“The single biggest problem in communication,” George Bernard Shaw said, “is the illusion that it has taken place.” And as Groucho Marx wisely said, “quote me as saying I was mis-quoted,” misunderstandings and miscommunications are a common source of our frustration. I’ve found that when someone doesn’t do something that I asked them to do, 90% of the time it’s because I didn’t communicate it well.
It’s tempting to become frustrated with people about these disconnects. But the key thing to remember is that this problem is all on me. The responsibility is mine — and yours — to communicate effectively. If I’m not getting the results that I want in this area, it’s on me to close that gap.
When faced with this problem, most people resort to more in-depth discussions. They provide details, step-by-step instructions, and throw in a demeaning lecture or two. But this tends to make the problem worse.
For one thing, only idiots want to follow idiot-proof instructions. For another, the problem is rarely a lack of information. It’s that you have too much of it.
The Curse of Knowledge
“Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” — William Butler Yeats
If I asked you to tap out the tune to a well-known song, like Happy Birthday or The Star-Spangled Banner, could you do it? Could you do it well enough that someone would recognize the song?
Conventional wisdom says yes. Of course. Any idiot will recognize the tune to Happy Birthday. Except, as is often the case with these things, conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong.
Elizabeth Newton ran an experiment at Stanford where she had people tap out well-known songs while another person tried to guess the tune. When she asked the tappers whether the listeners would guess their tune, they said yes about half the time. But when the listeners actually tried to guess it, they were right only 3 times out of 120 songs.
The tappers assumed their success rate would be 50%. It turned out to be 2.5%.
The disconnect occurs because when we tap out a song, we play the tune in our heads. But the listener lacks this advantage. All he or she hears is a disjointed stream of taps.
This same disconnect occurs in many of our conversations. We don’t account for the information in our own heads when we’re trying to communicate something.
You know a lot. The experience and lessons that you’ve built up over your life and career all help you to quickly diagnose situations and understand the actions that need to take place.
It’s easy to take this for granted. It’s in your own head after all. Like the tappers who had the Happy Birthday melody in their heads, it’s easy to forget that others don’t have the benefit of our own internal thinking. It’s easy to forget that without similar levels of experience and research, others have more trouble connecting those same dots.
So while your message is perfectly clear to you, others may reach a different conclusion. It’s the same reason that technical experts rarely make good teachers. They struggle to remember what it was like to be a beginner. In the words of C.S. Lewis,
“The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago he has forgotten.”
In many ways, this is inevitable. As Chip and Dan Heath wrote in Made to Stick,
“You know things that others don’t know, and you can’t remember what it was like not to know those things. So when you get around to sharing the Answer, you’ll tend to communicate as if your audience were you.”
But while you can’t turn off the knowledge in your head, you can take some steps to keep it from confusing your message.
Ruthlessly Clarify Your Intent
“Having knowledge but lacking the power to express it clearly is no better than never having any ideas at all.” — Pericles
I don’t like driving in New York City. In addition to the constant road rage, confusing one-way streets, and ever-looming prospect of a rear-end collision, turn signals become a liability.
The moment you turn on that signal to change lanes, someone speeds up to prevent you from doing so. Without fail. I’ve never seen so many people so intent on not letting someone change lanes in front of them.
When you’re driving in NYC, you can’t signal your intent. Everywhere else, you should.
It’s easy to assume that other people see the same big picture as you. But they’re filtering everything you say through their own biases and perspectives. It’s easy for that message to get lost in translation.
Define the core intent of what you want to communicate. Before the conversation, take a minute and think about your core intent — If nothing else, I want this person to understand __________.
Make sure that what you want people to hear is what they actually hear. Prioritize clarity over subtlety or cleverness. As Churchill advised,
“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time — a tremendous whack.”
Once people know your intent, they have a common frame for the rest of the discussion. Instead of filtering everything through their own biases and assumptions, they’re able to use your intent.
It also gives them a guiding principle for future decisions. While you can’t anticipate every issue that might come up, if people know your overall intent, they can make responsible decisions in those situations.
That’s all guiding principles are — something to provide guidance on decisions.
