Friday, March 15, 2013

Guest Post: Communication Breakdown

As I mentioned yesterday, I am out of town for a few days and a few blogger friends of mine have agreed to write some guest posts for me to fill in the gaps. Today's post comes from TWF of The Wise Fool and Speaking in Foolish Tongues. He has many great insights, much of which center around the bible. I would say if you like what I write here you would most likely enjoy his writing as well, go check his stuff out if you haven't yet. Now on to today's post: Communication Breakdown (pic added by me found here)

I work in an industry were people get killed, and multimillion dollar pieces of equipment get turned into scrap metal faster than you can tie your shoes.  That's not the way it's supposed to be.  I'm not in the military, after all!  In fact, like many others, my industry spends millions in training each year to help prevent these catastrophes.

Training? Yeah, training.  A very significant portion of these disasters are the result of human error, and a hefty chunk of those are due to communication mistakes.

When you have a conversation, you are constantly translating, even when you are speaking your native language, because your precise definition of "is" may not match my definition of "is," and visa-versa.  Even when you think that you understand someone, the truth is that you only have an impression of what they have tried to tell you, and that may or may not be accurate.

So in my industry, we've implemented various Human Performance Tools to help mitigate these issues.  One of the best is 3-way communication.  Calm down.  It's not that kind of a 3-way.  ;-)

The principle is dirt simple, and incredibly effective.  It goes like this:

You say: "Bob, I want you to go turn on switch 1A."
Bob then replies "Surely you want me to go over to switch 1A and turn it on."
You then reply "Yes, I want you to go turn on switch 1A.  And don't call me Shirley."

OK, it doesn't go exactly like that.  I couldn't resist throwing in the classic Airplane surely/Shirley joke.  ;-)  But you get the idea.  You say something.  The person hearing repeats it in their own words, verifying that they have understood it.  You say it one more time again to verify that verification.  That simple step saves a lot of miscommunication, and a lot of lives.  And that brings us back to the Bible...

In the realm of religion, not only are lives on the line, but the eternal fate of souls are on the line as well.  It's pretty damn important to get the message out there correctly, and in a fashion which is easily understood.  Verses like Luke 9:45 and John 8:27 make it obvious that Jesus was pretty hard to understand at times.  Not only that, but a legacy of hundreds, if not thousands of Christian denominations have spawned over differences in interpretation.  Those differences arise mostly because things are not well defined and clearly communicated, which again leaves us interpreting our own particular meanings.

While this is squarely in the space of circumstantial evidence, I think that the lack of clear communication in the Bible is just one more reason to consider it to be the false workings of man.  Unless, of course, God is not really interested in saving everyone, as some of Hausdorff's posts have illustrated.  :-)

In case you are interested to know more about Human Performance Tools, I found this great summary of many of the common tools used in hazardous industries at the TVA website.


  1. Good observation. You'd think an all-knowing supreme being (and his human avatar) would know more about effective communication!

  2. Thanks again for the guest post TWF.

    Having a mathematical background, the idea of definitions is very important for me. In fact, one of the first things we have to do with new majors it drill into them how important it is to get definitions of things down perfectly. When you say we might have different definitions of "is", it might sound silly to most people but it is really a potential problem. If you say that 2 groups of things are the same, this group is like that group, what do you mean? Are the the same color, the same weight, the same price, literally the same objects, what do you mean?

    Once you attune yourself to looking for these types of things, you see potential miscommunications all over the place. It's actually incredibly common that people think they have said more than they really have. I find myself often asking for very slight clarification about what people said, it can be annoying sometimes (just ask my wife) but I think it solves more problems than it creates :)


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