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Cognitive behavior management is primarily concerned with messages – verbal, nonverbal and written. When people are together, they cannot NOT send messages to each other. Since communication is based primarily on nonverbal signals [55% – facial expression, 38% – tone of voice1 ], the messages sent are often not conscious and/or not intended for distribution. But most of us, even most children, are highly accomplished in picking up these subtle cues and then interpreting them, although this process is also mostly not conscious. These interpretations are highly influenced by the beliefs that we hold about others, and ourselves and therefore help to solidify such beliefs. For example, if I believe that purple is a color that represents hostile people and I believe that hostile people are threatening me; I will be very vigilant in watching for purple. Since the cues are at best, ambiguous [what after all is the difference between purple and violet?], I will tend to interpret anything tending toward purple to BE purple – e.g., hostile. Have you ever purchased a car with a unique color and then notice how many other cars you see of that same color that you never noticed before? This is what it means to be vigilant. In our example, you are likely to see a lot more purple messages than those around you.

Messages are communicated between people and convey not only information, but also intentionality. So not only do we see purple – we attribute cause and responsibility to that message – e.g., it is hostile and the person showing it is out to get me. Now if the sender of the message does not interpret purple to mean hostility and means no harm to the receiver, they might be quite startled by the response they receive. It is recognized that the meaning of the message [at least to the receiver] is reflected in the response that is given to it. It does not matter what you intended by sending purple [or some shade similar to purple]. You are likely to get a hostile response, which is not clearly understandable.

In organizations that are in business to provide a helping relationship, the onus is on the people in the organization to provide messages that are not only appropriate to the subject matter, but are received in the same manner in which they were sent. Ergo, all written and spoken communications must be consistent with a clear and concise intention, and all unusual responses must be interpreted as a misunderstanding which requires an explanation. If your message is misinterpreted – change the message!

Communication Model

Since, for purposes of examining messages in a helping program we are concerned with communication, we have selected a communications model as a framework for the program audit. Our selection of David Berlo’s SMCR Model (1960) is based on the fact that Berlo places great emphasis on dyadic communication, therefore stressing the role of the relationship between the source and the receiver as an important variable in the communication process. We are all aware that the most important variable in providing help is the establishment of a trust relationship.

Based on the messages we send, and the ubiquitous nature of the nonconscious, unintended nonverbal impact, we would suggest that the first step in creating such a relationship to a client is to care2 about that client. It is not what you do so much as who you are – which causes ambiguous or negative messages to be sent. If you don’t care, this is extremely difficult to hide, particularly over time.

A second characteristic is to be constantly mindful of your intention [to provide help] and your motivation [whatever floats your boat] and how this impacts the communication you have with clients. It is amazing to see how quickly caring people become offended by the very behavior they are charged to help the client change. This occurs because of a loss of intentionality and a reversion to personal defense. A helping person has no points to defend – therefore, they cannot be offended. A guy off the street is prone to be defensive any time s/he perceives a threat, challenge or probe. How individual staff respond in times of crisis will critically affect the outcome of a program audit. And how will the auditor know? S/he will tally the messages that are sent in times of crisis. S/he will look at whether the helper defuses or escalates the chain of events when the client loses self-control.

Berlo’s approach additionally proposes that there are elements within both the sender and the receiver that will affect the fidelity of the communication and he enumerates the factors to be taken into account at each ‘end’ of the communication. This approach to the communication act tells us much about the communication skill level, personal characteristics, etc. of both source and receiver. In doing so, it might tell us about the general competence of both, but it doesn’t allow us to make any firm predictions about the likely success of the communication. A teacher may have a seductive tone of voice, may be considered by the students to be ‘one of them’, may have expert and wide-ranging knowledge of cognitive behavior management theory, may have great enthusiasm for the subject; the student may be highly intelligent, articulate, literate and diligent. However, if the student finds cognitive theory pointless, boring and a load of hot air, then, clearly, fidelity will be far less than desirable. On the other hand, the teacher may, in fact, not really know what s/he is talking about, be boring and full of hot air and the child may have gotten the message exactly.

Practical work

For the practical work in communication of messages within a cognitive behavior management environment, Berlo’s model is a very useful point of departure. The model has the merit of drawing our attention to the unpredictability of communication and to at least some of the factors which make it unpredictable. As such, it can serve as an excellent broad framework for a program audit of the communication [messages and messengers] within a helping program.

