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Communication is a walk in the park – or is it?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw



This quote came to mind after a recent visit to my local park when a group of nursery age children arrived through the gate all holding on to a rope. As they stopped to be literally unleashed, one of the two adults called out, “Now are you going to behave nicely, or run around making a noise?” There was a disconcerted mumble in response.


He tried again, this time sounding annoyed, “I didn’t hear a yes or no. Are you going to behave nicely, or run around making a noise?” This time there was a mixture of yes and no’s, which again didn’t impress him. At this point I walked away muttering to myself that he hadn’t asked a yes or no question.


I’m sure his intention was to encourage a fun play in the park. I’m also guessing that he was a bit anxious about their behaviour, so he unwittingly shared his best and worst case scenarios with them. It was clear to him which option was correct, but he didn’t think about the impact his words would have on the children.


From the perspective of his audience, he offered two valid options. It was obvious to me that even if they understood which was the preferred option, they had no idea how to respond to his question in a way that he would be happy with. Young children often broadcast what they are thinking through their body language and most of them were physically squirming. It was a very uncomfortable exchange to witness.


If only he’d thought about it, he just needed to cut his question down to, “Are you going to behave nicely.” Or even just, “Play nicely now.” Then only one option of behaviour would have been offered, and probably accepted by most of the children.


Most people think communication is quite straightforward, but to be fair to that guy, miscommunication is not unusual. I’m sure we can all think of times when what we said was received in an entirely unexpected way.


One time when my son was about 4 and I was feeling very frustrated with him I said, “You’re driving me up the wall!” He looked at me and burst out laughing, repeating the sentence like I had made a joke. I realised that he had created a picture in his mind of him actually driving me up the wall in a little car and it had been very funny to him. It made me laugh too when I realised how literally he had taken my words.


I also created confusion once when speaking to work colleagues. I am from Scotland, where grocery shopping can be referred to as ‘messages’, for example “I’m going to the shops to get my messages.” When I said something like this to my English colleagues, I could not understand the looks of total confusion on their faces till another scot explained it to me. I then laughed for ages at how ludicrous what I said must have seemed to them. They were wondering what sort of business model I had where my messages (phone etc) were left at a supermarket till I collected them. It still makes me laugh.


Words are not neutral, we don’t all hear things in the same way. For example, where two people are talking about their experiences at school, if one loved school and has many happy memories and the other was relentlessly bullied, they are unlikely to have a shared set of assumptions and memories to form the basis of a happy chat.


Imagine how it would land on the one who had been bullied, when the other starts talking about all the laughs they had in the PE changing rooms? Especially if that was the venue for the other person’s bullying. So much of our conversation is based around shared assumptions, I’m sure you can imagine just how many ways this conversation could become tricky.


As a coach, when I get an unexpected response to something I’ve said, I’m always checking to see if there is an issue of understanding, or if what I said has triggered something in their inner world. Something that might not mean much to me, but which is highly significant and emotionally charged for them.


Communicating clearly is an art form and one of the most useful rules I have learnt is that the responsibility for what gets communicated lies with the person speaking. If I walk up to someone and start talking and they look confused I can either assume there is something wrong with them, or I can choose to explain myself more fully.


Taking responsibility for the response you get is very helpful. When you see the reaction you get as feedback, it allows you to make choices about what you do about it. If your starting point when you get a confused reaction is that you might not have made yourself clear, that can be beneficial for both sides. (Obviously there are exceptions to this, please do not think I am encouraging mansplaining here!)


There are many layers to communication but if you adopt this approach of taking responsibility for the reaction you get, it not only allows you to improve how you express yourself, it makes it easier for you to ask others for clarification when you are on the receiving end of confusing communication.


As George Bernard Shaw suggests, we shouldn’t assume communication has occurred without seeking confirmation. How clear have you been? Did you get an appropriate response? How can you double check?


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