Opening Reflection

Before we start this section take a couple of moments to consider the challenges of communicating with others.

  • Take a Moment:
    • When do you consider that communication has been successfully achieved?
    • Why?
    • What steps do you take to ensure that you have communicated successfully?


  •  Take a Moment:
    • What is the most difficult communication obstacle you face?
    • Why?
    • In your experience what are the 5 biggest barriers to successful communication?


The Communication Concept

When it comes to communication, most people are under a huge misapprehension: we believe that all it is about is conveying a message to someone else, and when that message has left us our job is completed. Seldom do we do anything to ensure that the communication has been clearly understood.

Communications are only successful when the message has been received and understood and the other person is able to act appropriately.

There is a common, almost folk lore illustration of this in English. It relies upon puns; that is words that have a similar sound but a different meaning. It means that you have to read out loud the phrases used in the story. Please note that Google Translate will not help you understand this illustration because it is to do with sounds of the English words used.

In the First World War some British troops were waiting in their trenches to attack the enemy. The Captain in charge recognised he needed more soldiers for his attack to be successful. He needed to ask his commander for more troops but his messengers were all out taking messages. He had no usable paper because it was all wet, so he decided to send a verbal request down the line of soldiers, soldier to soldier.  He instructed the first man to pass on the following message: “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance”. The message was conveyed man to man, down the line, each repeating what they had been told, and eventually reached the senior commander.

Do you think the message was conveyed accurately to the senior commander?

Well, the message he received was not “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance”.  But “Send three and fourpence[1], we’re going to a dance.”  – Speak this paragraph out aloud.

In the process of going from man to man, spoken by one and heard by the next, the message became corrupted because it had been misheard. Maybe gunfire or an explosion had obscured what was being said. One or two men, trying to make sense of it during a time of great stress, did the best they could. They repeated what they thought they had heard. That is why you have to speak the two phrases aloud to hear the similarity in sound. (In English the phrase “three and fourpence” sounds similar to “reinforcements” and the phrase “a dance” sounds similar to “advance”)

This illustrates that there are challenges and obstacles to communication being effective. In the story the meaning of the message became altered and the commander who received it was unable to act in an appropriate way.

There are so many opportunities for the intended meaning of any message to fail to be understood, that we need to take the possibility into account in our communication processes and work out how to minimise the problem.

Professor Wiio’s “Laws of Human Communication”

Wiio’s Laws of Human  Communication fundamentally say if communication can go wrong, you can bet your life that it will. This is a key understanding necessary in developing effective communications skills.

Professor Osmo Wiio was born in 1929 and was a Finish academic and student of human communication. While he was a Member of the Finish Parliament he formulated his laws. While he may have been inspired by his colleagues, his laws do have a broader applicability to what you and I do every day. Wiio’s ‘Laws’ are really insightful, but it has to be said that he wrote somewhat humorously. None the less, as you read his laws you will recognise their validity.

Communication usually fails except by accident.

Just to set the scene, ponder a moment the process required to transfer something from your mind to that of another person via speech. 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 vocabulary, understanding of idioms, our knowledge of the context and the concepts being transferred, how we feel, the Ladder of Inference, cross-cultural influences and a 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 wilfulness. Do we even want to hear what is said?

It’s 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 there is so much potential interference that 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, so even when you think that you have set things up so that your communication must certainly succeed it will still fail.

If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there has been a misunderstanding

If it looks like it worked easily and the recipient is happy, he probably understood it his way not yours.  How many times, like me, have you thought that you understood something said to you? You then go away and as you do you begin to realise that it doesn’t make sense anymore.

If you are content with your message, communication is guaranteed to fail.

If you’re content with the message, 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.

If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.

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 in the local paper. 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! This also illustrates the previous point. I was content with my message…….

There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message.

This can be tricky because these people propagate their misunderstanding on your behalf as they tell everyone what they thought you really meant but couldn’t say so. Often, you will be unaware of what’s happening. Image in the consequences when this happens in combination with the previous law.

Sometimes, with the best motives in the world, they will even generate the messages they think you would want give. It is not ignorant and stupid people who do this. I came across one company where a senior management team member believed he was speaking on behalf of the CEO and often caused all sorts of damage.

The more we communicate the worse our communication fails.

The hope is that if we say something enough times it will sink in. Well I suppose it does. However, repetition does not clarify misunderstanding but will reinforce it. Also, it is possible to overwhelm people with communication in a way that prevents them from absorbing it.

The more important a situation is, the more likely it is that you forget an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago.

We’ve all been here!