Practice Thinking Out Loud
“I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.” — Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
Fragile systems, Nassim Taleb argues, are those damaged by shocks, robust systems weather shocks, and antifragile systems, like immune systems, can benefit from shocks. He attributes antifragility to everything that has changed with time, including evolution, culture, ideas, and innovation.
Most communications are fragile. When the unexpected happens, the message falls apart. If people don’t understand the underlying logic, they struggle to adapt the message into a changing situation.
If we want to move away from such fragile communication, we need to help others understand not just the result of our thinking, but the logic that gets us there. That lets them adapt it into new situations. It lets them continue to build off our process and thinking.
One option is to practice thinking out loud. Instead of running the debate in your head, talk it out with others. Help them see how you process the information, outline your initial reaction, and talk through the logic trail.
The other benefit is that it’s incredibly freeing. Once you tell people that you’re just thinking out loud, it takes all the pressure off. You can bring up half-formed ideas and potential dead-ends and stress-test them in real-time.
Peter Drucker said, “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right thing.” Thinking out loud may not be the most efficient way to communicate. But in helping others understand your logic, and promoting a back-and-forth conversation, there are few more effective options.
Listen to Understand. Not to Reply.
“Be the silence that listens.” — Tara Brach
I continue to be surprised at how few people make a conscientious effort to listen well. It’s not difficult. Literally, all you have to do is sit there and be interested in someone else for a few minutes.
Yet we don’t. Our minds wander. We plan our response. We continue to prove Covey’s point when he said, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
The only requirement is that you care. You have to care more about their thoughts than the sound of your own voice. This doesn’t seem like a high bar to cross, yet here we are.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who kept interrupting just so they could keep talking? It’s awful. Halfway through, you don’t even care what they have to say anymore, you’re just looking for an excuse to get out of there.
For communication to occur, the other person needs to understand your message. If you’re not willing to listen to them, you lose a major tool in encouraging — and verifying — their understanding.
The best way to make sure your words had the intended effect is to listen to their responses. People will generally nod along in agreement even if they don’t fully understand. By listening to their responses — and the lack thereof — you can get a good idea of whether they understand and agree your message.
Hostage negotiator Chris Voss found that when people respond with “You’re Right” or “Yes,” they’re often trying to placate you and buy some time. But if they respond with “That’s Right,” and show an understanding of your argument, they’re more likely to embrace the solution.
If all else fails, ask people for their take on things. Ask them to explain it back to you. And listen when they try to put the solution into their own words. Do they understand or are they just trying to repeat your own words back to you? Could they explain it to someone else and go several questions deep?
“Want to be happy? Stop trying to be perfect.” — Brene Brown
No one likes to admit that they don’t understand something. It’s embarrassing. It shouldn’t be. But it is.
Most people aren’t going to come right out and tell you they’re lost. They’d rather try to figure it out on their own later, without losing face in the moment. Never mind the short-sightedness of this strategy. Just because it’s unintelligent doesn’t mean it’s not human nature.
In order for people to be honest and admit their confusion, they need to believe that you won’t think less of them because of it. I always try to tell people that if they don’t understand my message, it’s on me for not communicating it well enough. Their only responsibility is to make sure I have that feedback.
Just as important, we should all model the behavior that we’d like to see in others. Be human. Show people that you don’t always understand everything either. Ask for clarifications and examples when appropriate. There’s rarely any harm in asking someone to step back and explain something again.
When you look at effective teams, the common denominator is often psychological safety. Team members are comfortable being open and honest without fear of repercussion. This doesn’t happen on its own — it takes daily efforts to develop and reinforce as a priority. But the benefits are well worth the investment.
Put it All Together: Start Communicating Effectively Today
“Never mind your intentions. Communication is about what others hear with your words.” — Dianna Booher
Communication requires two parts: how you deliver the message and how someone else receives it. If the recipient doesn’t understand your point, then it doesn’t matter how well you delivered the message. Half of the equation isn’t there.
Operating on different knowledge levels make this more difficult. And in many ways it’s a Catch-22 — you need the expertise to come up with intelligent ideas, yet that expertise often keeps you from communicating those ideas well.
By focusing on your intent, thinking out loud, listening, and encouraging questions, you can help make your message come through.
In a busy and complex world, it’s easy to be misunderstood. Make sure you’re taking the time to communicate.