Why are communications and people so often misunderstood?

By Ben Fletcher
Ben is Professor of Personal & Organisational Development at the University of Hertfordshire.
It's all in learning the same language (in a manner of speaking).
I am going to say something profound and I know you are going to think it is trite. So I need to prepare you a little. I will tell you when you are prepared.
People do not communicate well. Poor communication is nearly always the number one complaint that employees have about their organisation. It does not seem to matter how much effort the company puts into communications, no matter how many newsletters or briefing sessions, no matter how much training managers are given in communication, and how much is spent on IT solutions. Communications are never good enough. Everything that organisations do to facilitate communication fails to keep people 'informed'.
The situation is probably even worse than you think. People feel ill-informed even in the areas you would imagine they should know about. Even in the areas you KNOW they have received memos about, or been sent the relevant documentation. So, employees feel left out and less committed as a result. They do not work as well as they might because they do not feel valued.
Why is this failure so marked? This is the point I talked of: you are now prepared. People do not talk the same language. This is at the root of all communication problems. I do not mean that you speak Chinese and I speak English. It is worse than that because we both think we use the same language. The secret to good communication is to mean the same things when we use words, but I would contend that the majority of miscommunication is a result of people using the same words in different ways. Yes, I am saying that the same words mean different things to different people. That is what is happening at the moment if you do indeed think this trite, or if you do not understand my point.
Let me try to show you what I mean. If I tell you that 'the amount is going to be increased by 30%, and it will be backdated to 01' you will probably be nonplussed. But if you knew I was talking about your salary, this would have a different meaning to you.
Words get most of their meaning in their context. And that means 'emotional meaning' (how you feel about it) and 'action meaning (what you will do), as well as semantic meaning. Meaning is not a matter of dictionary definition. The reason people do not read the communications organisations put out is because they do not mean what was written. The writer 'owns' the meanings in a way the reader does not. Ever thought why you see your own make of car on the highway when you never noticed them before? Or why, if you want to buy a new product, you suddenly see advertisements for them everywhere? Your ownership (or want) primes your understanding of the communications/perceptions. The same is true in all verbal communication. People only have the same meanings for words when they 'own' them in the same way - when they mean the same emotionally, behaviourally and semantically. Employees do not read important documents/memos/communications because they do not know they need to own them. If they did, they would. Communication would happen.
There is the political dimension too. It is not always possible to share meanings. In the business world there is often a gulf between what can be said and what should be said. Managers cannot talk about many issues until they can go into the public domain. The public domain has to be manipulated, just as the release of information (meaning) does.
The solution to problems of communication is equally trite. If you want to communicate, you either have to use the language of your listeners, or teach them yours. This is the secret to selling anything, yourself or your products and services. It is the secret of successful politics too. So when you say something that appears absolutely plain and clear to you think again: the greater the 'contextual' distance between you and the target of your message, the less plain and clear it is.
(c) Professor Ben (C) Fletcher, 2002.
This is a series on 'The HOW, WHAT & WHY of Business and Management?' written by Professor Ben (C) Fletcher.
Ben is Professor of Personal & Organisational Development at the University of Hertfordshire. He is the founder of FIT Science which has taken over 20 years to develop. He is an Oxford doctorate, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, a Chartered Health Psychologist, and was previously Dean (Director) of one of the larger UK University Business Schools for 6 years. He is on the Board of several companies, including being a founder director of The FIT Corporation Ltd. - the commercial arm of FIT Science. He is a member of the IOD. He has published extensively and lectured worldwide.
Ben can be contacted at bcf@fitcorporation.ac.uk, or at the company at bcf@fitcorporation.com.