The Interpersonal Gap by John Wallen. This model is at the core of much of what I do in coaching, leadership development, consulting, conflict resolution. Virtually every project, every initiative, everything I’ve done in my career goes back to this work from John Wallen, especially the interpersonal gap. So here we go. I’m really, really glad to be giving this to you because it’s central to so much of what I think you’re going to use this for the rest of your career. Here we go. Interpersonal gap. Wallen says here’s a sender. Okay. The sender has some kind of intention. They have an inner state. There’s something going on inside the sender, which is private. Nobody can see that. But they encode that intention and that inner state. The feelings that go with it. They encode that into some kind of action out into the world. This is what you could see on a videotape. This is public. Then over here you have a receiver, someone who sees the action. They can’t see the intention. They can’t really know for sure what’s going on inside the other person. But they decode this based on their history. You know, history with this person, history with this tone of voice and so forth. And they have an interpretation. They interpret it. It happens in a nanosecond. The receiver thinks that they’re seeing what’s there, but they’re actually triggering some kind of interpretation in them, which then becomes an effect. There’s an inferred meaning there. They’re inferring, they’re imagining guessing what this is all about. And that is private as well. And Wallen says this difference between the two is what he calls the interpersonal gap.
The resulting problem is that there is never a perfect one. I would say this. I think Wallen would say we can get close enough for understanding each other, but there’s never a perfect 100% correlation between the world of the sender and the interpretation and the world of the receiver. I’ll go a little bit farther than John Wallen there. I don’t think we can ever, ever really nail it down 100%. But as Wallen says, we can come close enough for understanding and moving ahead. The intention is private. These are the hopes, the fears, the desires, the wants, the stuff going on inside the sender. After they send the message, they can look and see and they can go, oh, yeah, I see how I think, I see how it landed in you. And that’s what I intended. Or oh boy, that’s not what I intended at all. When I was giving you those suggestions about your report, I wasn’t implying that you were inadequate or something. I was actually trying to help or something like that. That’s why the interpersonal gap happens so often. Because the effect, the impact, the meaning that the receiver creates actually inside of them is the listener’s own inner response. It’s their interpretation based on their history and so forth. So they interpret what the sender sends, and after that, they might be inclined to say, you know, when you did this, when you were giving me those suggestions for my report, were you thinking that maybe I couldn’t handle it or something like that, you know, describing, naming the feeling, or they might express it and say, you’re always minimizing me.
You’re always dismissing me. You never respect me. You never trust me. Make sure to check the video on the difference between description of feelings and expression of feelings, because they create two very different possibilities going forward. That’s your judgment or your assessment of the interpersonal gap. All starts with the action. The sender puts something out into the world and look what happens. How many possible intentions are there? Let’s say somebody at work says, I’d like to have lunch with you today. What’s the theoretical number of intentions? It’s virtually infinite. All the little nuances. Maybe they want to talk to you about a project. Maybe they want to ask for your advice. Maybe they’re interested in you for a relationship. Who knows for sure exactly what their intention is. Why? Because over here, as the receiver, we have an additional infinite number of possible interpretations based on our history with that person, based on our history, with that look, or that tone of voice, or based on the context or the situation. So you can see how in some cases it’s a miracle when they line up perfectly, but they do line up close enough for us to kind of get along with each other. So the action is public. It’s what the sender said, it’s what came out, the verbals and the non-verbals. We want our actions to be judged in light of our intentions. That is, we want people to basically read our minds. We want people to know why we’re doing what we’re doing.
And ironically, we judge others in light of our interpretation. So this is the paradox. We want to be judged on our intentions. We judge others by our interpretation of what they did. How do you bridge the gap? First step, get curious. Let go of judgment. Let go of trying to fix the other person, or persuade or sell or judge or criticize or help or teach the other person. Get curious about what’s going on over there in, I say, in their world, create what? What Wallen called a mutual inquiry. The two of you get curious together. Let me tell you what went on in me, what my intention was, and maybe you can tell me what the effect was. I say, get your bubbles on the table. When you get your bubbles on the table, then there’s a chance for bridging the gap. You can use a perception check. When I did that, I had the feeling maybe you got upset with me. Is that accurate? You check on the emotional state of the other person. You can describe the behavior. You know, when you were giving me those suggestions for the report, this is what I felt about that. You can describe your emotions or you can express them as the other thing, or you can listen in a way that builds trust. These are the key steps for bridging the interpersonal gap. There’s going to be a video on each of these. I hope you’ll go deeper into this work of John Wallen’s. It will inform and improve all the consulting, all the work, and your relationships with other people.
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