Let you mind roam back to one of those most delightful occasions when some one “puts their foot in their mouth”. You know, the time when they say something and then realise that it has a whole other meaning, often rude or perhaps worse insulting. Then the fun begins when they try to wriggle out of it! “What I meant to say was…….”
You sat there in that strange half-world of delight at their discomfort and agony at their plight as they dig the hole deeper and deeper and deeper. You’re not sure whether to burst into hysterical laughter or just hide. You may even have been the unfortunate soul yourself.
Well, that situation is the proof of Wiio’s Laws of Communication, which fundamentally say if communication can go wrong, you can bet your life that it will. A key understanding in developing effective communications skills.
Professor Osmo Wiio, born in 1929, is a Finish academic and student of human communication. While he was a Member of Parliament he formulated his Laws. In that context, given what we see and hear of our politicians on TV, especially as we head towards a General Election in the UK, they are not at all surprising. They do, however, have a broader applicability to what you and I do every day.
Hopefully a quick review of Wiio’s Laws will be informative and helpful because we all become their victims, and most times we don’t even know it. Forearmed, as they say, is forewarned. You will note that Professor Wiio has a certain “tongue in cheek” humour!
Just to set the scene, ponder a moment the process required to transfer something from your mind to that of another person. Sci-Fi’s mind transfer and Star Trek’s Vulcan “mind melding” aside, there is an awful lot going on.
Ideas are turned into formulated concepts, concepts into words, words into sound waves, sound waves are mixed up with noise, sound waves are turned back into words, words into thoughts and thoughts back into concepts and ideas. That whole process is conditioned by our skill with language, our understanding of idioms, our knowledge of the context of the concepts transferred, how we feel, what we had for breakfast and whole load of other stuff too.
All that is going on before the recipient’s attention is diverted or they are preoccupied. It also assumes that both their and our vocal, auditory and mental faculties are functioning well on any given day; not to mention our willfulness. Do we even want to hear what is said?.
Its a wonder that we succeed in communicating anything at all and it all leads to the following:
If communication can fail it will fail.
No individual factor is significant alone, but taken all together the probability of failure is high
If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.
There is so much to contend with you cannot possibly neutralise all the risks
If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there is a misunderstanding.
If it looks like it worked easily and the recipient is happy he understood it his way not yours. How many times, like me, have you thought that you understood. You go away and then you begin to realise that it doesn’t make sense anymore?
If you are content with your message, communication will certainly fail.
If you’re content, then you styled the communication to satisfy yourself and you have failed to take into account the recipient and all those factors that work against his understanding.
Whatever we prepare, there are so many ambiguities in and around language that your message can be interpreted in several ways. I recall taking ages, carefully writing and re-writing an open letter that was to be published. I looked at it from every angle possible – honest I did. Imagine my horror when I received a letter of compliant because of the offence I had caused based on an interpretation I never saw at all! Ouch!
This can be tricky because they propagate their misunderstanding on your behalf. Done that, been there! Have you?
The hope is that if we say something enough times it will sink in. Well I suppose it does. Repetition does not clarify misunderstanding but reinforces it. It is also possible to overwhelm people with communication in a way that prevents them from absorbing it.
Perhaps not too important for our interpersonal communications but we see it in the press and TV all the time. Its not reality that matters but perception. This one is so often wilful too.
If it doesn’t directly affect us, even the most important and significant news item cannot compete against much more trivial concerns that have a personal impact.
We’ve all been here! That important moment when we have to say something, a question to answer. We think I know that one! The only guarantee is that when the perfect answer comes we are miles a way.
One of my communications flaws is, with absolute clarity of thought and understanding, to open a remark by saying something like: “There are three things I want to say…….” By the time I have finished the second one I have not a clue as to what the third one was. I now practice hard at not using that introduction in the hope of disguising my … ummm, err, what was I was going to say?
Take look at this post on Effective Communications Skills it gives you some useful tips on communication skills. You can also subscribe to The Creative Leader Bulletin, a free resource which is running a series on Effective Communication Skills.
Think on Wiio’s Laws and consider what you can do with your next email to counter the inevitable misunderstanding. May be you need to phone first to discuss the matter and follow up with the email.
What is the most amusing failure of communication that you have witnessed?