In 1986 the Challenger Space Shuttle lifted off the ground with millions of onlookers from the world over watching in awe. When it exploded 73 seconds later, those same viewers stared in shocked disbelief. Those who witnessed this horrifying incident can still recall where they were as they watched it unfold.
What followed were 32 months of investigation and millions of questions. Why, how, when did things start to go wrong and what had caused the explosion were prevalent among them. Perhaps even more amazing were the answers that followed. Every engineer on the project had felt the flight should not happen. They all had misgivings, hesitations, reasons why they thought it should be rescheduled, yet it was scheduled anyway. When asked why they had remained silent, they said, they felt pressured not to speak up. So they coached their concern in the language of hints and abstractions. They wrote messages that were lengthy, used convoluted language that so distilled the essence of what needed to be said plainly that the style of writing effectively obscured the message.
Their management, under tremendous pressure to produce results or lose funding was reluctant to acknowledge failure, so reluctant that they eventually evolved and encouraged an atmosphere of false optimism. This structure discouraged anyone who expressed hesitation or doubt about the mission’s success from speaking up. They built a structure of silence and it ended up costing lives.
Over the years numerous people have cited the explosion of the Challenger as a sign post to warn us against the danger of silencing employees. Plain language specialists use it to demonstrate how organizations can not only lose money but lives by not speaking in simple terms and short sentences. Organizational facilitators use it to illustrate the costs of not having a culture that supports open dialogue. Any organization, collective or group that is focused on outcomes needs to consider the lesson. Ineffective communications is not just inconvenient, slow or frustrating; it can be disastrous.
The stories associated with the cost of miscommunication are almost countless. The thing is, we don’t need to add to their ranks. Miscommunications isn’t inevitable, unavoidable or inescapable, it’s a choice. We can choose to communicate effectively by making an effort to understand and pursue clarity in our exchanges. We can take the time to ensure that messages are delivered accurately or we can pretend that we don’t have time to communicate and then spend much more time later correcting our miscommunication. That is, we can spend more time later if we are lucky.
In our personal relationships, we can address miscommunications by taking the time to know what inspires the people around us and then listening with care. By understanding what motivates a person we create a window into understanding why they say and do the things they do. By eliminating distractions and focusing on what they are saying, we are more likely to have meaningful exchanges. Coincidentally, the same is true of our work relationships.