The Importance of Acknowledgment in Communication

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Algorithms to Live By" by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What role does acknowledgment play in communication? How do you acknowledge the speaker’s message without interrupting their turn to speak?

Acknowledgment is an extremely important part of human communication, and it’s one that we often overlook. Recent research in the field of linguistics has put renewed focus on “backchannels,” a listener’s short interjections that acknowledge a speaker’s message without ending their turn to speak.

Here is why acknowledgment is the key to smooth communication.

Acknowledgment in Communication

Acknowledgment is a powerful determinant of success in communication. In their book Algorithms to Live By, Christian and Griffiths liken acknowledgment in communication to “ACKs” (acknowledgment packets) in digital connections between computers. These are short messages that tell the other computer that its message has been received. These ACKs are a vitally necessary part of the communication process, and they make up a huge portion of all uploaded data.

They cite studies showing that when someone is telling a story, consistent, engaged responses from their listeners have a drastic impact on how well the story is told. When distracted listeners fail to fully acknowledge stories they’re being told, the storytellers tend to get defensive, justifying why their story is interesting instead of trying to tell it well.

In sum, Christian and Griffiths argue that if you want to connect to the people around you, you need to become a good listener. Being quiet and polite isn’t enough—if you don’t provide acknowledgment, communication falls apart.

What Does a Good Listener Really Look Like?

Common advice on being a good listener often contradicts Christian and Griffiths’s perspective—for example, Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People argues that the best conversationalists do nothing but listen attentively while the other person talks. However, recent research indicates that this isn’t the whole picture: As Christian and Griffiths maintain, the best listeners are much more active in conversation than Carnegie claims.

You can sum up much of the confusion surrounding active listening in one question: Do good listeners offer their opinions and suggestions or do they just let the other person vent? A common criticism of bad listeners is that they attempt to solve problems right away instead of listening—unlike in network transmission, not all “acknowledgment packets” make your conversation partner feel heard.

To determine what kinds of listener interjections are welcome, researchers have deconstructed the act of listening into six “levels.” Each level is built on the previous one, indicating a deeper connection between speaker and listener. If you interject in the wrong way before you reach a high enough listening level, you may come across as insensitive or disingenuous.

The deeper you want a conversation to be, the further you should advance from Level One to Level Six:

  • Level One: Create a safe environment for the speaker, where they can be comfortable being vulnerable.
  • Level Two: Put away all distractions and give the speaker your full attention.
  • Level Three: Verbally acknowledge that you understand what the speaker is saying, without offering ideas of your own. Ask questions if you need clarification. This is the “backchanneling” that Christian and Griffiths discuss.
  • Level Four: Actively interpret the speaker’s body language and nonverbal cues and gain a full understanding of their emotional state.
  • Level Five: Verbally empathize with and validate the speaker’s emotions. Make them feel supported, without judgment.
  • Level Six: Offer your thoughts and opinions that you think would be useful to the speaker.

With these levels in mind, follow these rules in your next conversation:

  • Only acknowledge that you’re listening and understanding the speaker (Level Three) after you’ve made them feel comfortable to talk (Level One) and given them your full attention (Level Two).
  • Only convey that you understand how they feel (Level Five) after the speaker has confirmed you accurately understand the situation (Level Three) and you’ve actively observed their emotional state (Level Four).
  • Most importantly: Only offer suggestions or advice (Level Six) after doing all of the above. The speaker needs to know you understand the situation, acknowledge how they feel, and support them unconditionally before they’ll be receptive to your advice.
The Importance of Acknowledgment in Communication

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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