Direct communication isn’t what it seems

We’ve all played the game telephone as kids. We know when a messages is passed around a circle it comes out different, sometimes drastically different. It’s not hard to understand that indirect communication distorts a message. But where does that distortion come from?

Indirect communication is nothing but a series of direct communications. Which means the problems with indirect communication are the result of problems with direct communication.


Somehow distortion still happens with face to face direct conversation. Distortions are amplified with subsequent distortions each time a message is passed through another layer of direct communication. Imagine Tony talks to Jane, Jane talks to Bob, Bob talks to Anne. Not the same as Tony talking directly to Anne. But, even if Tony talks directly to Anne, things can go wrong.

Because of this, I believe in direct communication, I don’t like to play he said she said. But even when talking directly, we tend to not be aware that distortion still takes place. Sometimes substantial miscommunication. Here’s a list of just a few of the things that affect what message is conveyed:

Let’s say Tony is talking to Anne:

  • How actively is Anne listening? How about Tony?
  • What happened to Anne earlier in the day that might be on her mind? How about Tony?
  • What’s going on in Anne’s personal life, perhaps a major life event? How about Tony?
  • Was the conversation perceived as casual or formal?
  • What perspective does Anne have that Tony may not have? What knowledge is tacit in Anne’s mind, that’s not in Tony’s? And vice versa?
  • What does Tony assume that Anne knows? In other words, what does Tony leave unsaid?
  • What does Tony assume that Anne has understood in the conversation? What cues does Anne provide?
  • What does Tony assume that Anne doesn’t know that causes Anne to tune out while Tony explains something Anne already understands?
  • Did anybody’s mind wander, perhaps day dreaming?
  • Is there a history of politics between the two individuals such that they tend to react emotionally and not logically toward each other?
  • If there were important takeaways, did anyone take notes or are people relying upon their memory? If relying upon memory, how many days will elapse before they try to recall what they need?
  • Was the conversation over a phone? In an email? In person?
  • How is Anne actively summarizing the conversation in her mind to form her next course of action, if any? How about Tony?

I’m certain you can add more to this list. Direct communication isn’t what it seems.