Key concepts
Working memory

Have you ever told a friend or family member something only to later find that he or she completely misunderstood you—or never heard you at all? People often tell each other about important information that is not properly received, even when the conversation occurs in a quiet setting at close range. Why does this happen? In this activity, you will learn why communication can be so difficult by probing the psychology of listening. You will also experience how much a simple spoken message can be distorted.

The act of listening seems simple enough: the ears register the sounds produced and the brain interprets them, assuming the sounds reach the ears and the listener knows the meaning of the words. In the real world, however, the situation is usually far more complicated. First, to mentally process the message, the person to whom you are speaking has to be paying attention. Not only may external distractions—a baby crying or a TV on in the background—divert their minds away from the words, but their own thoughts might also similarly lead them astray. Lost in thought, they are just not hearing you.

Processing language takes a fair amount of thought. We use a short-term mental sketch pad, so-called working memory, to hold each word and its meaning in mind long enough to combine it with others. If the meaning of any of the words is unclear, the task becomes harder.

In addition, people often don't express themselves clearly in the first place. They forget to include important background or context, which can dramatically shape the meaning of words. They might mumble some words or simply choose the wrong word, one that does not truly reflect what they mean. In short, even when the other person's brain is ready to listen, the information they need from a speaker is often not all there.

•    Pencil or pen
•    Paper
•    Four or more friends or family members
•    Stereo, TV or other device that makes noise (optional)

•    Ask your participants to sit in a circle.
•    Explain that you will be whispering a statement to one person, who should then repeat it to the next person—and so on, until the message has made it around to everyone. Tell your participants to whisper the statement to their neighbor only once.
•    Using a pen or pencil, write down a sentence that is at least 12 words long. For instance: "Sam dashed quickly over to Jimmy's house to remind his friend about the English assignment."
•    Memorize the sentence; then fold over the paper, hiding your work. Don't show what you wrote.

•    Join your friends in the circle.
•    Whisper the sentence you memorized to the person next to you so that only that person can hear it.
•    Ask your neighbor to whisper the statement to the next person in the circle.
•    Observe the message make its way to every person in the group. Notice: What else is going on around you? Is everyone paying attention equally well?
•    When the last person has heard the statement, ask him or her to repeat it out loud.
•    Write that sentence on your piece of paper.
•    Read your original sentence to the group.
•    Compare the two sentences. Are they different? Is the meaning of the distorted statement the same as the original or did it change in significant ways? If you really wanted to say this to someone, how much would the differences matter?
•    Ask the group if they could hear the statement clearly. Did people generally think they got it right? What does their answer suggest about communication and miscommunication?
•    Extra: Write a simpler, shorter sentence and repeat the activity. Compare the before and after sentences again. Are they more similar this time? Why? Does your new result suggest anything to you about how to communicate more effectively?
•    Extra: Create another more complex statement like your original one. This time, let people say the sentence to their neighbor more than once. Compare the before and after sentences again. Are they more similar this time? Why? Does your new result suggest anything to you about how to communicate more effectively?
•    Extra: Try the same activity again with a new simple sentence, but this time with a radio or TV on in the room. Do people look more distracted? How close is the final sentence to the one you started out with? Do you think having the background noise made it more difficult to pay attention to and remember the sentence?
•    Extra: Ask your group to talk about times in which they remember being misunderstood. What happened? What were the consequences? What do they think went wrong in those cases? Talk about the best practices for good spoken communication. Can you come up with five rules?

Observations and results
Did the statement you whispered change a lot during its journey? Very often the differences from the original are so great that people laugh. In real life, of course, miscommunication can be more frustrating than funny. This frustration might come from the belief that communication is straightforward, even though, as we have learned in this activity it is not.

The world is full of distractions, both external and internal. No one can control all of them at any given moment. Moreover, everybody’s brain is different—in how it works and in the information and experiences it has collected. Thus, what you think you are saying may mean something quite different to someone else—particularly if you start in the middle of a thought, choose a wrong word or speak too quickly. Speakers make one or more of these mistakes quite often—and worse, rarely realize when they do.

Once you realize the obstacles to communication, you will be far more understanding when it fails—as well as able to communicate more effectively by averting common errors. Think about what is going on at the moment: Does the other person appear to be distracted? If you need to repeat yourself, don't be annoyed. Repetition, as you may have learned from the above activity, is a good strategy for making sure you are understood. Another tactic is simplicity. See if a bare-bones message will suffice, at least for now, but don't leave out background or critical details!

More to explore
Active Listening: The Telephone Game (pdf) from Peer Education
He Said, She Said from Scientific American MIND
Where Are the Talking Robots? from Scientific American MIND
How to Play Telephone from eHow
Your Memory Is Like the Telephone Game from Northwestern University
Stress Relief Can Be the Key to Success in School from Scientific American MIND
Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control from Scientific American MIND
Hands in the Air: How Gesturing Helps Us to Think from Scientific American MIND