Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to communicate well

Good communication is invaluable in all relationships and organizations. Without it, misunderstanding, friction, confusion, and passivity run amuck.

A junior high science teacher decided to use his class as an opportunity to persuade his students to the benefits of abstinence. He put water in one beaker and 80 proof alcohol in another. Then he dropped an earthworm in each beaker. The worm in the water swam around and crawled up the side. The earthworm placed in the alcohol curled up and sank to the bottom. Confident in his results, the teacher asked, “Students, what does this teach us about consuming alcohol?” One student replied, “It teaches me that if you drink alcohol, you’ll never get worms.”

Good communication is essential in both personal relationships and in organizations, but it is very difficult and hard to assess. We should always assume that we’re failing at it. 

Here are two studies that demonstrate the disparity between perceived and actual competence in communicating.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” and “listeners.” Tappers were given a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.  

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why? When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Tappers are flabbergasted at how hard it is for the listeners to hear what the tapper hears. Never underestimate how difficult it is to communicate. [Heil, Parker, and Tate, Leadership and the Customer Revolution]

In their book The Leader’s Voice, Clark and Clarkson wrote, “The biggest problem with leadership communication is the illusion that it has occurred. A 2002 survey of 1,104 business professionals showed that while 86% of their leaders feel that they are great communicators, only 17% believe their leaders are, indeed, effective communicators.” 

They identify four fatal assumptions that leaders make:

  1. Constituents understand what was communicated.
  2. Constituents agree with what was communicated.
  3. Constituents care about what was communicated.
  4. Constituents will take appropriate action.

Perhaps the worst kind of miscommunication is when two parties finish a conversation and both think they understand each other but they don’t.

One of the most difficult challenges in communication is to transfer information from your mind into someone else’s mind without the loss of meaning or subtleties. So the next time you try to communicate with people, just assume they’re not getting your message, or at best, they’re only getting a small percentage of what you’re trying to communicate. It’s that hard.

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

6 Replies to “Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to communicate well”

  1. Loved the blog. I agree that good communion is especially important when you are at the back of the church and they run out of the juice cups before it gets to you, and you have nothing to wash down the cracker. Thanks for the insight!

    Moved to tears throughout the music Sunday … your communication to the teams was amazing, and heartfelt here.

  2. Well said. “I know what I said you thought I said, but I forgot to mention what I meant.” That was said to me years ago and I am to this day confused by it. Ha!

  3. Good One. Not only verbal but even email communications can be misunderstood. Each person, the sender and receiver looking at the email slightly different. Thank you for your blog.

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