In 1978, Osmo A. Wiio, a professor from Finland, wrote 7 laws about the nature of communication1. Though slightly tongue-in-cheek, the ideas point to a truth. The fundamental law states that “Communication usually fails, except by accident.”
Some of his other laws include:
- If a message can be understood in different ways, it will be understood in just that way which does the most harm.
- There is always somebody who knows better than you what you meant by your message.
- The more communication there is, the more difficult it is for communication to succeed.
The humorous tone of Wiio’s laws helps cut the brutal truth. In almost every meeting with more than one person, there is a failure of communication. Individuals leave the meeting with different interpretations of what was discussed, what happens next, and how each of their next steps are coordinated. Follow-up meetings, more email threads, and a flurry of instant messages ripple out from this failure. This is likely why a client told me that she goes to meetings for a living. Communication fails and that failure is a debt with compounding interest.
Designed to Fail
Communication fails by design. There are too many traps and obstacles between our intentions and the reception of others. Our best hope is to be aware of the general foundation of interpersonal communication. Donnell King summarized four principles of communication that help frame the potential trappings:
- Interpersonal communication is inescapable. Communication is not just words, but includes how we say things and non-verbal cues, like posture, raised eyebrows, smiles, etc.
- Interpersonal communication is irreversible. It is impossible to erase what’s already been said. There are no take-backs in communication.
- Interpersonal communication is complicated. King writes, “Theorists note that whenever we communicate there are really at least six "people" involved: 1) who you think you are; 2) who you think the other person is; 3) who you think the other person thinks you are; 4) who the other person thinks she is; 5) who the other person thinks you are; and 6) who the other person thinks you think she is.” These dynamics at play can fog meaningful conversation or authenticity.
- Interpersonal communication is contextual. All communication sits at a 5-way intersection of contexts: psychological, relational, situational, environmental, and cultural. “Communication does not happen in isolation,” King summarizes.
Ways to Ensure Communication Fails Less Often
If communication almost always fails, how do we help it fail less often? People study communication for lifetimes searching for answers and ideas. Countless books and articles exist to address this question for organizations, interpersonal relationships, and business-to-customer contexts. There is no guaranteed formula for perfect communication in every context. But, there are some key principles that have worked well for me.
Be aware of the context and goal of the communication.
Our tone, non-verbal communication (body language), and attitude are critical variables for creating conductive contexts for successful communication. Whether you are solving a serious conflict with your partner, discussing favorite foods with a friend, or deciding on a strategic path for your business with colleagues, how you present yourself has a high impact on the success/fail rate of the interaction.
This is true in both the analog and digital worlds. With so much our lives happening in video chat, it’s important to remember that this principle still stands. I believe people give each other more room for disengagement in these environments, like looking at a second screen or turning off video in large group meetings. However, if the way you present yourself does not fit the need or goal of the meeting, communication will probably fail.
Listen more than you speak.
A family friend used to tell her talkative son that God gave him two ears and one mouth because he should listen twice as much as he talks. That’s good advice for everyone.
Listening is not waiting for the other person to finish speaking so that you can say what you were thinking while they were speaking. Listening means actually paying attention to the other person and reflecting on what they said before you speak. Slower conversations with more breaks of silence allow thoughtfulness and real dialogue.
Set clear expectations.
You know what they say happens when you assume? I don’t even need to answer the question because you know. Leaving space for people to make assumptions results in misaligned expectations. This is a communication failure.
Instead, be clear about what you expect to get and/or give in a communication interaction. This applies to every interaction use case. Whether you’re coordinating a family vacation, selling a service or product, or rolling out a new employee benefit program, clear expectations leave less room for people to imagine what your intent is or what they’ll get out of the interaction.
My wife and I both work full-time and remote from home while raising our 8-month-old daughter. As you may imagine, setting clear expectations about who is taking point with our daughter at a given point in the day is critical. So, we try to start every week (and sometimes every day) with a quick overview of our work obligations and when we’ll need the most help or focus time.
We did not do this from the start. There were days when we both made assumptions about what the other person would be doing. Someone (usually my wife) was taking on more of the responsibility in addition to her work. Our expectations of each other were different from reality. We realized that we needed to plan, negotiate, and compromise as a way to setting clearer expectations, which reduced frustration and potential resentment.
Be intentional about timing.
This may be the most difficult principle to follow. Timing communication is an act of coordination, focus, and anticipation. It takes thinking a few steps ahead and understanding the potential effects of what we say. Communicating too slowly or too quickly can greatly impact the effectiveness of the message.
In my role at Skookum, often supported other team members who facilitate workshops with clients. Though these sessions can be long, I like to schedule an immediate one-on-one follow up with the facilitator when the workshop ends to provide feedback. Feedback is a communication event that can fail if given at the wrong time.
These debriefs that follow immediately after the session provide the best opportunity to discuss what went well, what didn’t, and how we might improve in the future. Waiting to have this conversation significantly reduces the effectiveness of the feedback — how it’s delivered and how it is received.
A while back, I worked with a client on their product onboarding journey. This is the phase or set of steps that occur immediately after the product is purchased. It’s the series of events that ensures customers know what they purchased and how to use the product to its full potential. A common process that company’s use during onboarding are automated emails to the new customer.
However, this client hadn’t considered the timing of their automated emails well enough. Their current workflow included a welcome email immediately after the product was purchased and a follow up after 30 days. I noticed in the data there was high customer engagement (opens and clicks) with the first email and very low engagement with the second. Additionally, customer service requests from new customers and attrition were highest during the customer’s first month.
The client thought that sending these two emails would help support and retain customers. Yet, the timing was off. The first day email was too soon to be meaningful to customers who hadn’t spent time with the product yet. The 30-day email was too late to catch customers who had become frustrated or unaware of the product features. We used the data to re-engineer the email series (as well as added additional emails) and saw new customer satisfaction and retention increase.
Starts with Awareness
Communication fails. It’s part of life. We all have misunderstandings with friends and family and misalignment with clients and customers. It happens by design because of the complexity we each bring to any given environment.
Yet, this reality shouldn’t be met with a defeated attitude. Ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s prison. An awareness of how communication fails gives us the opportunity to be more intentional about the interactions we have with each other. This leads to good outcomes, like healthier relationships, more effective meetings, and more satisfied customers.