Communication doesn’t always succeed.
But it never fails.
We talk about communication failing all the time. However, we need to recognize that an unanticipated outcome is not the same as “failure.”
Communication isn’t an on/off switch. We’re not “communicating” or “not communicating.” Communication doesn’t happen or not happen. It’s always there. You can’t not communicate.
The idea “communication doesn’t fail” probably sounds counter-intuitive. It may sound jarring. Perhaps, this runs against what you think you know about communication.
“Of course communication fails!”, you might be saying to yourself, “It fails all the time!”
Let me give an example that might change your mind.
Imagine you’re about to have a tough conversation with a friend. It’s something about your relationship: something they did, something you did, something you want them to do. The specifics don’t matter, but in this imagined example, you need to have a difficult conversation. You are unsure how they will react.
You have the conversation. You talk to them. You say things, they probably do as well. And it goes badly. Like, really badly. You were fumbling your words. You were unsure of yourself. Maybe you phrased something poorly and your friend’s feelings got hurt. Maybe they weren’t listening. Maybe they said something mean. Maybe they reacted with ambiguity or indifference to what you said. Maybe they reacted harshly and stormed out.
Maybe you did.
Did communication “fail”?
Your gut instinct is probably to say, “Yes, of course, it probably couldn’t have failed worse!” Everybody walked away feeling terrible! How could that communication have been a success?
Those feelings, experiences, and misunderstandings — they still came from communication. Communication happened. It didn’t go well, but it didn’t fail to occur. You just didn’t get the outcome you expected.
Communication is still there even when you think it is “not working.” Remember, you can’t not communicate. This is the inescapable maxim. Not saying something is saying something. Saying something badly is still saying something. When things don’t go well, they still go. It’s all communication.
Now, I admit it’s easy to think about really bad communication as “failing.” At a basic level, it’s ok to think in that way. There are better and worse ways to communicate. And of course, we want to communicate better. We can improve communication in all sorts of ways. But it can’t fail. It always works.
Perceptions of Failure
We perceive communication failure all the time. We talk about “misunderstandings” and “miscommunication.” Communication “breaks down.” We lament that we have a hard time connecting with others. We tell ourselves, “They didn’t understand me,” so we assume we’ve failed to communicate.
There’s no consensus about what communication failure is. This is the case among experts too. Research actually shows that most communication errors are inconsequential (Dismukes, 2010). Even in high stakes communication situations with lives on the line — such as airplane crews — people experience many, mostly small, communication failures. Yet communication goes on and, for the most part, disasters are averted. Why is everyday communication any different? We don’t even notice thousands of small “failures” that happen as communication hurtles onward with others. We roll with the punches all the time when we communicate.
We need to view the whole question of “failure” differently.
“Mis”communication; Or, Unintended Consequences
When we communicate, we are always interpreting others. Yet, if something we say has unintended consequences, or if the message that appears to arrive is different than the one we intended, we often presume there was miscommunication.
Maybe you didn’t say something the right way or use the right words. This doesn’t mean communication has failed. Unintended consequences from communication is a feature, not a bug. This is the magic of communication playing out.
You can fight against this, or you can lean into it.
Misunderstandings fool us into thinking communication hasn’t happened, when two communicators simply have divergent perspectives. My intended meaning and your understanding may not overlap as much as is desirable and perhaps we’re not understanding one another at all. But mutual understanding isn’t required for communication to have occurred.
The other person may not ever think exactly like you. Unintended consequences — like unanticipated meaning or different interpretations — doesn’t mean communication didn’t work.
It is a selfish trap of the individual to think that communication didn’t work just because your intended meaning isn’t what resulted.
Misunderstandings come from communication just as understanding does. Differences in understanding do not mean communication failed.
Misunderstandings involve a difference between the speaker’s intended meaning and the listener’s attributed meaning. These misunderstandings may occur frequently, for example, between a native and non-native speaker. We figure out ways around these misunderstandings. Even among people who speak the same language, and know each other well, we have many communication errors that go completely unnoticed and just manage to get repaired in the flow of a conversation.
Don’t get hung up when communication doesn’t result in perfect agreement! You’re still communicating!
Stopping Communication or Total Disagreement
We frequently talk about “communication breakdown.” Led Zeppelin wrote a song about it. It’s not “always the same” as Robert Plant might have you believe (but that’s still a great song). This idea of breakdown is heavily influenced by linear thinking about communication where information is transferred and transmitted from place to place. As if we can think in the same ways about humans communicating as we can about signals not arriving because of a network failure or to wires getting cut. That’s not how communication works.