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 completely forgotten what the third one was. I now practice hard at not using that introduction in the hope of disguising my failings.

The Communication Process

Having had the reality check from Professor Wiio let’s take a closer look at the communication process. Then we can begin to see where the issues arise and start working out what we can do to maximise the probability of success.

These two men are engaged in a dialogue. Each is speaking and listening to the other and responding to what has been said. Let’s look at the process in more detail starting with the man on the left:

  • He has in is mind something he wants to say. There is some concept, perspective or information he wants the other man to understand.
  • He needs to convert those thoughts into words and in so doing those thoughts are filtered in some manner on their way to becoming the words that he actually speaks. There are lots of factors at work in those filters. A simple example is to consider vocabulary; imagine that he is not speaking in his natural language. He is German say, and he is speaking in Greek. He has to formulate and verbalise his ideas in German and then translate them to Greek. Even if he is completely fluent in Greek there will still be some concepts that are difficult to translate. So what he actually says is only an approximation of what he originally thought he wanted to say.
  • The spoken words travel as sound waves and are heard by the second man. Then, assuming he hears the words clearly they have to pass through his filters before his brain processes what he thought he heard.


The vital question is: Does what the second man thinks he heard match what the first man wanted to say?

The problem is the barriers to communication which first of all impact what the first man thinks he wants to say and what he actually says. These barriers may cause the first man’s thoughts and perspectives to be wrong at the outset. If that is the case, even if he managed to accurately speak out his thoughts the communication would fail.

A similar but different set of barriers filter what the hearer hears  and these affect how he interprets what is heard.

Then, of course the whole process works the other way round because a dialogue is two way and so the second man makes his reply which is affected by these issues in reverse.

Thinking this process through in this way highlights exactly why Professor Wiio is justified in stating that “Communication usually fails except by accident.” The model we have used is one for verbal communications but the essential issues apply to all forms of human communications.

The question is “What can be done to increase the probability of successful communications?” Because of its importance this lesson will focus on addressing this issue for verbal communications. But the basic principles will apply to other forms.

Communications Barriers and Filters

Now let’s spend a little time thinking about some of the issues that make up the barriers and filters that negatively affect our ability to communicate.

Given that the Christ-centred servant leader’s goal is to enable others to achieve their full potential it is essential that we consider how to communicate in such a way as to facilitate this. Therefore minimising the communications barriers is an essential consideration for us and those we lead.


Our background, including our national culture, has an impact on how we think and it colours the words we use or don’t use. It colours how we see the world, our opinions and expectations.  Thus our backgrounds will determine what we think and how we convert that into spoken words. Similarly it colours the meaning we give to words and phrases, filtering what we hear and it affects how we interpret what we think we hear.

Cultural factors

In the Gaining Cultural Insight lesson we learned how the cultures of our childhood countries determine how we think. What we think is appropriate and inappropriate, normal and abnormal and this translates into behaviour.

Recall the dimension of Power/Distance and consider the situation which might arise between a manger from a low power distance country and staff member from a high power distance country. The manager invites the staff member to help him solve a problem but the staff member expects the manager to tell him what the solution should be. Imagine the response of the staff member when the manager seeks their assistance. Imagine too the manager’s response when the staff member finds it difficult to rise to the challenge.

Mother language

In a cross-cultural situation one of the people may not be using their mother tongue. So, unless they are extremely fluent, their ability to phrase ideas into words will be limited as will their ability to accurately understand what is said.  More than this, language translation is inexact because some words have no direct equivalents. Where there are huge cultural difference then some ideas and idioms do not cross the language and cultural boundary.

The church I attend in England has a Cantonese speaking congregation. There is always much amusement in joint services when a complex idea, needing lots of words in English becomes a couple of words in Chinese and a simple idea needing a few words becomes a long, long interpretation in Chinese – and vica versa of course. Fortunately both groups have a sense of humour and seem to find the situation similarly amusing.


The circumstances of one or other of the people involved in the dialogue also has a significant impact. My son’s first job after graduation was as a salesman. Many times he came home feeling bruised by a customer, or potential customer, who had been abusive. Without justifying the abuse we always reminded him that he didn’t know what was happening in that customer’s life or what happened just before they met. The circumstances of the other person shape and sometimes block our ability to communicate effectively with them.


Closely related to circumstance, timing is everything when we seek to communicate.  Choosing the right time can make the difference between failure and success.