Elements of the Communication Model

All human communication has some information source, some person or group of persons with a given purpose, a reason for engaging in communication. Thus, the sender of the message will often be referred to as the Source of the message.

When you communicate, you have a particular purpose in mind:

  • You want to show that you’re a friendly person
  • You want to give them some information
  • You want to get them to do something
  • You want to persuade them of your point of view, and so on.

You, as the source, have to express your purpose in the form of a message. That message has to be formulated in some kind of code. How do the source’s purposes get translated into a code? This requires an encoder. The communication encoder is responsible for taking the ideas of the source and putting them in code, expressing the source’s purpose in the form of a message. The code, for our purposes will include both the words and the nonverbal cues. We will also be concerned with the words being shaped into a metaphor – perhaps hiding the meaning rather than exposing it.

The message, of course is what communication is all about. Whatever is communicated is the message – but be clear that the message is not just the words you say. We cannot emphasize enough that in human communication there can be multiple cues to a single message [and multiple meanings as well]. You can only reasonably examine the message within the context of all the other interlinked elements. Whenever we are in contact with other people, we and they are involved in sending and receiving messages; verbal or nonverbal. You cannot NOT communicate. The crucial questions for the Program Auditor are: Do the messages in the program consistently convey cognitive behavior management information, and to what extent does the message received correspond to the message intended? That’s where all the other factors in the communication process come into play.

As an example of the impact of beliefs on messages, we would suggest you review your understanding of a ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ [SFP]. “An SFP is said to occur when one’s belief concerning the occurrence of some future event…makes one behave in a manner…that increases the likelihood that the expected event will occur….” [Eden, 1990]. Identified as interpersonal expectancy effects, these phenomenon demonstrate how much individual human beings are interrelated.

“Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary [1983] defines ‘expect’ as ‘to look for as likely to occur or appear.’ It is this likelihood-of-occurrence sense that triggers SFP. Webster’s also defines ‘expect’ as ‘to look for as due, proper, or necessary’; as your bill is due and immediate payment is expected. This is a normative definition of expectancy. This object of normative expectancy is what ought to occur in the future. This is not the type of expectancy that produces SFP; it is the stuff of which role expectations and other normative concepts are made.

“These two meanings of expectancy – likelihood of occurrence and normative – are sufficiently different that they can be contradictory. If the teacher tells a student that s/he is expected [in the normative sense] to report to school on time, but in his/her heart s/he actually expects [in the probability sense] the child to be late, it is the latter expectation, not the normative one, that will be unwittingly communicated and initiate an SFP that may result in tardy behavior on the part of the child. Thus, it is expectancy in the sense of that which the expecter believes is likely to occur, rather than that which a person believes ought to occur, that leads to the behavior [messages] that fulfills the prophecy. In particular the use of “performance expectation’ refers to the level at which the teacher believes the student is likely to perform”.

“It is important to understand that [self fulfilling prophecy] is somewhat of a misnomer. The prophecy does not fulfill itself; it is a mental abstraction that cannot ‘do’ anything. It is the prophet who, acting under the influence of the prophecy, behaves in a manner [sends messages] that molds events to conform to his/her expectations.” The prophet, or expecter, is able, within limitations to manipulate the behavior of the other person through a) believing strongly in his or her expectation, and b) consciously or subconsciously behaving [sending messages] in ways that make the expectation happen. This manipulation is a substantial part of the maintenance of the pathology perspective of people with problems in living. If the human service professional believes that the root cause of the problems in living is pathological, s/he will tend to behave in ways that are not helpful in influencing the person to change such behaviors. The best that could be hoped for would be the limitation of the problem behaviors.

It would be rare indeed for the prophet to know that s/he is sending messages which are influencing the other person in important ways. And the power of the influence is directly related to the significance of the person in the relationship.

The choice of the appropriate channel is also a vitally important choice in communication. It’s obvious that you don’t use the visual channel to communicate with the blind or the auditory channel with the deaf, but there are subtler considerations to be taken into account as well. Some people are clearly much more responsive to visual communication than others. To elucidate his/her arguments an individual might grab a pencil and a piece of paper and sketch out complex diagrams of the arguments. Though this may help the sender to clarify his ideas, it may merely serve to confuse another person, who would have preferred a verbal exposition.

