On Miscommunication

In 1977 two aircraft collided at the Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife, causing the worst disaster in aviation history with 583 deaths.  The Captain of KLM flight 4805 began to takeoff while Pan Am flight 1736 was still taxiing off the runway.  The two 747’s collided, killing all passengers and crew on the KLM airplane and leaving only 61 survivors on the Pan Am plane.

While there were a number of contributing factors, such as heavy fog and a higher number of aircraft than usual, miscommunication played a major role.  As the airport did not have a radar they were relying on the verbal communications to identify and place the airplanes.  Non standardized and ambiguous language was in use.  Combined with radio interference this led the Captain of the KLM flight to believe he had permission to takeoff, and he went for it with tragic results. 1


Mirriam Webster defines Miscommunication as a “failure to communicate clearly”.  This lack of *ClearCommunication can result in hurt feelings, missed opportunities, poor work, failed relationships, injuries, and even fatalities.  All because two people couldn’t find common ground.

Over my years in the Marine Industry I have seen numerous examples of miscommunication occur.  These lead to all sorts of issues down the line that are totally preventable.   In emergency situations leading to incidents or accidents ‘human error’ is almost always cited as a contributing factor.  There is a strong correlation between miscommunication and human error, with the later typically being either a cause or result of the miscommunication.

To help mitigate the problem we must first be mindful of it.  And to do that it will help to first drill down into the specifics of miscommunication.

Types of Miscommunication

There are 4 points during a communication where the breakdown can occur: 2

  1. No information available – In this scenario the recipient was never communicated to, so has no knowledge of the situation.  An example of where this occurs is when you are so close to an issue, having worked on it for days, you assume that everyone else has the same depth of knowledge on it.  So when someone else is brought in you may fail to pass critical information.
  2. Information available but not received – The email sitting in your inbox, unread.  With the ‘always-on’ culture of today’s workplace this is quite common.  But again, it relies on an assumption by the sender that the receiver has actually received the info.  Sending a message does not end your obligation to ensure it is received.  Try picking up the phone.
  3. Information received but not understood – The classic Misunderstanding.  The quick reaction to this is that the receiver isn’t smart enough to decipher the information, but the truth usually lies closer to the middle.  Was your message clear?  Was the information presented in a logical manner, or did it jump all over the place?  Being the most common type of miscommunication it takes extra attention on both the sender and the receiver to ensure the message is understood.
  4. Disagreement about the message content – A Misinterpretation or Misconception.  This occurs when there is a lack of alignment between mental states of the two parties, or when their combined mental state is out of alignment with the actual state of the world.  Both believe that they are discussing the same thing and that the other party agrees, however they are not on the same page due to a misunderstanding of a key point.

The common thread is that the message must be both transferred and received clearly.  In the event of a miscommunication it is the fault of both parties; the sender for transmitting a hard to understand message and for not ensuring it was understood, and the receiver for not speaking up to ask for clarification and to ensure they understand the message.

Barriers to Communication

There is a long list here and I’m sure you can think of a few yourself.  Awareness of some of these issues can help you spot them when they arise, allowing you to work around them.

Let’s look at some of the more prevalent issues:

EGO – This can be either party, or sometimes both.  The sender feels they communicate better than they really do.  The receiver feels that they shouldn’t need to “take orders” from the sender, for whatever reason.  There can be a mismatch of viewpoints and perception of the situation and in extreme cases can even lead to intentional misunderstanding.

Fatigue – A factor in many accidents, fatigue makes us process information slower or even miss things all together.  When communicating to a fatigued person the follow up conversation becomes even more important.  A persons attention and interest is more likely to be fragmented when fatigued.

Culture – This includes not only cultural differences arising between people with different racial backgrounds, but also between people of different gender, from different social classes, different industries, or even different companies within the same industry.  The common language changes, as well as standards of what is acceptable.  In Asian cultures the concept of Face is very important, with communications tailored around ‘saving face’.  In America there is more of a ‘Big dog eats’ culture, where weaker personalities often get steamrolled.

Role – There are three different roles in any communication and how you perceive the message depends on which role you hold.

