Coach’s Corner Blog

Why It’s Hard to Communicate Clearly (and What to Do About It)

July 30, 2014 by 2 Comments

Businessman Scratching His Head

In my last corporate role, we merged our operations with our European partner to create a worldwide organization that was owned by 14 International airlines. Our partner had been headquartered in England, so I really didn’t expect that the language would ever be a barrier to connecting. Boy was I wrong about that!

Early in the dialogue about compensation and benefits as we worked on the merger, I was asked about our pension “scheme”. Now to me, when you create a scheme it is to take advantage of another, hence when someone is described as a “schemer” that is not a good thing. The second definition of the word scheme in the dictionary is “a secret plan, plot, intrigue”, hence someone is scheming against another. But the first definition of scheme is a “systematic design or plan”, hence an accurate description of a pension plan. But, the common use of the word scheme in the U.S. created a breakdown in communications.

When our CEO was in the offices in England to deliver a very challenging message about some budget cuts, we asked what the employee reaction was. We were told they were “positively gob smacked”. Having no idea what that meant, we were told that their mouths (gob) hung open (smacked) in disbelief!

Now both of these can point to transatlantic and national cultural differences, but they also reflect how difficult it can be to convey a clear message in a language as imprecise as English – be it of the American or English variety. This chart can help to explain this:

Message Feedback Diagram

Let me explain this complex model in some detail:

  • SENDER: The person who composes the message.
  • MESSAGE SENT: There is an INTENDED meaning to this message.
  • SENDER COMMUNICATION FILTER: This is how the receiver ENCODES their message with their biases, support or opposition to the message, vocabulary, technical jargon and any emotion that is attached as well – eager anticipation, anger, dread, joy, etc.
  • ORGANIZATIONAL NOISE: There is always some noise or “buzz” about what’s happening in any organization. All organizations are political to a certain extent since some people gain or lose influence or power depending on how decisions are made. Think of the rumor mill during a reorganization or the acquisition or merger of a company. This colors all perceptions and interpretations, no matter how inaccurate it may be.
  • RECEIVER COMMUNICATION FILTER: This is how the receiver DECODES their message with their biases, support or opposition to the message, vocabulary, technical jargon and any emotion that is attached as well – eager anticipation, anger, dread, joy, etc.
  • MESSAGE RECEIVED: There is a PERCEIVED meaning to the message that was sent. There are only three alternatives here between what was INTENDED and what was PERCEIVED.
  • CONSISTENT: The message came through as intended.
  • INCONSISTENT: The receiver filters or the organizational noise created a misperception from what the sender intended.
  • JUST CONFUSED: The receiver just didn’t understand the message. Hopefully they will admit they didn’t and pursue clarity with the sender.
  • RECEIVER(S): The person(s) who gets the message.

If this is not enough of a cautionary tale about the complexity of communicating clearly, then consider the last piece of the puzzle on the bottom of the chart – the Message Feedback. It is what and how the receiver responds to the message. This chart may be a little misleading because:

  1. The process reverses itself and the receiver’s response goes through the same filters and noise on the way back to the sender.
  2. Given the large volume of communications we receive, you are not guaranteed to get ANY response.
  3. It is not wise to assume that no response is agreement or understanding.
  4. Hubris and pride get in the way of others admitting they may not understand your message or be willing to reach out to establish clarity.
  5. Many people avoid conflict and will not speak up even if they disagree.

Please do not despair, dear reader. Here are some healthy things to do to manage the effectiveness and clarity of your messages. Pick a couple that make sense to you and try them for your more important and complex communications in the next 30 days:

  • Use the “Grandpa Bob” test. Would Bob, who is not current about your work, get at least the gist of what you are trying to convey?
  • Do you have someone on your team that likes and is good at editing – your assistant or someone else. Each of my posts on this blog get two different edits!
  • If you have any concerns, especially for important messages, reach out and ask a receiver and get some feedback. Ask them if it was clear and if they have any suggestions for improving it. You’ll never know unless you ask.
  • If something goes wrong, remember how complex this is. Keep at it.
  • When working across continents, avoid words you know will cause trouble – e.g. never use the term pension “scheme” here in the U.S. It may be technically right, but is still too risky. Be purposeful about avoiding jargon.
  • Do all you can to analyze where and how good communication works in your organization and seek out those who do it the best.
  • Seek out ways to learn to be a better writer. A friend of mine, Jane Curry, and her partner Diana Young have a great book on the topic, Be A Brilliant Business Writer.

All the best in your communication efforts! I look forward to your comments and suggestions.


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    Naresh Dhiman July 30, 2014, 2:59 pm

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.


      Willy August 7, 2014, 1:57 pm

      Naresh: Thanks for the feedback. I hope all is going well for you and your team. Willy


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