Communication doesn’t always succeed.
But it never fails.
We talk about communication failing all the time. However, we need to recognize that an unanticipated outcome is not the same as “failure.”
Communication isn’t an on/off switch. We’re not “communicating” or “not communicating.” Communication doesn’t happen or not happen. It’s always there. You can’t not communicate.
The idea “communication doesn’t fail” probably sounds counter-intuitive. It may sound jarring. Perhaps, this runs against what you think you know about communication.
“Of course communication fails!”, you might be saying to yourself, “It fails all the time!”
Let me give an example that might change your mind.
Imagine you’re about to have a tough conversation with a friend. It’s something about your relationship: something they did, something you did, something you want them to do. The specifics don’t matter, but in this imagined example, you need to have a difficult conversation. You are unsure how they will react.
You have the conversation. You talk to them. You say things, they probably do as well. And it goes badly. Like, really badly. You were fumbling your words. You were unsure of yourself. Maybe you phrased something poorly and your friend’s feelings got hurt. Maybe they weren’t listening. Maybe they said something mean. Maybe they reacted with ambiguity or indifference to what you said. Maybe they reacted harshly and stormed out.
Maybe you did.
Did communication “fail”?
Your gut instinct is probably to say, “Yes, of course, it probably couldn’t have failed worse!” Everybody walked away feeling terrible! How could that communication have been a success?
Those feelings, experiences, and misunderstandings — they still came from communication. Communication happened. It didn’t go well, but it didn’t fail to occur. You just didn’t get the outcome you expected.
Communication is still there even when you think it is “not working.” Remember, you can’t not communicate. This is the inescapable maxim. Not saying something is saying something. Saying something badly is still saying something. When things don’t go well, they still go. It’s all communication.
Now, I admit it’s easy to think about really bad communication as “failing.” At a basic level, it’s ok to think in that way. There are better and worse ways to communicate. And of course, we want to communicate better. We can improve communication in all sorts of ways. But it can’t fail. It always works.
We perceive communication failure all the time. We talk about “misunderstandings” and “miscommunication.” Communication “breaks down.” We lament that we have a hard time connecting with others. We tell ourselves, “They didn’t understand me,” so we assume we’ve failed to communicate.
There’s no consensus about what communication failure is. This is the case among experts too. Research actually shows that most communication errors are inconsequential (Dismukes, 2010). Even in high stakes communication situations with lives on the line — such as airplane crews — people experience many, mostly small, communication failures. Yet communication goes on and, for the most part, disasters are averted. Why is everyday communication any different? We don’t even notice thousands of small “failures” that happen as communication hurtles onward with others. We roll with the punches all the time when we communicate.
We need to view the whole question of “failure” differently.
When we communicate, we are always interpreting others. Yet, if something we say has unintended consequences, or if the message that appears to arrive is different than the one we intended, we often presume there was miscommunication.
Maybe you didn’t say something the right way or use the right words. This doesn’t mean communication has failed. Unintended consequences from communication is a feature, not a bug. This is the magic of communication playing out.
You can fight against this, or you can lean into it.
Misunderstandings fool us into thinking communication hasn’t happened, when two communicators simply have divergent perspectives. My intended meaning and your understanding may not overlap as much as is desirable and perhaps we’re not understanding one another at all. But mutual understanding isn’t required for communication to have occurred.
The other person may not ever think exactly like you. Unintended consequences — like unanticipated meaning or different interpretations — doesn’t mean communication didn’t work.
It is a selfish trap of the individual to think that communication didn’t work just because your intended meaning isn’t what resulted.
Misunderstandings come from communication just as understanding does. Differences in understanding do not mean communication failed.
Misunderstandings involve a difference between the speaker’s intended meaning and the listener’s attributed meaning. These misunderstandings may occur frequently, for example, between a native and non-native speaker. We figure out ways around these misunderstandings. Even among people who speak the same language, and know each other well, we have many communication errors that go completely unnoticed and just manage to get repaired in the flow of a conversation.
Don’t get hung up when communication doesn’t result in perfect agreement! You’re still communicating!
…to be continued.
Dismukes, R. K. 2010. “Understanding and Analyzing Human Error in Real World Operations” In E. Salas & D. Maurino (Eds.). Human Factors in Aviation, 2nd ed., 335–74. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.