10 Reasons Why Communications Fail

There is a slightly cynical piece of wisdom about communications called ‘Wiio’s Law’ which says that all human communication fails:-

  • Communication usually fails, except by accident.
  • If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes damages
  • There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message
  • The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds
  • In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be
  • The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance
  • The more important the situation is, the more probably you forget an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago

“The problem with communication … is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”   George Bernard Shaw

Like Murphy’s Law, this may seem more comic than real but I’m sure many of you have witnessed this playing out with serious consequences. In every company I have ever worked in, even senior staff always identify communications as a key problem.

So why is this apparently simple area so difficult to get right? Here are a few observations and thoughts to help you get it right, if only for today!

Communications is a TWO-way process and possibly the main reason for failure is the fact we tend to focus much more on what we want to say than listening and trying to understand the communication we are receiving. Imagine two champion dancers, one who is waltzing and the other doing the rumba. The only result can be frustration and confusion!

“To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.” John Marshall

Timing: Sometimes we get the message right but we deliver it at the wrong time and the other person simply is not receptive. The more important the message the more important it is for you to ask “Is this a good time?” If it isn’t, then they are far more likely to attend respectfully if you give them the time they need.
Another element of this is rushing something that needs proper consideration. Asking a complex question when there is no time to give it due consideration is another way to ensure that you get a poor result.

“Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”  Franklin D Roosevelt

Assumptions: When we begin our communication assuming that the other person is in the same ‘place’ as us, and has full knowledge of the things we know, then we tend to dive-in in the middle and this only leads to trouble. So take the time to make sure they have got the relevant information first.

One style suits all: People have very different preferences and needs when it comes to communication. Some people find it easy to understand data when presented in tables, but for others this is incomprehensible, and they prefer diagrams, and others still need narrative. Some want it in writing, some need to hear it. Some want to start at the conclusion, others want to be walked through your process. The more important the message the more we need to tune it to our audience. If there are multiple ‘targets’ then we need to use multiple styles to ensure everyone gets some of what they need.

Me first: It is natural to start with our own needs, preferences and styles but if we are seeking to sell, persuade or influence then it is much wiser to start with them! Where are they now and where do we want them to end up?

“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.” Plato

Fighting’ to be right: We all want, and many need, to be right. We have invested in our position / idea and we want the other person to adapt to it. This may work if you have the power in the relationship, but there is always a price to pay. This can be in the form of resentment, failure to win ‘hearts and minds’ or even financial if they know something that you don’t and this actually is a mistake.
If we push our ideas, it is only natural that they will push back; this causes resistance and wastes a lot of energy and emotion. Start with a genuine enquiry, ensure you have all the facts first, then shift to decisions.

Values: Don’t assume that what is top of your priority list naturally has the same importance for the other person. What is urgent for you may just be chore for them. Find out before moving forwards as this can also lead to disappointment and frustration. How many times have we ground to a complete halt because we are reliant on the contribution of someone who doesn’t realise or share its urgency

Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things ” Dan Quayle

Language: Okay English has become a global ‘lingua franca’ but there are so many different versions of it. Each profession and company seems to have its own jargon and patois. Also many people use words lazily, and some people say, for example “I feel this..” when they mean “I think..” Most of the time we know what this means but for many people there is an important difference between these two phrases. The first is emotionally or intuitively based, and the later a result of deductive reasoning. If we assume that they are using the word the same way as us there is more scope for confusion. Words like “Soon” might mean 5 minutes to one person and within the month to someone else. It is essential to take the time to clarify what you mean and what they are saying too.

“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it”   Edward R Murrow

Intent: we tend to assume that the purpose of communication is to reveal or share information, but there are certainly occasions when it is used to quite the opposite effect. Just think of every interview you ever heard with any politician being asked a tough question. So you need to decide whether the other party is actually sharing your aims and agenda or has a completely different one [see the Sir Humphrey clip below for a wonderful example]

Frequency / Volume: How often you talk and how much time and sheer content you share will influence the result. You can’t expect a five second comment to have the same effect on the person you speak to once a year as the person in the next office.

This is a huge subject but I think this is enough for one commutation!


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