  1. Sender – This role is very invested in the message as they have developed it.  The onus is on this person to ensure that the message is clear and is understood.  They also hold the responsibility of following up.
  2. Receiver – Can be a single person or many – a memo to all employees for example.  Their responsibility is to pay attention and make sure they receive the message.  We’ll get into some techniques for that below.
  3. Bystander – These people have accidentally received a message not intended for them, either through the sender / receiver not being mindful of their privacy, or else by more clandestine means such as listening at the door, or reading somebodies email.  The biggest issue here is that a bystander will typically only get a piece of the message, which is then taken out of context.  To counteract this you must be mindful of your message distribution.

Medium – How is the message transmitted?  Was there a face to face (F2F) conversation?  Email?  Text message?  On ships Morse Code was the standard for many years and I was part of the last class in Canada legally mandated to learn it during my training.  And there is  plenty of room for error when reading morse!

Each of the various mediums have different potentials for error and must be reviewed to ensure the message is clear, especially when using any kind of written communication.  Body language and tone often transmit more of the message than what is actually said, and these emotions are easily lost when written down.  Email in particular is an area of frequent misunderstanding due to the ease of which they are composed and sent.  You can bang out a witty reply to an email while paying for your groceries, but the receiver may not get the joke.


People need to be on the same page when communicating and the concept of Grounding, meaning to find common ground, helps achieve this.  Both parties add to the ‘common ground’ until they reach a mutual understanding on what was sent and what was meant.  A key point about grounding is to help achieve commonality regarding beliefs about the communicated information, and the goals or desired intentions.

Every communication comes with a certain cost, such as time cost for creating or receiving a message.  The medium used impacts this and brings different resources or constraints to the grounding process.  Email is great for technical communication as you can attach drawings and documents to it, whereas F2F is better for an emotional exchange.

Trouble arises when the medium does not build common ground.  Receiving a text message after your dog died does not convey the same emotion as a face to face meet, or even a phone call.

MisCommunication Strategies

So how do we go about building this common ground?  There are 3 strategies that need to be used.

Active Listening – This is one of the most powerful tools in your kit and the most powerful communication tool there is.  When you can listen actively you are fully present in the conversation, and people feel that.  Bill Clinton was famous for making people feel like they were the only person in the room due to his close focus on the them.

When you are listening actively there are many non-verbal clues in your behavior that the other person will pick up on.  Your body language will show you are engaged by your posture, eye contact, leaning in slightly, and squaring your shoulders to the person.  Studies show that by assuming powerful postures you feel more powerful.  So assume a posture that you feel makes you a more intent listener.

I’ve written previously on Active Listening so will reiterate the main points here:

  1. Decide – Decide that this is a skill worth cultivating and actively plan to do it during every conversation.  This intention will get you over half way.  If somebody wants to share something with you then you should respect that by listening to what they have to say.
    Much like remembering somebodies name, it starts with the intention to do so.
  2. Put away your preconceived notions – Ever been in a conversation where you could not get a sentence finished before the other person started talking over you?  We all have and it leaves you thinking that the other person is self-absorbed.
    The superior way is to actually listen to what they are saying, pause to formulate an answer, and then speak.  This shows the speaker that not only are you listening, but you are considering their words rather than dismissing them out of hand by spouting back your preconceived notions.
  3. Positive Reinforcement – Subtly encourage the person to continue by smiling and nodding at them (only when you agree of course), mirroring their body language, and remembering what they say.
    And don’t look over their shoulder!

Part of listening actively is to eliminate distractions.  You can’t properly listen to somebody if you are typing an email at the same time, or looking at your phone.  Put that stuff away, in a drawer if you have to, and focus on the message.

Clarification – By clarifying what is being said you ensure that the message is understood.  It also serves to reassure the speaker that you do indeed understand, as well as shows them that you are paying attention to make they have to say.

To seek clarity ask non-judgmental questions to help summarize the message and to seek feedback regarding your understanding.  The only stupid question is the one not asked.  Don’t let the conversation finish before your understanding of the situation is clear.

Reflecting – This serves to reflect the speakers experiences and emotions back towards them, to add to the grounding process.  By paraphrasing and restating their words and feelings this shows them:

  • how their message is being received.
  • that you are interested, which allows them to continue with confidence.
  • that you are attempting to build common ground.

The 2 techniques to help the reflecting process are:

  1. Mirroring – Not to be confused with mirroring as pertains to body language (a powerful rapport building technique), this is a verbal technique where you repeat key words or phrases back to the person verbatim.  If you are repeating everything they say it’ll get weird in a hurry, so keep this short.
  2. Paraphrasing – This is the act of summarizing what they have said and repeating it back in your own words.  Your understanding improves when you rephrase things to your own personal vocabulary, and it shows the speaker that you do (or don’t) understand what was said.

