The sublime art of miscommunication

Or ‘how not to communicate’.

In the last week or so I have both watched and received some bungled efforts at communication.  I will be charitable and consider them as bungled because the alternative – deliberate and considered activity – would be disappointing.  I think we can all learn by others’ mistakes, so what went wrong?

  • THE AMBUSH: a committee member dropped an unexpected bombshell. Some other members of the committee had foreknowledge, but the chair was surprised.  The committee should have been a place of collaboration, and whilst I feel sure that there are times when the ambush tactic is useful or expected (politics, law courts), its use is hugely divisive.  On this occasion the member should have shared his subject matter with the chair beforehand and run the risk of getting support!
  • THE MUSHROOMS: the old adage is of being treated like a mushroom – kept in the dark and fed on shit.  Last week my outbound transatlantic flight was cancelled due to adverse weather conditions and the airline sent me a SMS message and an email to advise me – and I could make alternative arrangements.  During my travels the airline decided to cancel my return flight (for Friday) and just booked me onto the flight the next day (Saturday).  I only found out because, by chance, I logged onto the website to check my frequent flyer miles.  I still don’t know why the flight was cancelled, but the airline’s communication was shockingly poor – even if the message is bad, most people won’t shoot the messenger.
  • THE ABSENT EXPLANATION: I watched a friend puzzle for days when someone else did a complete project u-turn without any explanation.  Sometimes we instinctively know why the goalposts have moved, sometimes we don’t care because we haven’t invested emotionally, but there are a few odd times when “never apologise, never explain” isn’t good enough.
  • THE FALSE EMERGENCY: just because someone else has forgotten to complete some work by the deadline (for which they need my input) does not mean that the item is now urgent for me too – lack of planning on their part does not justify an emergency on mine.
  • THE BLAME GAME: my favourite (!) this week – someone cited me as the reason that they could not proceed, but curiously did not include me in the email trail.  Fortunately, someone else forwarded me the message and I could make a swift rebuttal – prompting an even quicker climb-down from the original email author.  I’m still not sure of the original intent, but not only did the communication fail but it backfired too.

The answers condense into single solution: explain, provide information, and take the group with you rather than alienate them into following simply out of morbid curiosity (and probably awaiting an opportunity for retribution).

All of these examples of poor communication are also examples of poor behaviour, and polite society often forgives the perpetrator rather than have them address the issue – and this is a well known psychological game called ‘SCHLEMIEL’.  The game player is gaining a thrill or deriving pleasure from being badly behaved, and then a further pleasure from being forgiven – and hence getting away with it.  (See “Games People Play” by Eric Berne MD, first published in 1964.)

So perhaps todays’s message is twofold: don’t fall into the miscommunication trap, and if you see it happening to you remember that you can be the victim only if you choose not to act.

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