Why Is Effective Communication So Difficult?

Communication is critical to the success of any enterprise.

Like the circulatory system of the body, it’s the connection between all the different parts of an organization.  It the link between leaders and constituents, suppliers and distributors, employees and customers.

In the same way that the circulatory system can become diseased (arteriosclerosis) and threaten the entire person (heart attack), problems in communication can threaten the very survival of a company.

Given how vital communication is, why doesn’t it get more attention?  Like good health, it's taken for granted.  It's only noticed when there's a serious problem.  Yet the costs are  clear:

A survey in HR Magazine reports that of 4,000 employees, 46 percent said they routinely received confusing or unclear directions.  If that weren’t bad enough, 36 percent of these employees reported it happening up to three times every day!   Participants estimated they wasted about 40 minutes of productivity each day trying to interpret unclear or confusing directions.

It’s not just employers who suffer when employees are confused and productive time gets lost.  Employees feel the pain as well, and they’re more likely to quit their jobs.  A Towers Watson study found that businesses with effective communication practices were more than 50 percent more likely to report employee turnover levels below the industry average.

Good communication skills are no longer a nice to have:  they’re a must have.  A  January 2013 survey conducted by Hart Research Associates revealed that 93 percent of employers consider good communication skills more important than a college graduate’s major.

So why is effective communication so hard?  Consider this analogy:Are you familiar with bottle ring toss game at a carnival?  The goal is to get the ring around the neck of the bottle.It’s really hard to get one ring to land around a bottle.  Now imagine three rings all landing on the same bottle-neck.  Close to impossible.

Communicating effectively is like trying to throw 3 rings around that same bottle.The three rings are:

For the communication to be “perfect", all three have to land on top of each other--in complete alignment.

In other words, what you mean is exactly what you say, which is exactly what I hear.That happens about as often as a total solar eclipse.

Why is this so rare?  Because most senders make a giant mistake:  they assume that what they mean is what gets heard.  That what they say stays as intended: pure and unfiltered.

Why would they think that? Because they're the primary source.  There are zero degrees of separation.  It's as if they were playing the game of "telephone" with themselves.

Psychologists refer to this as projection bias: where you unconsciously assume that others share your current thoughts and feelings.Isn't it obvious what I mean?

Um, quite frankly, no.

Life doesn’t work like that.  The meaning can (and almost always does) change when messaged and then received.

Where most communicators are unconscious, great leaders are intentional. They know that the default is for messages to get twisted in the delivery process and be misunderstood.

They build checks and balances into their communication to make sure that what is meant is what gets said, and then gets heard.It's simple.  But it's not easy.

What do you do to make sure that what you mean is what is understood?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.