Bearing in mind the statement above that “the choice of the appropriate channel is a vitally important choice in communication”, it’s less than obvious how a student who has difficulty reading and writing can have their needs met by a learning model which boils down in essence to ‘read this; it will tell you what to write’.

While the Berlo model is not overly concerned with ‘noise‘, it may be important to understand the concept. Everyday examples of physical noise are:

  • A loud motorbike roaring down the road while you’re trying to hold a conversation
  • Your little brother standing in front of the TV set
  • Mist on the inside of the car windscreen
  • Smudges on a printed page
  • ‘Snow’ on a TV set

It might seem odd to use the word noise in this way, unless perhaps you’re a hi-fi buff, in which case you’ll be familiar with looking up the claimed ‘signal-to-noise ratio’ for the various bits of equipment you buy. In this technical sense, ‘noise’ is not necessarily audible. Thus, a TV technician might speak of a ‘noisy picture’. Generally speaking, in this kind of everyday communication, we’re fairly good at avoiding physical noise: we shout when the motorbike goes past.

However, it is possible for a message to be distorted by channel overload . Channel overload3 is not due to any noise source, but rather to the channel capacity being exceeded. You may find this at a party where you are holding a conversation amidst lots of other stuff going on around you or, perhaps, in a lesson where everyone has split into small groups for discussion or simulations.

Although physical noise and how to avoid it is certainly a major concern of scholars of communication, an alternate communications model, the Shannon-Weaver model turns out to be particularly suggestive to the study of human communication because of its introduction of a decoding device and an encoding device. The possibility of a mismatch between the two devices raises a number of interesting questions. In technological communication: I give you a PC disk and you stick it into a Mac – the Mac can’t decode it. Transfer this notion of a mismatch between the encoding and decoding devices to the study of human communication and you’re looking at what is normally referred to as semantic noise. That concept then leads us on to the study of social class, cultural background, experience, attitudes, beliefs and a whole range of other factors which can introduce noise into communication.

Semantic noise

Semantic noise is not as easy to deal with as physical noise. It might not be an exaggeration to say that the very essence of the study of human communication is to find ways of avoiding semantic noise. Semantic noise is difficult to define. It may be related to people’s knowledge level, their communication skills, their experience, their prejudices and so on. Examples of semantic noise would include:

Distraction: You are physically very attracted to the person who is talking to you. As a result, your attention is directed to their eyes rather than what they are saying. There is no physical noise which prevents the message from reaching you. You hear it, but you don’t decode it. Equally, your attention could be distracted by the other person’s peculiar tics and so on.

Differences in the use of the code: The other person is waffling on in Aramaic about fishes and loaves. You don’t understand. There is nothing that physically prevents the elements of the message from reaching you; you simply can’t understand it.

Emphasizing the wrong part of the message: Maybe you can think of an advertising campaign which has been so successful with some new style or gimmick that everyone is talking about it. However, no one has actually noticed what product is being advertised. This type of semantic noise is significant when the receiver is vigilant to one type of message – identifying cues to that and missing the overall point.

Attitude toward the sender: You’re talking to someone a lot older/younger than you. On the basis of their age, you make a lot of assumptions about the kind of code appropriate to them – and the conversation goes wrong because they were the wrong assumptions.

Attitude toward the message: I may have a very positive attitude to the Aramaic-speaking bearded chap in the flowing robes. But, despite that, I may be unlikely to find him very persuasive even if he were talking to me in English. While I may respect his right to hold what I consider to be silly convictions, I can find little respect for the beliefs themselves. So, unless he can find what I consider a more convincing explanation of this particular trick, he’s wasting his breath, however convinced he may be.

Internal talk: Perhaps of most importance is when you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen and observe his/her way. Put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. Just see things as they are with him/her, and accept them. This is what Zen masters call a Beginner’s Mind. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it, or you may not even really hear it. but too often, you are mentally preparing an answer without actually hearing what is being said.

Just as a source needs an encoder to translate his/her purposes into a message, so the receiver needs a decoder to retranslate. For example, a blind person would not have the equipment to receive whatever non-verbal messages you send in the visual channel.

The notion of a decoder reminds us that it is quite possible for a person to have all the equipment required to receive the messages you send (all five senses, any necessary technology and so on) and yet be unable to decode your messages.