Lack of sensitivity

Lacking sensitivity to someone’s situation and circumstances is obviously related to the previous two points. Sensitivity to others is also an aspect of emotional intelligence, especially awareness of others and empathy. These will allow you to tailor how you speak and respond to the other person in your conversation, maximising the probability of a successful communication.

Non-verbal communications cues

So called verbal communications is less about words and more about other verbal cues and body language than you might think. As we shall see later more than 90% of verbal communications is not about words. It is about how you say the words (tone of voice and inflection) and body language (posture and expression). When some or all of these factors are lacking, or not understood, words are misinterpreted. Cross-culturally body language will vary, So, what happens when a particular body language in my culture is affirmative but in my correspondents culture it is insulting?

I just saw a television programme about a young British man of Ghanain descent. He went to Ghana to learn about his grandfather and great grandfather. In Ghana he met a tribal chief who knew their story but he confronted the young man about his body language, which was unacceptable in Ghana.

When the young man spoke he conveyed his feelings with many hand gestures which was not acceptable. Neither was using the left hand when giving and receiving; this was considered very offensive. The first is normal in Great Britain and the second is simply not an issue. So be warned and be prepared.

Preferred communications style

We each have preferences about how we communicate. This is not so much about the preferred media but the style and content of the communication. We will look at this subject later in the lesson. But for now it is sufficient to recognise that if I determinedly stick to my preferred style at the expense of yours it’s unlikely that I will be able to convey the ideas that I want to.

Too much or too little information

The information content needs to match the needs of the communication and the listener. Providing too little information will mean that the recipient cannot respond because he has not learned enough from the provider of the information. A similar outcome can be expected if the communication includes so much information that the recipient is overwhelmed and cannot process what they have been told.

Regardless of the level of information demanded by the subject and the required action, In terms of style, some people need detail and some people demand the big picture. If we are insensitive to that need then the recipient will be unable to confidently process the information.

Disorganised information

If the information being conveyed is disorganised then the recipient will be unable to process it and respond appropriately.

Wrong medium

This is tied up with the quantity and nature of the information that needs to be conveyed and people’s preferred styles. For instance, if a lot of precisely detailed information is to be conveyed then a written medium is needed but conversation may be needed first. Alternatively, if someone prefers visual forms of communication, e.g charts, diagrams pictures, then verbal communications may not be the best way to facilitate their understanding.

Beliefs and assumptions

Our beliefs and assumptions about situations and people not only colour what we want to say and how we say it, but they greatly affect how we process the things that are said. Do you recall the Ladder of Inference?

The Ladder of Inference

We looked at the Ladder of Inference in Leading with Insight. It’s a description of the way we look at the world, and how the things we believe about situations and other people influence our responses. Frequently these beliefs and outlooks do not have a solid foundation. To put it plainly they are just plain wrong.

We witness or participate in situations, and our beliefs determine how we analyse the situation and the facts we select as being significant.

The facts we select tell a partial story so we fill the gaps with assumptions. Assumptions are pseudo-facts that we devise to plug the gaps in the story and make it logical and consistent from our own perspective. Seldom are these assumptions tested to prove they are sound

Having filled out the story we draw conclusions and act. These conclusions are heavily influenced by the things we believe, which they inherently affirm, even if they are erroneous. Also the new assumptions we make are affirmed and develop the status of beliefs

Our pool of beliefs and world view are strengthened by the conclusions we reach. After all, if our conclusions are valid then our beliefs must be sound.

Seldom do we test any of this for validity. The Ladder of Inference sits squarely in the barriers and filters that distort our ability to communicate effectively.


  • Take a Moment:
    • Think about your attempts to communicate effectively, try to focus on your communications with specific people:
    • Which of the barriers have you noticed when communicating with them?
    • What steps could you take to limit the impact of these barriers
      • In general?
      • With those specific individuals?


  • Take a Moment:
    • Reflect again on the Ladder of Inference (see Leading with Insight). If you can, identify some situations where you have seen this at work in yourself.
      • What was the situation and what happened?
      • How did this effect your communication with the people concerned?
    • What strategies could you have used to improve the outcome?


  • Take a Moment:
    • Review what you have learned about emotional intelligence and national cultures.
    • How can that knowledge be turned to wisdom by applying it to your communications skills?
    • Be specific and identify 3 emotionally intelligent strategies you can use to improve the effectiveness of your communications.


[1] In the 1970s currency in the United Kingdom was decimalised becoming pounds and pence with 100 pennies to the pound. Prior to that the currency was pounds, shillings and pence with 20 shillings to the pound and 12 pence to the shilling. “three and fourpence” means three shillings and four pennies in what we now call “old money”.