Communication is complicated

Have you ever said something to someone with absolute good intention and they have completely taken it the wrong way? And you are left wondering how on earth did they make what you said mean the total opposite?



Communication is complicated. And it is critical that every leader understand the mechanics of communication to be effective in their role – it is an art and a science.

Even though we are communicating everyday with all sorts of different people, it does not mean we are great at it and it certainly doesn’t mean that those we are communicating to are ‘picking up what we are putting down’.

When we receive communication, we are going through an internal process of making sense of what is being said and it is complicated and super fast!

Communication is like a constant feedback loop going through a highly sophisticated system to make sense of what is being said to us.

The first part of communicating is getting past what I call the WALL OF SAFETY.

The Wall of Safetyhas two parts. Physiology and Tone.

We gauge the persons physiology and their tone before we are actually listening to the words that are being spoken and well and truly before we are even close to working out what they mean.

We are hard wired to interpret a person’s physiology as the primary indicator. The physiology tells us if it they are a threat or are safe to engage. Next comes their tone. Again, we are listening for tone to determine if we are safe or in danger. Once all this is in check and we feel safe we are now ready to listen to the words being spoken.

This happened last night for me. My ‘sweet’ 16 year old daughter was having a teenage moment. All she said to her 13 year old sister was “I want my bag back”. Oh boy, did we all know she meant business. Imagine a near 6 foot tall girl standing over her 5 foot 3 sister, hands on hips, leaning in towards her and yelling “I WANT MY BAG BACK”. Immediately I noticed my 13 year old cower, go a little pale and tried to see how she could get away from her. Her response had nothing to do with the words that were said – she felt immediate threat by her physiology and tone behind those words and went into flight mode.

When it comes to communicating with our team member’s we need to keep in mind all of the above. Depending on what you are communicating will determine the channel you use. Think about face to face for a moment. You get to read them instantly, you get feedback from their body language before they have to say anything, this allows you to adapt your physiology and tone – without necessarily changing your words.  Now think about a phone call. Physiology is gone, we can’t see it. We are now relying heavily on tone and words. But while we are talking, we are getting no visual feedback to indicate if they are hearing what we are trying to say. And lucky last – email or text. All physiology and tone has gone and you are relying solely on words! Eek, this is dangerous territory! And we haven’t even got to the interpretation of the words yet.

Once we hear the words we then combine the tone and physiology with our internal representation of what that means to us. We base this on our values, beliefs, experiences, knowledge and more. Once we go through that process we can the delete, distort or generalise what is being said to us.


This process I call WALK THROUGH FIRE.  You never know at what point the communication will be burnt, singed or watered on!

Deletion occurs when we overlook, tune out or omit. When we delete it is normally because we have no need, no reference or no relevance to what is being said.

Have you ever been in a meeting where you were sure you were 100% engaged, yet afterwards you are talking with a colleague and they bring something up that was said and you have no memory of it – no memory at all?  Chances are you deleted that because it either wasn’t relevant to your representation or you couldn’t link it to anything familiar.

Distortion is a personal prejudice that twists our perceptions. We amplify or diminish our experience, seeing it differently, as in a hall of mirrors.

A classic example of distortion is when you see a person perhaps in a negative way, generally this will be based on a past (or multiple past) experiences with them. Then when they say something you have made it mean they are being derogatory or rude? When perhaps their intention wasn’t that at all.

Generalisation occurs when we reach a global conclusion based on one or two experiences, taking them as representative of a whole class and paying no attention to exceptions.

We have a suggestion to our boss to enter a new market. You are super eager and can see the opportunities. The moment you mention the particular market she writes you off with a statement “tried a market just like that, and got nowhere”.

We can’t determine what a person will make mean of the words when they are going through the Walk of Fire. Tips to getting our intended message through as clearly as possible though include:

  • Take notice of your physiology and tone
  • Be specific in the language you use
  • Use examples to create more context and meaning around what you are saying
  • Check in with them. Ask them what they are hearing? And if they are not clear, tell it in a different way.


Misunderstandings and communication breakdowns are at the core of the majority of workplace issues. If you want to be a great leader, then learn the Art and Science of Communication.