The Illusion of Communication

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place – George Bernard Shaw

I heard this quote for the first time the other day and my immediate reaction was ‘oh how true’! For a whole variety of different reasons, communication can break down in lots of different ways.

It’s so frustrating to think you have said something, but to find out later that, well, you sort of haven’t really or at least not what you meant to say.

  • The first problem is that what we say is not always heard. This is not just the words that we physically say that may have been disguised by the interference of noise or some other interruption, but a message that we send out in other ways. This extends to the gestures we make, the pictures we paint, or in the digital world the e-mail, text or tweet we send that is simply not seen, heard or received.

  • Secondly, even if something is heard, it is not always understood. So, when we say “watch the dinner” we probably don’t mean keep looking at it, but more likely are asking someone to check it’s cooking okay and do something with it if it’s not. Or when we send an e-mail saying “I’ll see you at the meeting next Wednesday” (and no date) it does really depend on when the recipient is opening that e-mail as to what their immediate understanding of ‘next Wednesday’ is. The plethora of different methods of communicating these days are all subject to misinterpretation, with a variety of effects (some comedy, some more serious). Also in a beautifully diverse society, the way we actually interpret messages that are either deliberately vague or just open to suggestion can lead to a whole host of misunderstandings.

  • Even if we get to the point where we have heard and understood what has been said to us, we may not really agree or believe what we have heard. With each message we receive and understand we make an unconscious decision about whether we think that is right or not. This of course is what makes conversations interesting and leads us to have debates, discussions and sometimes arguments. But in our world of broadcasting information, where we often send out much more than we receive we may assume that people will attach the same importance to something or pick up an inference and essentially  ‘get’ what we have said, which may not always be the case.

  • If our message has been heard, understood and agreed with though, we like to know that what we have communicated has had an impact of some kind. Even it is saying good morning to someone, the impact is usually one of some kind of feeling of wellbeing and we like to know that this has happened. We like to feel that whatever we have said, or asked someone to do, has changed their day in some small way, or why would we have bothered in the first place. It may be that after getting the information the recipient is actually supposed to do something with it. For example, attend a meeting, or contact someone, or write a report, or buy something from the shop on the way home, or put out the rubbish bins….. If ultimately we don’t do what has been asked, requested, reminded etc then the communication in the first place has essentially failed.

There are of course many ways to repair things that go wrong in our communications. Our ability to communicate is what makes us great. We do it well, but we can also do it spectacularly badly. There are also so many reasons it can fail, from paying poor attention in the beginning, to not using the same language or not really appreciating the importance of what has been said. Sometimes it is instantly obvious when what we have said has not been well received or properly understood. Often however we may not realise and one of the big things that perhaps we need to remember is to check whether our communications have been a success or not. So before we go rushing off to ammend, improve or change the way we communicate, a good place to start would be to get some feedback on it in the first place. Is our communication an illusion, might we just not have bothered, or is it in fact spot on.

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