The Impossibility of Communication and What To Do about It

Communication is arguably the most important leadership skill. Sadly, it is also the most neglected. Why should we learn something we have been practicing all our lives? Well, there are two problems that derail our communication, and there are six steps we can learn that will make any communication more effective.


  1. Communication Happens

Communicating happens all the time whether we are aware or not. Sometimes, even our silence speaks volumes, as when a wife asks her husband, ‘Do I look fat?’ and, in his fraction-of-a-second hesitation, more communication takes place than either wanted. And none of it is good.

Our website sometimes communicates negatively – such as when a link doesn’t work or spelling is bad. ‘But they know what I meant,’ we say. And it’s true. People do, very often, ‘get it’.

The following has done the rounds on social media:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

This suggests that spelling doesn’t matter. And on a superficial level that is true. We can read it, even understand it, but we won’t engage with the person or business that wrote it. And that is the point. Effective communication means we avoid being hijacked, and we communicate the message we intend to communicate.

  1. It is ‘impossible’

Effective communication simply should not work. What makes it almost impossible is the ‘decoding’ process.

Once we have decided on what and how we will communicate, we send the message to the receiver. That person or group then decodes it. They work out what we meant by our words, phrases, body language and tone. Friends forgive a great deal, but strangers and people who are unsure about us will use their entire life experience to interpret what we might have meant by a particular word or phrase – sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Communication is not about what we mean but about what the other person understands. It’s not about sending a message but about getting a response.


  1. Prepare thoroughly

The more time you invest in preparing your message, the more often you will get the response you want. At the very least, prepare your opening paragraph. How will you grab attention?

Who are you communicating with?

What response do you want from them?

Where should you communicate?

  1. Choose your weapons

‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ But for your message, the camera may be more powerful than the pen. Should you use a PowerPoint presentation, a casual conversation, email …?

  1. Choose your words

As the decoding process tells us, it is not what our words mean to us that matters but what they mean to our audience. If you believe in your message, make sure you find the words that will make others believe in it, too; and avoid those that will alienate.

  1. One issue at a time

It is very tempting, while sending an email or talking to a group, to add extra items ‘while you have their attention’. Unfortunately, the extra items are likely to distract them.

The old preacher when asked about his craft said, ‘I tell them what I’m gonna tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them what I told them.’ Not bad advice.

Understand, also, that any controversial item is the one that will be remembered and responded to.

  1. Acknowledge and anticipate emotions

Maya Angelou said, ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

When people react to adverts and the like, we might complain, as some do, that ‘people are oversensitive’. But, if we want to communicate, we must take into account who our audience is and how they might respond to issues.

Don’t criticise emotions, anticipate them.

  1. Check and cut (and cut again)

Before sending, read your every email, every communication, as many times as time will allow – preferably a hard-copy version. People may understand something badly written, but they won’t respect the writer. And don’t use long words when short ones will do.

Where time allows, leave your final draft overnight and come back to it. Wherever possible, give it to a colleague or a friend to check.

In the process, cut out unnecessary extras. Don’t drown your audience in your words. Most early drafts can be cut in half. The more words, the more opportunity for distraction.

What one practice has helped you or could help you communicate more effectively? Share in the comments.

[Extract of a talk given at the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business, 19 July 2017: see here]

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Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people and HR & people-management consulting.

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