An obvious example would be:

You can see it. You probably guess that it’s a language, maybe even that it’s Arabic. You probably don’t understand it, though. In fact, it is Arabic. Unless you understand Arabic, the message, encoded to you in that short sentence probably cannot be decoded by you. You have the appropriate receiving equipment, but no decoder. You don’t understand the code.

These examples may seem pretty obvious and also rather unusual. Indeed, they are, but they do serve to illustrate how communication breakdown can occur because we make the false assumption that receivers decode messages in the same way we do, that they use the code in the same way. There’s a whole host of reasons why they won’t – age differences, class differences, cultural differences and so on. But also the one that is probably of most importance to cognitive behavior management is the context in which the message is placed by the ‘inner logic’ of a person with irrational thoughts. Meaning is always determined by context. If I use the word spring – the context will determine whether I am speaking of a season, a fount of water or a metal coil. Change the context you change the meaning. Thus, the receiver’s decoder is faulty, if s/he is using a context that is different than everyone else’s.

For communication to occur, there must be somebody at the other end of the channel. This person or persons can be called the receiver. Senders and receivers must be similar systems. If they are not, communication cannot occur. In human terms, the receiver needs to have the equipment to receive the message. A totally blind person has the mental equipment to decode your gestures, but no system for receiving messages in the visual channel. So, your non-verbal messages are not received and you’re wasting your energy.

In like manner, if the receiver has a different operational logic about what is happening in the world, your message may take on a totally different meaning than you intended.


Feedback is not addressed in Berlo’s model, but is a vital part of human communication. When we are talking to someone over the phone, if they don’t give us the occasional ‘mmmm’, ‘aaah’, ‘yes, I see’ and so on, it can be very disconcerting. In face-to-face communication, we get feedback in the visual channel as well – head nods, smiles, frowns, changes in posture and orientation, gaze and so on.

In essence, human beings don’t process information, but process meanings. The above discussion of the model has often referred to meaning, a topic largely absent from original models, but it is only by broadening the model to take in meaning and the biological, cognitive, technological, socio-cultural and other factors which influence it that this model can be of any use.


Communication Skills

According to Berlo there are five verbal communication skills:

Two are encoding skills:

  • Speaking
  • Writing

Two are decoding skills:

  • Listening
  • Reading

The fifth is crucial to both encoding and decoding

  • Thought or reasoning

You may wish to object to placing such emphasis on reasoning, what we generally think of as an intellectual skill, to the detriment of emotion or feeling. However, we would emphasize the construct of cognitive behavior management, that emotions are biography – e.g., cognitive constructs selected from prior subjective experience. Thus, the thought or reasoning process includes the labeling of the sensations caused by the senses as scary, trespassing or attractive.

As encoders, our communication skills level affects our communication fidelity in two ways:

  • It affects our ability to analyze our own purposes and intentions, our ability to say something when we communicate – you may perhaps take issue with this, since it is not apparent to all of us that we necessarily use verbal skills in reflecting on our purposes and intentions – however, as we have already indicated, the communication of a message includes the nonverbal factors which provide 93% of the meaning of that message.
  • It affects our ability to encode messages which say what we intend. Our communication skills, our facility for handling the language code, affect our ability to encode thoughts that we have. We certainly all have experienced the frustration of not being able to find the ‘right word’ to express what we want to say. Bearing in mind the dyadic nature of communication, we need to remember that finding the ‘right word’ is not simply a matter of finding one which expresses what we want to say to our own satisfaction. It also has to have approximately the same meaning for the receiver as it does for us.

There is evidence that our ability to use language actually affects the thoughts themselves. The words we can command, and the way that we put them together affect:

  • What we think about
  • How we think
  • Whether we are thinking at all

There is little disagreement among communication and cultural studies theorists today that the codes we use (verbal or otherwise) affect the way we see the world and the way we think about it. Our experience of the world is, thus, a function of the codes we use, as is what we can express about that experience. With this firm conviction among theorists, it follows that the fewer the linguistic resources we have at our disposal, the less rich our experience of the world is and the less we are able to express about that experience.

Bandler and Grinder give us an example in The Structure of Magic.

In Maidu, an American Indian language of Northern California, only three words are available to describe the color spectrum. English has eight [specific] color terms.

While human beings are capable of making 7,500,000 different color distinctions in the visible color spectrum (Boring, 1957), the people who are native speakers of Maidu habitually group their experience into the three categories supplied by their language.

