I found this brief animation to be a pretty solid explanation of why miscommunication is so common in our efforts to be heard and understood by others. Give it a watch:

Particularly, the “transactional model” helps get to the heart of why we end up processing information in variant ways.

The prescriptions at the end of the video are fine (and well-meaning), but a little weak in my opinion. Here’s what I would add as effective practices toward successful communication (especially in business).

  • Use the simplest possible language
  • Define terms and acronyms
  • Ask questions to get reflective feedback*
  • Clarify and illustrate with examples and word pictures
  • Put summaries in clear writing to ensure agreement

*You see the third item in my list? It could be misunderstood without a little further clarification. So, what I mean by “ask questions to get reflective feedback” is that we try to get the person/people we’re talking to somehow give us the words (& meaning) back to ensure that the message was received. A technique you’ve seen portrayed by psychologists in dozens of movies and other sketches.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

In the Collaboration Clarity workshops that I conduct with corporate clients, the practice of putting things in writing is absolutely crucial. Particularly when documenting the outcomes of a meeting, or laying out a collaborative project plan, or keeping multiple stakeholders in the loop. By leaving words floating in the air, subject to the faulty memories of those who heard but never documented, we inevitably invite misunderstanding.

It’s a complicated, noisy, and fast-moving world out there. Our multi-tasking brains are overloaded with stimuli. The people and teams who learn the art and science of clear communication will win, in business and in life.

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