Anatomy of Miscommunication

We never notice when a minor tidbit or snatch of gossip gets lost, misplaced, or misheard.  But when there is a miscommunication about important, vital information, we want to know where the problem is, how it got there, and whose head is gonna roll—and hopefully it won’t be ours.
I read an article about communication failure by Roy Jacobsen where he breaks down the exchange of information into its basic framework.  Here’s a synopsis:

  1. Transmitted: You send the information.
  2. Received: The information arrives.
  3. Understood: The information is understood.
  4. Agreed: The recipient concurs with your information.
  5. Converted to useful action: “Your message gets the action that you wanted from your recipient.”

When communication fails then, at least you’ll know the problem is going to be in at least one of those steps.  Jacobsen goes on to describe various troubleshooting questions you can ask.  And since his examples of communication in the article are letters or emails, the questions are specific to the written word.
I smugly thought that by using voice to communicate—in person, phone call, or conference call—we could easily bypass many of the pitfalls in those five communication steps.  Then, not so smugly, I used different words for the miscommunications possible in Jacobsen’s list:

  1. You don’t talk loud enough, there’s static, your cell phone died.
  2. They weren’t paying attention, were thinking of something else, their cell phone died.
  3. You explained badly, they misconstrued or only heard what they wanted, they are just plain dumb.
  4. They disagree, they hate the idea, they think you’re dumb, they don’t want to do it
  5. They do the wrong thing, they do too much or too little, they don’t do anything.

However—I say to myself, smug again—unlike the written word, when speaking you have the opportunity to ask questions and get feedback. Did they hear you?  Do they understand?  Do they agree?

Making a habit of asking these questions can really do wonders in helping you head off miscommunications before they do any damage.