…the person who speaks Maidu is characteristically conscious of only three categories of color experience while the English speaker has more categories and, therefore, more habitual perceptual distinctions.

It is for this reason that the psychoeducation aspects of cognitive behavior management, in which we spend time teaching the concepts of the intervention, are so important. The creation of one more color grouping concept for the Maidu, would create a phenomenal change in their perceptions of color. The wine taster needs to create constructs and concepts to even describe effectively what s/he tastes. One could suggest that you could not even taste the ‘earthy’, ‘flinty’, ‘foxy’, or ‘woody’ flavor unless you had these constructs in mind. In the same manner, it is almost impossible for a child to achieve if s/he has no concept of goals. One major component of our cognitive behavior management strategy is to have children develop visions statements – views of the future which change the arrow of time from the past to the goals, dreams, achievements of the future.

If we do not have the communication skills necessary to encode accurately then we are limited in our ability to express our purposes, indeed even in the purposes we can have in the first place. Our communication skills deficiencies limit the ideas that are available to us and limit our ability to manipulate these ideas (to think).

These general principles can of course be extended to any code we use, not just a linguistic code. The manipulation of any code, linguistic or other, requires skills, which can be more or less highly developed. Our schooling tends to lead us to think of language as the only code we use which requires skillful manipulation, but there are many others, such as codes of etiquette, dress codes, gestural codes and so on. You could go to France as a fluent speaker of French, but be unfamiliar with the codes of etiquette which apply there, so, as a well-bred English person, you’re trying to skewer your peas on your fork while all the French are happily scooping theirs up and quietly wondering, despite the apparent sense of what you’re saying, whether you really are quite right in the head.

We can summarize by saying that communication skills involve:

  • Knowing and applying the code’s grammar
  • Knowing and using a broad vocabulary
  • Knowing and applying the conventions
  • Adapting the use of your code to your audience

This latter requirement again underlining the dyadic approach to communication.

Knowledge Level

The encoder’s communication behavior is affected by his/her knowledge of:

  • His/her own attitudes – there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we have attitudes of which we are unaware and the whole cognitive behavior management strategy is built upon this premise. If you are aware of an attitude which might, in the presence of any given receiver, arouse hostility, then you will be aware that it would be appropriate to conceal that attitude. Clearly, if you are unaware of the attitude, then you will not attempt to conceal it and your communication may fail as a result, despite whatever other skills you may have. However, it needs to be noted that concealing an attitude is a difficult thing to do. It may be possible to lie and deceive someone over short periods of dialogue, but it is another thing entirely to do so for substantive interaction. We must remember that to conceal your attitude, you must not only select words which do not convey the attitude message, but more importantly control your tone of voice, facial expression, body posture, proximity, etc. While the receiver may not be able to quite comprehend the discrepancy, they will, if they have any skill at all, note it.
  • The ways in which s/he can produce or treat messages – you need to be aware of the possibilities open to you. Messages can be sent orally, in writing, nonverbally, etc. Knowing the person’s primary representation model [visual, auditory, etc.] helps to ensure that the proper message gets through. By calibrating the other person’s primary representation model, you can alter your communication to be most successful.
  • The kinds of choices s/he can make about communication channels, etc. – You must also remember that the message will be interpreted [decoded] by another person who, because of their own idiosyncratic ‘inner logic’ may place the message in an entirely different context than yours. This is most important in the dyadic relationships and is required to change the way a person thinks. Being mindful of your own mental schema about self, others and future expectations will help you focus on the cues about the other persons schema as well.
  • The subject matter – if you know nothing about cars, how do you begin to tell the mechanic what’s wrong with yours. You can describe all the symptoms, of course, but it’s quite likely that you omit the one vital squeak or jerk that would lead the mechanic immediately to the source of the problem, simply because you don’t know enough to determine that it was vital. Again, that works the other way around – when you go to pick your car up and the mechanic explains to you why the bill was so enormous, what chance do you have of challenging the explanation?

If you know nothing about how and why people think what they think and how they learn what they learn – how can you expect to help another person become aware of, attend to, analyze that they think and then seek alternative meanings and habituate to them? How can you even ask the right questions?

All of these factors apply equally to the decoder/receiver.

Socio-cultural system

It’s not easy to make a clear distinction between the influence of culture and of the social system, so we have decided to adopt here the practice of referring to the socio-cultural system.

