02 October 2015

In the previous part I talked about how I encountered grounding for the first time, as it relates to a robot, connecting the abstract to the specific. Here, I’ll look more into how it relates to humans, and how it helps with understanding.

Grounding, the act of connecting the abstract to the specific, isn’t a novel technique about how to transmit information, like for example encoding morse-code in blinking. Even if we talked to each other by blinking dots and dashes, instead of pronouncing sounds with our mouths, we would still attempt to convey different ideas, symbols and concepts.

Grounding, actually, is a step in the communication process which is about transferring not just information, but also understanding. To ground your message means to encode it in terms that the other party understands and can relate to. To make these concepts understandable we need to ground them in the others’ previous knowledge of the world, by using their own language, and giving examples that they can understand and relate to.

Grounding is about the semantics of the communication, and not about the mechanics. When the person who hears us, or reads our words, or perceives our art, when they not only register our words in their ears, but also understands the essence and meaning of what we are trying to say, only then we’ve actually reached them effectively, and made them understand the point we were trying to convey.

After college, I joined the software industry and started getting a pretty decent salary. I was suddenly in a deep sea of complexity, bombarded by acronyms such as OPT, PTO, HSA, H1B, 401k, IRS, USCIS and other “fun” things. Previously, I was living in a somewhat blissful ignorance of the real-life financial problems and decisions by living in a constrained and organized academic environment, but as a newly employed I had to take care of a lot of those nuisances.

At some point I needed to understand what is 401k. I had heard that it is about retirement savings, but didn’t have much motivation and incentive to learn about it and to contribute. It seemed like something I don’t need to worry about yet, and I could take care of it later. The “helping” materials from my first job targeted people who understand the concept, probably through a previous job, and didn’t include explanations of the simple definitions, leaving out the “why”’s. All the information about it was reaching me but I did not understand what it meant. The materials directly jumped to recommendations and strategies, and I found myself utterly confused and not sure where to start from. Without grokking the basics, I felt helpless with the more advanced terminology.

Unable to connect any of the abstract terms from the materials to my practical reality, I looked around for other explanations and started watching Khan Academy videos on finance. Each video lecture only took about 10 minutes, and contained a specific imaginary example of a person adding money to their 401k over time, and considering possible withdrawal options, based on specific situations. Example situations included emergencies, switching between different types of IRAs, investment outcomes and discussed the differences between the types of retirement investing account - traditional, Roth and 401k. The specific examples in each lecture made the terms much more clear, because it built this imaginary world, similar to the one I live in. Furthermore, the examples avoided legal jargon, and used words I could understand. Maybe they were a little bit less precise and complete than reading the actual law, but communicated better, at least to a novice mind like mine. Watching these video lectures I gained a bunch of confidence about these saving techniques which opened the possibility for me to seek more information on the subject. The specific examples built a bridge of understanding that I could cross, starting from the world I knew, to the abstract world of definitions.

In the information channel above, the grounding is the step after having transferred the data, and involves decoding the meaning. It happens on the receiver’s side, but if we as communicators don’t present our data in a format that is easily understandable by the other side, then even if we successfully say our words and they register the sounds correctly in their ears, they will still be oblivious about the meaning that we are trying to convey. Effectively, all our speech would be equivalent to a bumbling noise in their ears. On the other hand, if we tailor our message to them, we can help with their understanding.

Thats also why grounding depends on who we are trying to communicate to. There isn’t a single way to explain a concept which would make it understood by everyone. To communicate effectively we have to use explanation and examples that both sides know and understand, and that really depends on who other side is. Formulas and definitions apt to explain basic physics laws to graduate students would not be clear to preschoolers, and vise versa. The preschoolers wouldn’t understand the differential equations, while the graduate students wouldn’t find the hand-wavy simplistic explanations clear enough to be practical.

For the geeks of us, part of the theory of why grounding works this way is due to Snannon’s noisy channel theorem, which says that the amount of communication in the channel in the best case is proportional to the mutual information between the two sides. Using that mutual information would make the other side understand better the message.

An interesting corollary is to avoid adding any information that they don’t know. Using fancy words when speaking to a person who doesn’t know them would not help them understand the meaning better. Instead, it will only stroke the speaker’s ego about how smart and knowledgeable they are to use these words. Any information that is unknown to the other side will end up wasted as noise, until they can understand it.

In the next parts, I will dive in into more examples of using grounding in tricky situations.

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