This famous line from the classic film Cool Hand Luke is unfortunately more prophetic than we might like to admit. We think of communication as a straightforward process: I talk, you listen, you talk, I listen, we understand each other. What’s so hard about that? Sometimes communication actually is that straightforward, but often it’s not.
The Bay of Pigs provides a dramatic example of communication gone wrong. When President John F. Kennedy asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their opinion on the invasion of Cuba in 1961, he was told that the proposed operation had “a fair chance of success.” The Joint Chiefs didn’t explain what they meant by “a fair chance;” Kennedy presumed it meant a “good chance” of victory. Years later the author of the Joint Chiefs’ report said that, in his mind, a “fair chance” meant 3 to 1 against success. Because of this misunderstanding, the President approved the ill-fated attack that caused unnecessary deaths and led to a historic foreign policy debacle.
People commonly assume that misunderstandings, as happened between Kennedy and his advisors, are quite rare. But the process of human communication is actually highly susceptible to error. Here are three ways communication can go off the rails when we interact with each other: