Unmasking the Poor Communication Culprit: From boardrooms to coffee shops

Remember this simple discussion technique, and when it comes to “effective” communication, you’ll stand out from everyone else, like a thinking person at a Donald Trump rally!

The great communication error is the assumption that humans share the same perspective on anything!

For example, how would you respond if I asked you, “Is Donald Trump trustworthy?”  (I’m using Trump for the simple reason that he’s the lowest-hanging fruit for this example)

Because Trump is such a polarizing phenomenon, most people will respond to that question with a knee-jerk reaction. However, there is only one “correct” response to that question, and yet most of us will completely overlook it.

I was once again reminded of this fatal communication error several weeks ago. My wife and I were entertaining some friends when the name of a mutual acquaintance popped up in conversation. A woman who works with this fellow began by saying, “Oh, he’s such a drama queen,”… and away we went.

My wife jumped in and began building her case supporting the alleged drama queen description. Someone else, who only knew him in passing, said he wasn’t sure that drama queen was a fair description. Someone else said, “he’s a narcissist, plain and simple.”

I admit that I would have waded into the conversation with my thoughts about his drama “queen-ness” or not, but I wasn’t sure what that term actually meant, so I asked everyone to define the term as they saw it. Surprisingly, everyone had a different definition … some radically different.

And therein lies the blackhole of effective communication; without a clear and agreed-upon definition of the term, it’s not a discussion; it’s people talking without communicating.

If you sit back and listen to almost any “discussion” — business or casual — you’ll witness this error with extraordinary consistency.

When someone says a guy is dishonest, others often chime in with their thoughts about his “honesty.” However, your ideas of honesty and dishonesty might not only be radically different from mine but also wildly flexible, depending on your current circumstances.

Infidelity can serve as a classic example. One man may interpret infidelity to mean that he will always remain faithful to his wife. Another man may start with the same definition but eventually redefine it to mean I’m faithful to my wife unless I’m out of town — then it’s just a little harmless indulgence. A third person might genuinely believe that if there’s no relationship involved, it’s no different than paying for a back massage.

Now, to be clear, my point is not about infidelity but rather to highlight that whenever we have a discussion without an agreed-upon definition of the critical term in the debate, it’s not only meaningless but can be downright dangerous … which is why litigation courts are perpetually backed up.

In fact, I think we often delude ourselves in much the same way. We all tend to have vague definitions of concepts such as wealth, health, honesty, integrity and so on, but if we had to clearly define any of those terms, we would find it surprisingly challenging.

For example, is Elon Musk, a wealthy person? 

Many would intuitively wave that aside as an obvious “yes.” And yet, what is wealth? Is it simply financial accumulation? Some would say wealth is all about quality relationships — family and friends. Others would say (usually those who no longer have it) that if you have health, you’ve got everything; money is just a bonus. And still, others might say that wealth is simply finding joy in life …

Varying definitions of subjective words should be considered a given, and to think that anyone else will have the exact definition as you — about anything — is a bad habit.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with varying definitions — it cannot be otherwise — it’s only wrong to assume mutual agreement on anything until we clearly define the meaning of the terms.

That doesn’t mean that we have to agree with each other’s definitions of, say … honesty; it just means that for this discussion, we have to decide on what it is we’re discussing.

But this simple and logical step in effective communication — whether reading a newspaper, watching a newsreel, or having a business or casual conversation — so seldom occurs.

Here’s the thing, if you make it a habit to qualify a critical term right from the outset of discussing anything of importance, you’ll be amazed at how it changes the quality of that discussion. Invariably, your conversation will become far more objective and rational than subjective and emotional.

So, how would you answer the question, “Is Donald Trump trustworthy?”

Here’s the one correct answer: “Oh, I’ve got an opinion, but before I answer, what do you mean by the word trustworthy?”

Pretty simple, right?

Assumptions can be problematic in every area of life, but none more so than in effective communication.