My meanings, the semantic resources I deploy in a particular social context, may not be the same as your meanings, or as what your expectations of what my meanings should be; and that can lead to a bewildering lack of communication between us. [Halliday – 1978]

No source communicates as a free agent without being influenced by his/her position in a socio-cultural system. People in differing social classes communicate differently. Social and cultural systems partly determine

  • The word choices that people make
  • The purposes they have for communicating
  • The meanings they attach to certain words
  • Their choice of receivers
  • The channels they use for this or that kind of message etc.

Here are examples of each of those. You’ll see, though, that it’s a bit artificial to try to disentangle them in this way:

  1. The authoritarian father who is not in a position of authority at work will speak very differently to his boss and his children. An inability to adjust his communication as appropriate to the two positions could well spell dire trouble at work.
  2. People’s purposes for communicating will depend very much on the role they are currently playing, whether their role at work, customer in a shop, teenager with friends, teenager in the family home, etc.
  3. There are clear differences in the meaning of words between teenagers and older people – ‘wicked’, ‘bad’, etc.
  4. Some social positions, e.g. teacher or receptionist, are communication-prone; others, such as night watchman, will involve relatively little communication.
  5. Perhaps the most important of these social cultural aspects is the personal ‘theory of meaning’ or ‘inner logic’ of the individual sender or receiver. This theory of meaning, or world view, is structured around two pillars – the schema of self and others. Depending on one’s attitude about self and others, expectations for future are constructed. Such beliefs skew not only the meaning of what we perceive, but what we perceive at all.


Attitude toward self

A student considers him/herself a bit of a dolt. As a result, s/he has become wary of asking questions. As a result of that wariness, many of the questions s/he does ask are formulated hesitantly, with a self-deprecating tone almost inviting dismissal. This student has a ‘negative self-image’. We tend to seek out evidence that confirms us in the image we have of ourselves (even if that image is negative) and also to behave in a way which invites responses which confirm the accuracy of our self-image (the so-called self-fulfilling prophecy). This student’s attitude to him/herself clearly affects the success of his/her communication.

Attitude toward subject matter

Interest and prejudice will play a role here, for example. The subject matter of the discussion is cognitive and behavioral and how to improve their performance. If you find these discussion threatening [and that can be because its working!] and couldn’t give a damn about change, even if you have a very sound understanding of the terminology, then much of the message is obviously just going to pass you by. Additionally, if you believe that you are not good at math and that you never will be, you will tend to not hear mathematical communication.

Attitude toward receiver (others)

If in your opinion, the person you are speaking to is stupid, you will certainly formulate your message differently from the way you formulate it for intelligent people. You may even make some parts of the message too complex for him/her to understand. This person is a nerd. What a geek! You make sure that when you lend him/her the books s/he wanted you don’t smile too much and don’t say any more than necessary in case s/he takes it as an invitation to strike up a friendship.

Berlo lists five factors (communication skills, knowledge level, socio-cultural system, attitudes – [we’ve chosen to lump social system and culture together] which affect your transmission of your message. You will make a number of assumptions about those same five factors in the receiver. Your encoding of your message will be influenced by those five factors in you, but also by your assessment of how those same five factors affect the receiver’s ability to receive your message. You can see the circularity there – you are influenced by factors, which you make assumptions about in your receiver, who makes assumptions about those five factors in you while receiving the message and, on the basis of those observations of the five factors in you, makes the best of the five factors in him/herself to encode a response to your message, the reception of which is influenced by the five factors in you and your observations of the five factors in him/her, etc….

All of the factors above apply to the receiver the same as they do to the source4.


As you can see from the model, the essential elements which Berlo identifies for discussion under the heading of message are: Code, Content and Treatment


Whenever we encode a message, we must make certain decisions about the code we will use. We must decide:

  • Which code
  • What elements of the code
  • What method of structuring the elements of the code we will select

When we analyze communication behavior – messages – we need to include the source’s decisions about the code in our analysis. Bandler and Grinder, founders of NeuroLinguistic Programming, indicate the major language coding as a selection of sensory representations for each of the sensory modalities [visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory] – “I see what you mean” [Visual] “That stinks!” [Olfactory], etc. In our selection of words, we tend to use metaphors which are indicative of our primary means of representation. If a communicator is aware that the receiver tends to have as a primary representation – vision, then s/he is probably best able to communicate when using visual metaphors.

