The Greatest Impediment to Communication is the Illusion that it is Actually Happening
I originally published this January 5, 2008. It is as relevant today as it was then!
The business of Application Design mainly depends on great communication. What great communication means to us though, after many years of doing this with dozens or hundreds of people, is to pay attention to the above statement. Remember the kids game where you line them up and whisper something in the ear of the first kid, then have them whisper it to the next and the next and then write down what the phrase was the last kid heard? Invariably it bears little resemblance to the phrase from the beginning. Well if you have ever tried it with adults, it does no work much better. I do not know what it is that makes this so hard, a psychologist or philosopher might have an idea, but I am not sure it really matters. The fact that it happens is the fact that needs attention.
If you and I talk for 10 minutes about a subject, you may think you know the pictures that you have put in my mind, and likewise, I may know the pictures I think you are envisioning. If you assume that what you are picturing is what I am picturing exactly, you are nearly certainly guaranteed bad communication. That is what I mean by the illusion that it is actually happening. Skepticism is key to good communication. I can be very sure that the picture I think I am painting for you is not the one you are seeing. The difference may be a subtle or a not so subtle amount.
I try to keep in mind always that the more I am aware of this problem, the more I can ask you to restate the picture and listen for differences that indicate the discrepancy. The more my listener is aware, the more they can look for sentences or words that do not exactly fit and stop me to ask. The more we do that exercise, the more chance both of us have to hone in on the same vision. We can only do that if we believe that communication is difficult and unlikely to happen without careful attention. Success comes when we let go of the illusion that communication is actually happening.
About once a month I get into a conversation that just starts going the wrong way. The response I get is not what I expected by a large degree, usually I notice it because I am expecting a good response and get a negative one. Sometimes these are very difficult to reverse because a word that you intended to mean one thing has been interpreted to mean something entirely different. Sometimes the conversation can go a dozen sentences or more from that point of discrepancy with both parties thinking they are saying the same thing. Yet, if there were bubbles above their heads showing thoughts, they would be diametrically opposed and it would be easy to see why. Of course you would laugh about that and draw it up as a cartoon in the New Yorker. Unfortunately in the real world, if you do not pay very close attention, things can turn out poorly.
Language is a hugely powerful tool. Definitions must be agreed upon or the language does not work. The more you pay attention to the language of your life, the more benefit you will get from the rich communications that can occur when language is used concisely.