Why does communication so often fail?

Recently, I attended a seminar on «Communication and Business Performance». The lecturer introduced the topic with the question, why communication so often fails. This is one of these naive, but epiphanic questions, which hit you like a flash, because you have never though about them. As nobody in the class forwarded an answer, the lecturer explained, what lead him to ask this beautiful question.

We all professionals in communication, but …

He startet with Watzlawicks first axiom of communication: You can not not communicate. According to Watzlawick communication happens all the time, even if you do not speak, lying in your bed with closed eyes and plugs in your ears. The message you send to somebody, who calls you, is : «Sorry, I am sleeping and will not take your call». So the absence of speach is in itself a kind of communication. That is what Watzlawicks first axiom is about.

And sheds light on why everyone of us has been communicating in every moment for the whole lifetime. As I am 36 years old, I have 36 years experience in the field. Therefore I am supposed to be an expert in communicating. And so are you!

But look at daily life. How many times you feel that you were missunderstood or that your collegue did not get the point you wanted you show him? And how often does it happen that you and your collegue talk, talk and talk without coming to a common understanding? Hence, my lecturer put his finger on situations, in which everyone is captured several times a day, but nobody understands why and how to get out of them. Why are there so many missunderstandings?

What follows in this text is not a theory or something like that. There are just a few thoughts about the problem to give you an idea, why communication can fail – and actually fails. However, I will not name each and every possible source of communication failure, but just the important ones. To this end I will employ a communication model. It is a really simple one, contains a sender and a receiver, the message and the communication channel. Furthermore it depicts «noise», which represents anything outside the relation between sender and receiver that could affect the communication adversely.

communication_model

A story of communication failure

Peter and Christine study at the same university. They regularily go for lunch together, and so they do this Monday. They are sitting at a table talking to each other. Let us now have a closer look at what happens. Peter, let us say, is the sender. That is, he has an idea in mind, which he would like to share with Christine. Having an idea is, in general, not a source of communication failure, because an idea arises within the mind of a person. Christine will not get aware of Peters idea, unless he encodes it in a language he and Christine are familiar with and speaks his thoughts out. By the term language I do not just mean English, German, French, Spain an the like, but also the wordings as well as the styles or slangs an official language contains. So Peter should choose the proper words to talk to Christine. For instance: «What are your plans for next weekend?» is much more understandable for Christine, decent young lady, than «What’s the deal for next Sunday?». Hence, the first source of missunderstandings is the encoding of an idea into a language and style that the receiver is not familiar with.

communication_failure

Next the communication model tells you that the message gets to the receiver through a channel. For instance Peter can talk to Christine face to face. But he can also decide to share his idea with Christine by sending her a SMS or an e-mail, even if both of them are sitting next to each other. By doing so Peter would risk that communication fails for one of these two reasons: Christine finds it strange to get an e-mail from somebody she is sitting at the same table and refuses to answer. Secondly, Christines smartphone is off as it always is over lunch. Again, there will be no conversation. The second source of communication failure is the choise of the wrong channel, a message is passed from the sender to the receiver.

As Christines ears pick up Peters sending, her brain will decode the message and it will produce an idea or image, which should be as similiar as possible to the one Peter initially had in mind. However Christine might missinterpret what Peter said. For instance: Peter asked her, what she is planning for the next weekend. She might understand either «Peter is interessed in my hobbies» or «Peter wants to meet me on Saturday evening». For her, the first interpretation feels pleasent, the second awkward. Depending on her interpretation Christine will choose, how to answer Peters question. The decoding of a message by the receiver is a third source of communication failure.

Last but not least, there is noise. Noise in general means disturbances arising from the environment and affecting a system, situation or activity antagonisticly to purpose. So in the case of the conversation between Peter and Christine, noise would come from all the other people talking to each other, from a radio playing in the backgroud or from the kitchen, in which the cooks rattle with pans and dishes. As the noise gets so intensive that Peter and Christine can no longer understand a word, communication between them fails.

Let me end with a short summary : Misstaken encoding and decoding, wrong choise of the channel and noise are four of the main reasons, why communication fails.