Sometimes we perceive “breakdown” as so severe that the communicators themselves notice problems. Maybe they walk away from each other, separate, or isolate themselves. Maybe they have stop and spend time diagnosing and repairing what is going wrong. Noticeable instances of communication breakdown require communicators to re-focus the goals of their conversation toward better results. Of course, there aren’t guarantees that attempts to repair communication will work.
High Reliability Communication, A Different Animal
Communication breakdown in high-reliability organizing — air traffic controllers and pilots, firefighters, military, surgical teams, emergency response to name just a few — has its own problems and it’s own set of circumstances. Breakdowns in these sorts of circumstances are far more serious, because they potentially result in the death or injury of those involved or bystanders. Often, in these sorts of situations, breakdown can be more about signals not getting from here to there.
Think of the failure of a communications network which leaves forest firefighters isolated from commanders who have information about how the fire is moving, where points of attack and retreat are, and have information about when supplies will arrive. Or imagine the different ways firefighters pass information and directions to one another surrounded by thick smoke and chaos in an emergent and ever-changing situation.
In these sorts of high-reliability situations, we see more repetition and protocol, usage of lists, specific language usage specifically designed to pass certain information in particular ways, strict flows through hierarchy and processes, repetition, fail-safes, and multiple channels. Surgeons and operating room staff have standards and procedures, for example, to count and track the sponges present in the surgical area. They use specific procedures to make sure nothing is left behind inside the patient so an infection doesn’t occur.
Where the stakes are higher, there are different communication questions to examine. Despite strict procedures, surgeons lose sponges. Firefighters get cut off. Regular conversations don’t typically work in these ways.
Errors in Communication: I Bought the Wrong Pita Bread
We perceive many different failures when we communicate. We might feel we are saying the wrong thing, giving the wrong information, or interpreting incorrectly. But errors aren’t necessarily failure. We make errors all the time when we communicate and we are often able to self-correct and the communication ship sails on.
A while back, I was on an impromptu trip to the supermarket. As usually happens when one of us is grocery shopping, my partner and I were texting back and forth. We added things to the list as Leslie checked supply levels of household staples, like oatmeal, green salsa, and tortillas. I text her, “What brand of giardinera?” “How many onions do we need?”
While perusing the avocados, we had an exchange related to a Mediterranean meal plan for that week. It went:
That’s it. I asked and confirmed, she probed and verified. If you talk to someone while you’re grocery shopping like I do, your conversations probably look similar.
I got all the groceries we needed but bought the wrong pita. I bought white instead of wheat — not what Leslie wanted. There was an error. Communication failed.
Or did it?
Sure, I made a mistake. Does it much matter? Probably not. It depends on how angry Leslie gets at having the incorrect pita, I suppose. Or it depends on a partner who seems to be listening and said he knew, but didn’t.
Would you say communication failed? I still got pita. It wasn’t the end of the world. Leslie was hardly more than mildly annoyed. She only exclaimed, “these aren’t the right pita,” to which I responded, “ah dang it, really? I’m sorry.” We talked about it for 5 seconds and life moved on.
Did communication fail? I’d sure argue no. It didn’t get the exact outcome my partner wanted, but it still happened. Information was sent but not properly received, perhaps lost in the messy process of communicating. Meaning and understanding were created, outcomes were reached. We ate the Mediterranean tapas dinner, and it was delicious.
The idea that communication can fail comes from a sender-centric perspective. We believe that communication has a meaning that must get across for it to occur. But communication doesn’t work like that. Communicating happens between people — in the middle.
People invoke miscommunication and failure to describe outcomes they do not like. We think communication fails for lots of reasons. You don’t have to agree with someone or understand their position on a matter to communicate with them. People can be fully self-aware that they disagree and hold divergent views. They are still communicating, without failure. Common understanding, while desirable, is not necessary for communication to occur.
We have to get away from the idea of universal understanding as the measure of successful communication. Rather than think about communication as your message getting across to the other person think of communication as to where and how much you overlap with them. Where do you connect? Has our relationship moved forward? Does it advance something we’re working on together? By focusing on perfection, we might miss how communication works perfectly well.
This is a more valuable way to think about communication.
Communication leads us to new places. It isn’t about what’s in my head getting into your head. It’s about the shared process of connecting that lies between us. We only fail in communicating if we measure success as the intended message being agreed on. This is not the nature of communication. You might disagree with someone or be unable to get on the same page. In some cases, you might fail to get your point across.
Communication has less than optimal states, but it does not fail.
Dismukes, R. K. 2010. “Understanding and Analyzing Human Error in Real World Operations” In E. Salas & D. Maurino (Eds.). Human Factors in Aviation, 2nd ed., 335–74. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.