“What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate”

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

In the iconic 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman delivers the classic line, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  Since then the line appears in movies, songs and the daily lives of humans everywhere.  Some communication failures can be kind of cute.  When my daughter was three she loved the song “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer because she thought it was about salsa, one of her favorite foods.  Lounge and karaoke singers have fun with misunderstood song lyrics.  The Knack’s “My Sharona” becomes “Mice Aroma.” Led Zeppelin’s “All of My Love” sounds like “Olive, My Love,”  (Popeye’s favorite song). While examples of mangled language can be fun to share, (see the New York Times Malapropism contest), communication failures in the real world can create serious problems.  Misunderstandings leave hurt feelings, cause manufacturing delays, and consume valuable time.  Effective managers create clear policies for communication in the digital age like those recommended by Brian Sloboda.   Fortune 500 companies offer communication skills training to prevent costly human errors, yet human resource managers still spend copious hours in meetings trying to sort out the chaos.

Most of us assume that if we speak clearly we should be understood easily.  Unfortunately we find ourselves too often surprised  when our colleagues, superiors, spouses and children don’t get the message.  Frustrated and exasperated communicators sometimes end up in anger management class for shouting and other hostile behaviors.

To communicate better, expect misunderstandings.  Just assume, no matter how clearly you deliver your message, the receiver won’t get it.  Then do the following:

  • Ask for feedback.  “What dates did you hear me request for vacation?”
  • Clarify the other person’s point.  “I heard you say that June was the best month for me to take my vacation.  Therefore I plan to take June 9, 2010 through June 16, 2010 for my vacation.”
  • Follow up with a written note or email.  “As we discussed, I plan to take June 9, 2010, through June 16, 2010,  for vacation.”

Every communication medium has it’s limitations.  Email, twitter, facebook, voice mail and face to face discussions pose different obstacles to mutual understanding.  You accidentally delete calls from your voice mail or email, miss messages on facebook or misinterpret facial expressions and gestures during face to face meetings.  Many patients enter our offices with their Blackberry Storms and Droids.  They share dreary digital dramas replete with emoticons and typos.  While distortions in cyberspace can disrupt our personal life, they can twist our work relationships into a crooked mess.  We want speedy replies to all our communication, but get overwhelmed and irritated when our inbox mushrooms.

When we feel overwhelmed we’re likely to get irritated when an employee or colleague requests clarification.  Siemens Communications commissioned a study and found intrusive communication overload causes Stress, Anger and Distraction (SAD).  This overload of digital communication, with its expectation of speed, plays an increasing role in workplace misunderstandings and conflicts. To reduce SAD in your business and personal life try the following:

  • Create sacred time at home where all communication devices stay in the off or mute mode.  Have real face to face conversations with your family or friends.
  • Prioritize your digital media and go through the top priority first.  If you need an email response to proceed with your work, go through emails first.  Expecting an important call? Check voice mail first.
  • Set aside time at work where you will not call, email, text or tweet.   Take a break to eat lunch and take a short walk. You will reduce stress, clear your head, and perform more productively.

So if you find yourself misunderestimating a communication, or you feel “held hostile” by someones false impression, don’t worry about “plummeting to the top.”  You’ll get there.