This famous line from the classic film Cool Hand Luke is unfortunately more prophetic than we might like to admit. We think of communication as a straightforward process: I talk, you listen, you talk, I listen, we understand each other. What’s so hard about that? Sometimes communication actually is that straightforward, but often it’s not.

The Bay of Pigs provides a dramatic example of communication gone wrong. When President John F. Kennedy asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their opinion on the invasion of Cuba in 1961, he was told that the proposed operation had “a fair chance of success.” The Joint Chiefs didn’t explain what they meant by “a fair chance;” Kennedy presumed it meant a “good chance” of victory. Years later the author of the Joint Chiefs’ report said that, in his mind, a “fair chance” meant 3 to 1 against success. Because of this misunderstanding, the President approved the ill-fated attack that caused unnecessary deaths and led to a historic foreign policy debacle.

People commonly assume that misunderstandings, as happened between Kennedy and his advisors, are quite rare. But the process of human communication is actually highly susceptible to error. Here are three ways communication can go off the rails when we interact with each other:

1. Language is susceptible to misinterpretation

Words, which make possible so much of our communication, are also a major factor in our miscommunication. One reason is that the meaning of words is more often than not in people, not in the words themselves. The overtones that one person attaches to a word may be very different from that which another person associates with the word. To some people, the word “restructuring” has positive connotations: it stands for efficiency and progress. To others, restructuring is the equivalent of heartless management and mass firings. Like beauty, meaning is in the mind of the beholder.


2. People seldom say exactly what they mean

As the writer EB White once noted, “When you say something, be sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.” There are two reasons for this. The first is that clear speaking requires clear thinking. Most often, though, we’re thinking of what we’re saying as we say it. Rarely are our thoughts organized and fully-formed before we speak. We don’t realize that we say “April” when we mean “August;” our brains know what we meant to say and don’t recognize the error. Depending on the context, listeners may pick up errors like this. Often they won’t.

To complicate matters, the speaker’s body language—tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, and posture—may communicate something different than what they’re saying. If your boss says to you “Great job” without looking up from her computer, you might take away a different message than her words conveyed, even if they were genuine.


3. Most of us are “lazy listeners”

The third problem has nothing to do with the words we use or the thoughts we speak. Even if you’ve expressed yourself as clearly as humanly possible, there is no guarantee that your message will be received as you intended. That requires attention and skill on the part of someone else—the listener.

Like speaking, true listening isn’t as common or effective as we might think. You’ve surely been to meetings where people take away astonishingly different meanings from the same conversation. This phenomenon is so common it even has a name: the Rashomon Effect.

When done well, listening conveys interest and empathy to the speaker. But it also serves another function in the communication process: quality control. Through restating the thoughts and feelings you heard the speaker communicate, the speaker knows if his or her intended message got through.

This kind of listening is uncommon for two reasons. The first relates to attention—our minds naturally wander. Understandably so: we can listen three-to-four times faster than the other person can talk. With all that spare time, no wonder we’re doing other things while someone else is speaking.

The second problem relates to what’s known as the illusion of understanding. We simply don’t recognize when miscommunication has occurred. We think we’re all on the same page until we experience the consequences—a shipment didn’t go out when it should have, supposedly agreed-upon actions weren’t taken after a meeting, follow-up with a customer did not occur.

What makes the illusion of understanding so troublesome is that, since people aren’t aware that miscommunication occurred, they don’t get a chance to correct the resulting problems until the damage has already been done. On those rare occasions when you suspect miscommunication may be occurring during the conversation itself, it takes little effort and even less time to correct course. That’s one of the key benefits of listening—to clarify and verify what others are intending to communicate in the moment, before things go awry.


Overcoming the failure to communicate

The point of this post is to illustrate some of the risks inherent in the way we communicate, risks we either overlook or fail to see. The good news is that, knowing these risks exist, you can take some simple steps to reduce their frequency and impact. The following three tips can help:

When you’re the speaker: Check in often to make sure the listener is tracking what you’re saying. Checking in is a way of making what you’re saying digestible for the listener. If you have a lot to say, pause every minute or two and ask the listener a brief question like “does that make sense?” “you with me so far?” “is that clear?” If they’re a million miles away in their minds, this will bring them back to the current conversation. And if they aren’t clear, this gives them an opportunity to ask a clarifying question to get realigned.

When you’re the speaker: To make sure you’ve been understood, ask the listener to summarize your point of view. That will help you fill in any gaps in understanding before leaving the topic at hand.

When you’re the listener: Great listeners do two things well. First, they demonstrate to the speaker with their body language that they’re paying attention. When you do this, you actually stay more present; your attention follows your behavior. The other thing they do well is that they occasionally restate the essence of what the speaker has communicated. When you’re the speaker, you’ll likely have to ask for this as noted above. When you’re the listener, be proactive and summarize what you’ve heard so the speaker knows you’re really listening and knows that the message is getting through.

Easy, right? These simple steps won’t guarantee mutual understanding 100% of the time but they will improve the quality of communication between you and others. Give them a try — what do you have to lose?

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