But NLP goes further and suggests that each of these sensory representations is encoded in memory through the use of submodalities. ‘Modality’ refers to the primary senses of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting; therefore a ‘sub-modality’ refers to the subdivisions or categories within each of these sensory modalities. For example, visual submodalities would include brightness, color, perspective, size, and so on. Auditory submodalities would include loudness, timbre, location of sound source, and so on. Gustatory submodalities would include the basic tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour; and any of the distinctions that we make regarding sensations we get from putting things in our mouths, including the flowery terms used by wine-tasters, such as ‘gooseberries’ or ‘damp dog.’

To make sense of submodalities, we need to ask a key question about someone’s perception and model of the world: “What do they pay attention to?” There are three basic forms of paying attention: 1) categorizing what is; 2) noticing what changes; and 3) understanding what it means. In part this information will be encoded in the words we use to represent or talk about our reality. The degree to which we understand others depends upon how well their way of ‘languaging their perceptions’ relates to what we ourselves pay attention to. Thus, part of the communication dialogue may include questioning about representations and submodalities of remembered experiences.

But coding also includes nonverbal communication as well. Certain gestures, facial expressions and postures give clear meanings to what we are thinking and feeling at any given moment. The TESA Interaction Model5 indicates variables such as response opportunities [equal distribution, individual help, latency, delving, and higher level questioning]; feedback [affirmation/correction, praise, reasons for praise, listening, and accepting feelings] and personal regard [proximity, courtesy, personal interest and compliments, touching and desisting] as variable [verbal/nonverbal] messages that must be given to all students. In short, messages are sent without words and often without conscious ‘thinking’ about them. ‘Reading’ body language refers to the skill in understanding some of these nonverbal cues.


Content is the material in the message that was selected by the source to express his/her purpose. It, like code, has both elements and structure. If you have five assertions to make, you must structure them – you must impose one or another order on them. The ways you choose to arrange assertions in part determine the structure of the content.

You must understand that in cognitive behavior management, the content must be shaped to have ‘information’ [defined by Bateson as ‘the difference that makes a difference’] – e.g., the message must arouse the interest of the other person. Further the content must focus the other on the components of change – e.g., their own cognitive structures and process and the manner in which these factors influence their success or failure in reaching their goals. There must be an ‘intentionality’ which places such content in all communications – whether in a counseling session or talking about the ball game played yesterday. Each incident presents an opportunity for communicating information about change – if the sender is mindful of his/her own role in the dialogue.


The treatment of the message is the decisions which the source makes in selecting and arranging both code and content.

In preparing copy for a newspaper a journalist treats the message in many ways. S/he selects content that s/he thinks will be interesting to the reader; s/he selects words from the code that s/he thinks her reader will understand; s/he structures assertions and information, in the way that s/he thinks the reader will prefer to receive them.

The editor will make decisions regarding type size to let the reader know s/he considers some things more important than others. S/he will put some stories on page 1 and others on page 11.

All these decisions are treatment decisions. They are ways in which the sender chooses to encode the message by selecting certain elements of code and content and presenting them in one or another treatment.

When we decode messages we make decisions as to the sender’s purpose, their communication skills, their attitude toward us, their knowledge, their status. We try to estimate what kind of person would have produced this kind of message, an estimation that depends on the source’s treatment of the message.


To explain the idea of channel, Berlo uses this analogy:

Suppose I am on one side of a river and you are on the other. I wish to send a package to you. What do I need?

  • A boat to carry the package
  • Some means of getting the package into the boat, i.e. a dock. On your side, you also need a dock to get the package out of the boat
  • Some water, something that will serve as a carrier for the boat

In communication theory the equivalent of the boat, dock and water are all referred to as channels.

The dock:

This is what Shannon and Weaver would refer to as the encoding and decoding devices. We need some kind of mechanism for translating the electro-chemical signals inside our heads into a code understood by us and, we hope, by the receiver.

The boat:

When I encode my message into spoken language the oral message I encode has to come to you in some kind of vehicle. For spoken messages, the vehicle is sound waves. When I encode my message non-verbally, the message reaches you through the vehicle of light waves.

The water:

The sound waves themselves need something to support them, a wave-carrier. Sound waves are supported by air. Air is equivalent to the water in the metaphor.