The Follow Up –  In business, one of the best things you can do to avoid miscommunication’s is to follow up important conversations with an email that paraphrases what was discussed.  General Patton in his autobiography War as I Knew It 3 discusses how orders should be given verbally, but with a follow up letter issued as well.  In this way there is a record of the conversation.

It is the same in business and it is important to keep records of important conversations.  This is what the followup email accomplishes, as well as offering another opportunity to clarify the message.

Recovering from a Miscommunication

Despite our best efforts, miscommunication’s happen with regularity.  It is easy to think that this is because the “other person” didn’t have the skills to work through it, but the fact is that we are all complicit.  If you’ve ever walked away from a conversation feeling that the other person didn’t quite get it then you’ll know what I mean.

So how do we deal with it?  When the inevitable has happened there are initially only two paths forward; deal with it or ignore it.  While ignoring it may seem like a poor option for people working to communicate better, in certain situations it is the best course of action.  Let’s look at why.

Ignore it – If the miscommunication has to do with something minor point then it is usually best to ignore it.  I mentioned the concept of “Face” earlier as something very prevalent in Asian cultures, but the fact is that this concerns everyone.  Western cultures also value this, we just think of it in different terms.  Nobody wants to look stupid.

If you detect a miscommunication then the first thing to ask yourself is “Does this matter?”  If it relates to access codes to a nuclear reactor then yes, you should clear that up.  However if it is your spouse insisting that you ate fish two nights ago, when you know for a fact that it was yesterday, you should probably let that one go.

Even when the other person knows that you have let it go, and they know you know they know, they will appreciate that you have allowed them to save face.  Conversely, if you attack to clarify every minor point you will quickly build resentment.

Sometimes people will say something shitty, then fall back on “well it’s the truth”.  The point being that just because you know something to be true doesn’t mean that the superior action to take is to expose it, especially to the other persons detriment.  In these situations it is better to take the high road and leave it unsaid.

Deal with it – In a situation where it is imperative that the miscomm be corrected you should do so with tact.  I don’t mean that you should beat around the bush however, just state the facts in a non-judgmental tone.

Remember, if the other person isn’t receiving your message clearly it is your responsibility to correct it.  Perhaps they aren’t actively listening to you, or are checking their phone while you talk, but maybe you aren’t communicating your message clearly enough.  The human condition makes us quick to place blame but slow to take responsibility.  *ClearComm is about taking responsibility.  If the situation isn’t working then you need to own it and try something new until it does work.

Final Thoughts

Miscommunications are a killer.  They kill productivity, relationships, and sometimes claim lives.  It is enemy number one of *ClearComm.

But through diligence and persistence they can be avoided.  Talk to each other.  Be open and honest.  Own the situation.

Using the techniques outlined here we can work together to get things done more efficiently and with less friction.


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Show 3 footnotes

  1. This is an often cited case of miscommunication.  More details can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenerife_airport_disaster
  2. From the research paper “Miscommunication in Multi-Modal Collaboration” by David R. Traum and Pierre Dillinbourg
  3. I heard this in Jocko Podcast No. 9 “The Motivation” – General Patton, Jiu Jitsu for streets, Home Gyms, Hero Worship

2 thoughts on “On Miscommunication

  1. Although the Tenerife disaster is a prime example of miscommunication leading to a monstrous accident which cost the lives of hundreds of people it’s not the only reason this happened.
    There were mistake after mistake, assumption after assumption and, a giant “You’re the captain I won’t challenge you” moment (The flight engineer’s and the first officer’s apparent hesitation to challenge Veldhuyzen van Zanten further. The official investigation suggested that this might have been because the captain was not only senior in rank, but also one of the most respected pilots working for the airline).

    The whole report is a classical road to disaster which could have been prevented by having some simple barriers in place but that’s getting into Accident Prevention and that’s a whole other ballpark and not the goal of this website.

    I do like to add that in point 3 of the “Types of miscommunication” language differences also can play a big role, especially when you are communicating in a language that’s not native to all parties.

  2. You are absolutely right and I encourage everyone to follow the link in order to gain a full understanding of the other factors in play. I used it specifically as it is an often quoted and recognizable example of miscommunication.

    I have some idea’s about the “Chain Theory” of incidents that I plan to explore in future articles as well.

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