One-way communications are common. A voice mail. An unanswered email or text. A set of instructions. A letter. We do them all the time, but how well? And if they do not achieve their goals, what are the consequences?
There is a simple exercise I usein my classes on effective business communication, one I first encountered in a wonderful seminar on organizational management taught by Professor Richard Leifer. It illustrates some of the many challenges we face, not in the least, the presumption that we communicate just fine; it’s the other person who is at fault.
Every time I introduce the exercise, I fully expect it to fall flat and illustrate nothing. Every time we do it, it never fails to illustrate that:
- we all think we can communicate a simple concept effectively,
- we all think we can listen to, and understand a simple concept, and
- the consequence of what happens we are not as good as we thought we were.
In a one-way communication, by definition, there’s no feedback. We must self-assess: Did I communicate that clearly? And, the receiver must ask themselves, Did I understand? Of course, the next-level questions are urgency and consequence. What happens if the communication fails. And how will I know?
How it Works
Audience or class members are paired up and seated back-to-back. One is given a simple geometric drawing. The other is given a pencil and paper.
The goal: Create an accurate copy of the drawing.
The challenge: No dialogue. No body language. One person describes, the other transcribes.
The rules: No peeking. No feedback.
Upon what does success depend?
Attention. Attention to detail. Attention by the sender and attention by the receiver. The geometric design must be depicted with accuracy and precision. An economy of words usually helps. Too much talking, and the person responsible for the drawing may become confused or distracted.
A lapse in attention or attention to detail, and the communication is a failure. Where should the circle be placed in relation to the square? What kind of triangle? At what point does the circle intersect the triangle? Remember, no talking!
Success is often predicated by providing the “big picture” before launching into the specifics of the drawing.
After about five minutes, the trial is over. First I ask the pairs if they think they’ve got it right—hands go up. Then I ask them to compare drawings. Roughly speaking, I usually see a 25%–33% success rate. Always less than the level at which the group thinks they’ve achieved.
There are some illuminating insights amongst the relieved laughter:
- What’s first seen as simple is not always so
- As communicators, we may not be as good as we think we were
- It’s common to assume otherwise
In one-way communications (which, despite all the two-way technology in the world, we happen to do a lot of) it’s frighteningly possible to think “I’ve got it” when you don’t.