The Path to Good Communication is "Bad" Communication

| 5 min read
#productivity #meetings #leadership

If you refuse to communicate poorly it will be very hard to ever communicate well. Part of the reason that meetings go so poorly is that we mix up good and bad communication.

Invariably when working (or really interacting) with other people you're going to run into situations where the only way to resolve a misunderstanding is by talking through it with another person.What this typically looks like is feeling the need to communicate a thing, but knowing that the process of that communication has emotional or interpersonal costs. These costs can come in the form of frustration or confusion.

In the radical candor verbiage often this comes in the form of ruinous empathy. We withhold the thing we might want to say for fear of hurting someone or causing confusion. We typically do this because we like to imagine a world where if only we knew the correct or the best thing to say we would say it. But the situations where you can both communicate perfectly to resolve a situation and one’s where the situation happened in the first place are few and far between.

We often imagine this in the context of withholding feedback from someone who we have constructive (or downright negative) feedback to deliver. And that is one of them, but I've seen this come up more often in other situations. I've typically seen this happen when

  • you know you don't understand something but you don't actually know what you don't understand
  • you see people agreeing with each other but you can't tell specifically what is being agreed upon
  • you see people agreeing but you think it's more out of a desire not to actually continue the conversation
  • people seem to be disagreeing but also talking about separate things

In all of these situations it's easy to imagine a clever, suave, well-spoken individual stepping in and calmly resolving the situation. Like those scenes in movies about high schoolers where the popular kids walk past and the wind is gently blowing their hair and they look cool as hell. But those people don't exist.

What is "Bad" Communication

DALL-E: Claymation of someone in a meeting saying something other people cannot understand claymation of someone in a meeting saying something other people cannot understand

Before we get too much further I'd like to walk through a non-exhaustive list of forms of "bad" communication, that can still be useful:

  • Misusing a term or phrase that's key to a discussion
  • Asking a question that seems like it has an obvious answer
  • Stating your perspective of the world/problem/widget and being wrong
  • Sharing a judgment that is critical and learning it was based on a faulty premise
  • Clarifying a point that someone of your status/level should "obviously" understanding
  • Critiquing someone else's work
  • Disagreeing with someone else's opinion

We assume the path from confusion to understanding is linear and up and to the right. We start a meeting not on the same page, and then we end the meeting on the same page. It isn't, and I'd like to walk through the reasons why.

Graphs of what a good meeting actually looks like compared to what we imagine it looking like. Where the x axis is time and the y axis is shared understanding

Communication is a Multi-player sport

It's weird because we do it so much that we tend to assume that communication is easy. It's like water for a fish. This makes it incredibly easy to over-internalize communication that's going poorly. If you don't understand something, it's a failing in your ability to understand, if people don't understand you, it's a failure of your ability to communicate. But the reality is that the state of positive or negative communication is more a reflection of the relationship between the people at the table, rather than any given person. It's why reading academic papers (even about straightforward stuff) feels like reading a foreign language. The relationship between the people communicating is unstable.

There are plenty of ways to resolve this instability. It might require your going and doing research, reading up on vocabulary, or leveling up within your chosen field. But it also might mean that there's a fundamental misunderstanding in what's getting talked about and deserves asking a question or clarification to resolve. But the first step here is to push your observation about how the communication is going outside of yourself by remembering the state of communication reflects the relationship and the moment.

The Stakes for "Bad" Communication are Immediate; The Stakes for No Communication are Long Term

When you say something confusing or incorrect, the looks of confusion are immediate and you'll have to deal with it. If you don't say something confusing and let it go unsaid, you have the opportunity to kick the can down the road, and maybe never deal with it. The costs to disorganization on the project will be distributed or not felt among multiple groups of people. It will just be a vague dissatisfaction. It's less visceral. So we tend to default to the thing with lower immediate stakes. It's like the unholy child of present bias and the tragedy of commons in a TED Talk.

But the rewards for overcoming our fears of bad communication can also be immediate. The most satisfying part of a meeting is leaving feeling like you built a shared understanding where previously there was none. Or a meeting where you left with action items and a visceral understanding of how they connected with one another. "Bad" communication can help build understanding in confusing situations.

We Confuse Poor and Hurtful Communication

Bad communication we think of not knowing how to properly phrase our thoughts or being unable to describe what we see. So we don’t think of difficult communication as bad, we think of it as rude. Because we assume it's easy we tend to create all of these other assumptions like bad or rude communication is always a choice to be mean or rude. If communication is going poorly, and you can say something that will create clarity at the risk of being rude or hurtful or sounding stupid. You need to say the thing that is potentially rude or hurtful or stupid. There simply is not a world where you can get to a better place without actually overcoming the thing that you need to say.

This is not an excuse to be an asshole or to treat other people poorly. It's a recognition that part of learning how to communicate well, both in the short and long term, is by communicating poorly, and using that understanding to communicate better in the future.

The State of a Conversation is Not Fixed

This is where I really want to land. It's easy to assume that as you speak you will either increase clarity and improve conversation, or decrease clarity and make conversation worse. But conversations don't actually operate on those axes, always either getting worse or getting better. Sometimes you have to complicate a conversation in order to get to a better outcome.

This is the same as the adage “anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly”. The solution for misunderstandings, confusion, and lack of clarity is more communication where people are honestly trying to represent their opinions and beliefs, not ones where people aren't saying anything at all.