“The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw

When I share this quote in keynotes and training, almost the entire audience nods their head and smiles. They signal agreement.

Why the illusion?

Every day, people say things. The person sharing their brilliance remains confident in their ability to communicate. The audience remains equally confused, confident only that nothing was gained.

There is more to this quote than a tacit agreement of a common experience. The reference to an illusion cleverly teases out the difference between definition and expectation.

To understand the impact of the quote requires three elements:

  • literal definition of communication
  • implied expectation of communication
  • common experience of communication

The difference between definition and expectation

Communication is defined simply as the act of imparting or sharing information between parties. When someone says something to another, communication did take place. It just wasn’t very good.

No illusion. Communication only stipulated information is shared. Cue confusion.

The word communication carries an implied expectation of understanding. When a communicator shares a message, they expect the audience to understand. Generally, they expect an action as a result.

What happens when the audience doesn’t understand?

The common experience of communication

A hotel lobby provides a perfect backdrop to consider the experience of communication. Sit in the middle of the lobby (in a socially acceptable manner). No cell phone, tablet, or laptop. The goal is to be present, but to observe. Try it out.

When I did this a while back in a hotel in Los Angeles, I experienced the flash and glow from ten television screens, each on a different channel. I saw three different newspapers available, two hotel kiosks, an ATM, and three public computer work stations. I counted on one hand the number of people without a cell phone attached to their ear (or headset).

The reality of communication confusion

People are inundated with “messages” and communication seeking attention. Easy to observe in a hotel lobby, airport terminal or other gathering spots, the distractions continue in the workplace and at home.

Overwhelmed and distracted from the beginning, what a presenter considers communication is often ignored, registered as noise, or misunderstood entirely. Expecting the audience to invest the time and effort to discern value and act accordingly is a common fallacy (I call this the Perfect Message Fallacy).

The reality of the experience of communication is that the audience rarely understands a message in the way the communicator expected, if at all.

The downward cycle of communication confusion

The conflict between definition, expectation, and experience results in a perpetual downward cycle. Each communicator remains confident in their ability and clings to the expectation of understanding. Each audience, comprised of communicators, remains confused.

Ultimately, people grow frustrated, disconnect, and focus on what matters to them.

Consequences of communication confusion

As people disengage, they grow more disconnected from the consequences of their actions (see: Human Paradox Gap). Worse, future efforts to influence behavior change are resisted. The struggle to realize and demonstrate business value grows more complicated, and more expensive, too.

Desensitized to the current approaches of communication, everything takes longer, requires more effort and often results in more frustration.

Break the cycle to end communication confusion

Everyone communicates. Everyone is an audience. Caught in the conflict between the illusion and the experience, people recognize and cite the on-going challenges of communication as a barrier to organizational success.

While most people believe communication needs to change, few see it as their role. Confused, frustrated, people feel powerless to change. This is further exacerbated by a constant demand for better — and more — communication without explanation of what, how or why.

To break the cycle, we first have to step back and reconsider communication, define terms and model results. Stay tuned for more.

About the Author Michael Santarcangelo

The founder of Security Catalyst, Michael develops exceptional leaders and powerful communicators with the security mindset for success.

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