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No. 36 – A Systems Approach to Communication

August 11, 2011

Last post we learned that “for all health risk communications, the audience will assign a social role to the speaker in order to interpret the health risk message.”

Insights from Systems Theory may help to identify a person’s perceived “social role” within a larger “social system.” For example, social roles in a family social system could appear as follows:

——————— All People on Earth ——————–

——————- Nationalities ——————-

—————Ethnic Groups ————–

———— Relatives ————

—-Immediate Family —-

—— Self ——–

Six rules characterize such a system.

1. Members of a System Share Common Characteristics

For a family social system, all components are people. The “self” is the smallest subset. Each person is unique. Yet, each person is also part of a larger social system. In a family social system, however, only the “self” is real. That is to say, you can see two or more people as a family, but the family is an abstraction. Similarly, you can see employees as part of a corporation or agency, but the corporation or agency is an abstraction. Since we belong to each level of the family social system, our audience may not know which level we represent when we are speaking. You may want to be perceived as a caring professional, but your communications are interpreted as though you represented an ethnic group or a nationality.

2. Whatever Makes Up One Level Cannot be From a Higher Level

This means that a family (two or more people) is made up of humans, but a family is not a human. In health risk communications, all health risks are taken by individuals and not by higher levels in the system. However, risk decisions are usually made on a community or national basis. This is the source of problems for risk analysts who can only communicate risks per thousand, ten thousand, or a million, but cannot communicate the risk to an individual, such as the risk to your child.

An understanding of social systems can play a powerful role. Our best chance of communicating effectively is to make connections at all levels. Remember, however, that risks are taken by individuals and how well we connect at the level of self, may be the most important. Next post we will look at other rules for social systems.

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