we deal with an identified patient, that is someone we mostly see as the troublemaker. That might also mean that we come up with the most positive interpretation for a person that we love or feel close to.

We form interpretations based on our previous experiences with the sender, or based on our skills on intake. We combine the intake of the message together with our previous knowledge of the situation, the environment, and our previous experience in similar situations like this.


Taking our intake and our interpretations into account, we form significance to the message. Significance is based upon upon our feelings about the situation, how we experienced similar situations in the past, and the good or bad interpretations that we came up with. But also the surroundings of our family life might lead to different significance assignments for the message we received.


Last, but not least, we decide whether or not to respond, and what an appropriate response will look like. We base our responses based on the information we took in, the meaning we formed from it, and the significance to the message that we attached to it. For example, in a particularly stressed situation in your family, you will respond differently as when everything is alright at home.

When things go wrong

But what happens when things go wrong? And how does the model help there? In order to debug communications, I go through the phases in order to check where something went wrong and to correct the situation from there. So, let’s go through the phases to see where communication might go awry, and what we might be able to do to resolve the problem early.


When something goes wrong during intake, we understand different things. For example when I write the word “integration test”, there are at least two different meanings I am aware – that’s why I usually try to avoid that term. Other such terms are for example to my experience “quality”, “testing”, and “agile”.

When something goes wrong during information intake, we end up with a misunderstanding. That means that the sender of the message had a different understanding of the term than the receiver, and we end up with something called ‘shallow agreement’ if we don’t find out about our misunderstanding before agreeing together on something.

In order to check for misunderstanding in our communication I try to ask clarifying questions. For examples when I am asked to create better quality, I ask for more specific details about the term “quality”. When someone asks me for “best practices”, I ask for a definition of that. I think that is also the reason why we allow clarifying questions in LAWST-style peer conferences.


Weinberg’s famous Rule of Three Interpretation origins from this phase. To cite Quality Software Management Volume 2 – First-order measurements on page 90:

If I can’t think of at least three different interpretations of what I received, I haven’t thought enough about what it might mean.

That means that at times I might end up with a different interpretation than the sender has. If we are not on the same page regarding our understanding of the words, it is also clear that it’s more probably that we end up with different interpretations regarding the situation.

When dealing with misinterpretations, that is we attach different interpretations to the communication than the sender tried to send to us, we need to explore the situation a bit deeper. How come the sender came to the interpretation? What other intake of the situation did he come up with? Most of the time I find out there are other contributing factors that I was not aware of so far. By asking the Data Question I at times explore the interpretation:

What did you see or hear (or feel) that led you that conclusion?

(Gerald M. Weinberg, More Secrets of Consulting, Dorset House, page 114)


In regards to significance, I need to go a bit deeper. I need to explore feelings of the sender. For me to understand the significance the sender attaches to a particular situation or communication, I need to ask for previous experiences. I don’t have that many experiences with dealing with those situations. Most of the time this highly touches our inner beliefs. To be honest, I have not found many ways to change those other by providing different experiences.

I haven’t been in too many situations where communication went wrong in the response part. That’s why I don’t dive deeper into it here.

Last, but not least, I usually find myself already in better communication with the first two parts, as most of our communication seems to go awry there.

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