Miscommunication can result in catastrophe at worst, wasted time at best.

Late at night one day before last Thanksgiving, I found myself lost in an unfamiliar subdivision trying to find a house where I was supposed to pick up my daughter. She had gotten a ride home from college with a friend who lived about 50 miles away. I had jotted down the meandering directions to the girl's house, and followed them perfectly to locate little Thornapple Street without any problem. Once on Thornapple, though, my expedition went haywire.

I followed it "to the end" as instructed, but the street addresses were difficult to see in the dark and when they did come into view were out of whack with the number I was given. I wondered if some homeowner might call the cops seeing this stranger driving back and forth and stopping to inspect darkened homes. Finally I had to backtrack and find a gas station to make a phone call for further instructions.

I distinctly remembered being told to follow Thornapple "to the end." Turned out that I was supposed to go "to the end of the block" after turning onto Thornapple, not to the end of the street, which reached a dead end six or seven blocks farther away. The girl's father who gave me directions perhaps cut short his sentence, or maybe I didn't listen carefully enough. In either case, I ended up wasting time and feeling stupid.

Consequences Large & Small

In the grand scheme of things, this was a pretty inconsequential miscue, but it made me think of all the other times that subtle communication glitches cause grief. Once I heard a story about a military plane that had crashed due to pilot error. Investigators found that just short of touching down, the pilot determined that the runway was too short for his approach, so he decided to circle around and give it another try. "Takeoff power!" he yelled to his co-pilot, wanting of course extra lifting thrust. But the co-pilot interpreted that message as "take off power," and turned off the engines. Then there was the grocer who ordered 500 turkeys for the Thanksgiving season. Suddenly, his sales began to plummet. Afraid he couldn't sell all the turkeys, he called his distributor and told him to "cut the order in half" Sure, enough, his 500 turkeys arrived, each cut in half. Another story has it that a new secretary at a large defense firm walked up to a paper shredder and stood before it with a puzzled look. A senior co-worker noticed her confusion and asked if he could be of help. "Yes, how does this thing work?" asked the novice. "It's simple," said the veteran, taking the stack of paper out of the woman's hands and running it through the shredder. "But I just wanted to make some copies," she informed him a bit too late.

Miscommunications like these routinely complicate our daily lives, and occasionally result in tragedy. In the business world, think of how many misunderstandings arise from statements such as: "I'll have that for you in a little while." "A little while" to the speaker might mean a week. To the person receiving the message, it might mean within a day. This is a good way to lose clients. How many boilers have been delivered to job sites only to be sent back because they turned out to be water instead of steam or vice versa? How many jobs have been delayed because the required closets were found to be floor-mounted rather than wall-hung, or the wrong color, or round instead of elongated? How often has the pipe arrived on the job before the hangers? Most mechanical contractors would have a hard time trying to recall a project that ran without such glitches. Engineers by and large are more precise than most people in their written communications. After all, yours is a profession defined by exactitude, and this shows up in the articles and correspondence that I get from engineers.

Yet, precision by itself does not equate with communication. Engineers' writing tends to be precise to a fault, missing the forest for the trees. I have noticed that engineers are apt to document the technical details to the nth degree without ever quite explaining the significance of the subject at hand. It is like diagramming the blocking in a football play without specifying who gets the ball.

The Art of Listening

The spoken word is even easier to misinterpret. This is because we can listen much faster than we can speak. The average person speaks at about 135 to 175 words a minute, but the person listening can process 400 to 500 words a minute. Listeners tend to use the extra time daydreaming, or anticipating what the speaker will say next, or planning their response to the speaker. It's like trying to listen to two voices at the same time without really hearing what either is saying. A careful listener can force another person to communicate more clearly simply by asking questions about gaps in information. Here are some techniques to help you master the art of listening.
  • Take Notes. Even if you never refer to them, the very act of writing something down on paper forces you to concentrate on what the other party is saying. Don't make the notes too detailed, however. Just jot down key words, phrases and numbers. Otherwise you will miss some of the speaker's points.

    Note taking also flatters the other party. It tells them that what they have to say is interesting or important.

  • Ask Questions. This, too, flatters the speaker and forces you to concentrate on listening. Get in the habit of asking people to clarify and elaborate things you don't fully understand.
  • Gaze Intently at the Speaker. During conversation is one time when it is not impolite to stare. Quite the contrary; it's impolite to look elsewhere when a person is talking. Make eye contact with the speaker. When your eyes wander, so does your mind. Daydreaming sets in.
  • Sit at the Edge of Your Chair. Being too comfortable also promotes daydreaming. You'll be more attentive and find it easier to maintain eye contact if you lean forward toward the speaker.
  • Don't Inject Your Own Thoughts--unless you are sure the other party has had a full say. Some people waffle around before getting to the point they want to make. Give them time to tell you what they want to say in their own way. And don't rehearse a response while they're still talking.
  • Tune in to Unspoken Messages. Studies have found that only 7% of spoken communication gets conveyed by the choice of words. Facial expressions and body language account for most communication, 55%, with the other 38% coming through in one's tone of voice.
And remember, you always learn more by listening than by talking.