Insight, Inspiration, Motivation

The Illusion of Communication

Yesterday, I spent half an hour in front of my daughter’s school, waiting to pick her up after her badminton tournament. Finally, I decided to text her, to find out why she wasn’t out yet. I was going to be late to take the little one to her piano lesson. Just as I switched on my cellphone, my pager went off and it was her! So I call, only to find out that she had been waiting for the past 15 minutes at the aquatic centre, at the other end of town, waiting to be picked up. She was volunteering there this particular day.

For once, I used the driving time to tell myself to be calm about the whole thing, and was able to ask her nicely why she did not make it clear where I was to pick her up – and her answer was that she did- not once, but repeatedly, both to the nanny and to her little sister! Both of them repeatedly told me that Ammu was to be picked up at six, but neither of them conveyed the latter part of the message! Each person did what seemed to be their best, and yet, none of it was good enough in this situation.

This was but a benign example of a world-wide problem, that causes untold losses and suffering. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the healthcare field. 

The great playwright, George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Mis-communication occurs when the message is not conveyed completely or correctly. This is only very rarely due to ambiguity of language, but more often due to assumptions – by both the speaker and the listener.

Listening is a skill that is not taught in schools, nor is seen to be very rewarding in this life. The first person to speak is often allowed to win – until he reveals his incompetence, by which time a lot of damage is already done. The quiet ones are ignored, no matter what their credentials.

The way I see it, we cannot control how well another person listens when we speak. The best we can do is make our speech is as unambiguous as possible, and that we state every fact that we wish the other person to pay attention to. This may sound simple, but it is often surprising how much we assume the other person understands, in our day-to-day conversations.

Once we have spoken, we think that we have been listened to, and our words have registered. Then, we want the other person to recall the crucial bits at the right time and act on them in the manner that is expected. If all this is based on memory, it may be a little too much to ask of anyone! All this is assuming that we are eloquent enough to put into words what we really mean we want.

For myself at least, I decided that the best way from now on is to make all important communication written, as far as possible. For my office, I have little post-it notes, and for the home, a message-book by the telephone. One can only do one’s best – and live in hope!


March 5, 2011 - Posted by | Personal Journey


  1. great thoughts. u hve put into words wht we daily experience everyday but was unable to express it.
    Assumption is the ssimplest way to make mistakes, and the easiest way
    throughly liked it


    Comment by Thomas Varghese | March 6, 2011 | Reply

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