Speech, the Greatest Barrier to Communication

Frankie Kemp

11 March 2014

Over those millions of years since the Big Bang, many believe that evolution has done a rather spiffing job of turning us into the creatures we are today. We learned how to walk, to think, to learn, to fight and all in the name of survival. But why did we learn to talk and use language?

If we look at the modern human, it would appear that talking is a method of communication that aims to avoid any communication at all. With speech, we all have the ability to talk nonsense with friends, tell lies and generally blur the lines between conversation and noise.

Has this conversation ever happened between you and your boss?

Your boss: “Is the report ready?”

You: “Nearly!”

In this example, the ability to speak meant you replied without replying. If it weren’t for speech, you would have needed to say no. Probably by banging your club on the ground and not presenting a report you would have accomplished this.

This is all made so much clearer when we look at politics

Interviewer: “Is your party going to reduce interest rates next year?”

Politician: “Interest rates form part of our policy and following consultations with stakeholders a white paper will be released”

If the politician began humming whilst simultaneously releasing their belt buckle, they would have conveyed the same amount of information. But they didn’t, they decided to fill the gap with a combination of words that could have been the answer to any question ever asked about interest rates since 1973.

The fact of the matter is, speaking is not necessarily communication!

Take this excerpt from the popular 1980s TV programme, Yes, Prime Minister for example.

Although many fantastic words are used, they convey nothing more than one simple fact. The communication can be made in two words but a long speech is used. Of course this example uses exaggeration for comic effect, but many politicians of the time could relate to it.

It appears that the most versatile and potentially specific form of communication we have as humans is the one we use to confuse, deflect and mislead with!

How do you dig between opaque comments, bland statements and meaningless words? Firstly, you need to acquire the self-confidence to cut through the language.

An Admiral on a nuclear submarine, new to her role, sat her first meeting and understood none of the gobbledegook and acronyms that were being banded around the table with utter conviction. She asked questions about specifics, exact meanings and precise definitions. The trick was doing this in a way which seemed neither challenging or naive.

It soon became as clear as day that those people, at that meeting on a submarine carrying enough power to blow large parts of the world to radioactive dust, had little understanding of the discussion.

I’ve seen this with educators, engineers and technical experts at all levels. Radioactive disaster was not the potential danger here, however it did make you wonder how they all did a job when nobody understood each other.

Challenging with confidence is very much about knowing which questions to ask and how. Consultants need this, colleagues must acquire this task to manage their peers and suppliers need this with the same urgency as buyers, educators and their students.

Clear language shows a clear head and asking questions and the techniques of reflecting back, reading body language and voice intonation help to unearth any lack of clarity.

In the words of Beatrix Potter, “The shorter and the plainer the better.”

And when greeted by vague language, high-blown phrases or jargon, use your right to refine the art of questioning, a skill which is as vital as giving the right answers.

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