I ran across an interesting illustration of the hazards of communication, a form of the “Gossip” game we used to play as children where the message would become distorted as it was whispered from one person to the next around the circle. Perhaps you’ll remember an experience from your childhood with this game as you read the following statements.

The battalion commander issued the following order to his executive officer: “Tomorrow evening, at approximately 2000 hours, Halley’s Comet will be visible in this area, an event which occurs only once every seventy-five years. Have the men fall out in the battalion area in fatigues, and I will explain this rare phenomenon to them. In case of rain, we will not be able to see anything, so assemble the men in the theater and I will show them films of it.”

The executive officer related the order to the adjutant: “By order of the colonel, tomorrow at 2000 hours Halley’s Comet will appear above the battalion area. If it rains, fall the men out in fatigues, then march them to the theater where this rare phenomenon will take place, something which occurs once every seventy-five years.”

The adjutant related the order to the company commander: “By order of the colonel, in fatigues at 2000 hours tomorrow evening, the phenomenal Halley’s Comet will appear in the theater. In case of rain in the battalion area, the colonel will give another order, something which occurs once every seventy-five years.”

The company commander passed the directive on to the first sergeant: “Tomorrow at 2000 hours, the colonel will appear in the theater with Halley’s Comet, something which happens every seventy-five years. If it rains, the colonel will order the comet to the battalion area.”

The top sergeant’s announcement in the formation the next morning was this: “When it rains tomorrow at 2000 hours, the phenomenal seventy-five-year-old General Halley, accompanied by the colonel, will drive his Comet through the battalion theater in fatigues.”

That would be funny – if it did not so accurately picture what often happens in any organization as we try to communicate. The context becomes fuzzy, words morph into something we didn’t mean, and we sometimes end up communicating the opposite of what we really intended to say.

Why is communication so difficult? Communication is difficult because so many hindrances interfere with our attempt to communicate. Let me just mention a few.

  • Noise. Too much noise in the surrounding environment causes interference.

  • Daydreaming. Daydreaming is an interruption that comes from the inside, and it can also be destructive to effective communication.

  • Technology. Communication by telephone, e-mail, and fax, removes the face-to-face element so important to effective communication.

  • Stereotypes. When we make assumptions about a person based on their appearance or behavior, our prejudice will affect both the way we speak and the way we listen.

  • Trigger words and phrases. A hot button word can shut down communication.

  • Attitude. Our attitude colors what we hear and how we respond. If we’re too defensive, we’ll see hidden agendas that are not really there. If too offensive, we will be so concerned about our response to the conversation, that we will not really listen.

  • And the list goes on and on!

As difficult as it is, however, communication is crucial because effective communication builds trust and creates unity, and, on the other hand, ineffective communication is the death knell to any organization.

How then can we more effectively communicate? Here are some clues.

CONSIDER your audience: How can you best communicate with this particular audience, whether a group audience or an audience of one? This requires knowledge of the one or ones to whom you speak. And that demands time spent with this person or persons and a sympathy with this person or persons.

EVALUATE your words: Decide whether you can more effectively communicate in this situation with descriptive words, motivational words, or personal words.

According to Eugene Peterson, we use three different kinds of language in our world today.

Descriptive language is language about. This language names what is there. It helps orient us to the reality that is around us. It helps us to make our way through the intricacies of life. Our schools specialize in teaching us this language.

Motivational language is language for. This is the language we use to get things done. This is the language of commands, promises, and requests. It moves people to do things they would not do on their own initiative. Business and advertising people major in this kind of language.

Personal language is language to and with. This is the language we use to express ourselves, to converse with others, to be in relationship. Personal language is the spontaneous language of faith and is the cement that builds relationships.

Peterson concludes: “It [personal language] is also conspicuously absent when we are running a church — there is so much to say and do that there is no time left to be and no occasion, therefore, for the language of being there.”

ASSESS your body language: Words are only a small part of the communication process. Make sure you are not saying one thing with your mouth and another thing with your body. According to one statistician, the human body can produce up to 700,000 distinct physical signs. There are more than 1,000 different bodily postures, and more than 5,000 hand gestures. In addition, there are more than 250,000 facial expressions. All of these affect our communication.

In a world where “We are drowning in information and screaming for knowledge” – according to Harry Beckwith in What Clients Love – we need to remember this basic principle concerning communication: What people don’t know will hurt them.