In communicating, the sender has to choose a channel to carry his/her message. Media buyers (the people in advertising agencies who buy television time or space in newspapers), for example, have to decide what is the best channel or combination of channels. Media selection is limited by

  • What is available
  • How much money can be spent
  • What the source’s preferences are
  • Which channels are received by the most people (at optimum cost)
  • Which channels have the most impact, etc.

In everyday life we have to make similar decisions: would a verbal message such as ‘please go away’ (or even some slightly different treatment of that message) be as effective as a punch on the nose?

The five senses?

Berlo lists the five senses as communication channels. Some would question this limitation, claiming that we have a ‘sixth sense’ of some kind, a sort of natural intuition. That might perhaps be taking us into the realm of parapsychology, but there is evidence that we do seem to communicate using channels other than those that Berlo lists.

For example, the peculiar phenomenon of synchronization of menstrual cycles amongst women who live in close proximity has often been claimed to cause problems in single-sex institutions such as women’s prisons or convents. Or the emotional contagion that occurs with mobs, where people act in ways that they would never act individually. This is suggestive of a ‘sixth sense’, though perhaps not what we normally mean by that term.

Collecting data on sixth sense manifestations might be difficult to achieve.

We have outlined in this introduction to a Program Audit a framework for creating a survey to determine the presence, absence or delineation of a cognitive behavior management program. It is important that the program management understand the nature of communication so that they can prepare for the audit. They can do a self-audit by examining the messages that are sent and received within the organization – management to staff and staff to clients. They must be cautious that a message enclosed in an employment ad or in a financial analysis is consistent with the messages they intend to send. A program report, for example, which includes only ‘custodial’ data, e.g., data pertaining to units of service and no ‘outcome’ data, e.g., data referring to the impact of the services on the clients, is likely to be sending a message to clients and the public alike that they have no concern with outcome.

Messages are so ubiquitous that they are rarely ever considered consciously. But since the message is the media of cognitive behavior management, thinking consciously and precisely about the message is the primary component of the helping process. Bandler and Grinder have outlined a linguistic observation process to identify deletions, distortions and generalizations in language to help decode the messages being repressed by the clients. They also developed methods of aligning body posture and nonverbal cues with the client as a means of establishing rapport and noticing eye movement as a means of understanding subliminal messages. Grove has developed ‘clean language’ as a means of delimiting the counselor’s messages and enhancing the client’s messages – particularly those encoded in metaphor. Ellis and Beck have pioneered the concepts of ‘irrational thoughts’ and grouped them into conceptual categories to help identify subliminal messages and others have noted how much information occurs in the ‘leakage’ of self-talk. The Los Angeles County Office of Education has outlined a series of behaviors that signal acceptance of a student.

All of these are methods to help the practitioner of cognitive behavior management improve his/her practice. The ability to see hidden messages and give intentional messages is the essence of the method.

  1. This seems to overlook other subtle cues such as posture, eye movement, state of relaxation/tension, smacking of the lips, etc.
  2. Acceptance is a differentiating process that demands a profound awareness of values, needs and purposes of the other person. The equivalents of acceptance are “knowing” and “individualization”. One cannot accept another unless s/he knows that other as a distinct individual and not simply as a label or as an example of the species. The offer of acceptance, given without requirement for repayment of reward, creates a new learning experience that can be fraught with ambiguity and fear producing anxiety and apprehension which may need attention. The consequence of knowing – as differentiated from having knowledge about – is an emerging acceptance of the other. Acceptance provides accessibility, a precondition for the emergence of relationships that are free from constraining obligation and conformity. “I am here and available without risk to you”. It is only in our commitment to the other that we intrude and make known our involvement. Commitment may be defined as an involvement with another that is unqualified by conditions of personal security or safety, and as a volition to help without the need for recompense or reward. Manifestations of commitment include constancy, follow-through, and preservation of the other’s dignity and individuality. It is the paradox of intrusion upon the other without forsaking unconditional positive regard. [Paraphrased from Goldstein, 1972]
  3. Channel capacity – used very loosely by communication theorists, channel capacity     generally refers to the upper limit of information that can be handled by a given channel (visual, auditory etc.) at any one time.
  4. The recent (2013) Zimmerman trial gives a clear picture of the difficulty of understanding another culture. Black listeners had no difficulty understanding why the ‘girlfriend’ did not call the police, while white listeners largely did not.
  5. The Los Angeles County Office of Education developed the Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement Interaction Model.