In the 1967 Movie “Cool Hand Luke”, the prison warden (played by Strother Martin) tells inmate Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) that he’ll get used to wearing the leg irons he’s saddled with, affixed after his recent failed escape attempt, and that they’re there for his own good. Luke replies, “I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Cap’n.” The warden is incensed at the inmate’s cheekiness, and in a fit of fury he clubs Luke to the ground. Recovering his composure, the warden drawls to Newman and the other inmates “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
As I see it, there are two basic types of communication failures: (1) Those that occur when you believe you’re conveying one particular message but the one perceived by the other party is different, sometimes enormously so, and (2) those that occur when—as in the Cool Hand Luke scenario—both sides are clear on what’s being communicated but the recipient decides (sometimes justifiably) to ignore, reject, or defy the message.
I have experienced both types of failures recently, and when it’s not comic it’s pretty upsetting. The former have occurred mostly in professional contexts and, as usual, I tend to be the last to discover the problem and flabbergasted by its existence. Until I discover the miscommunication, its effects on others are puzzling and distressing to me. Why is that coworker behaving so distantly, so hurt or angry?? Why is Krista so curt? What have I done/said/failed to do or say that’s caused this flurry of monosyllabic responses or tightened jaw muscles?
An example: I walked in to my office today and was greeted by my assistant, normally a very affable and enthusiastic person. “Good morning,” I greeted her enthusiastically. “How was your Thanksgiving break?” She kept her gaze on her computer screen and grunted, “Fine.”
Sensing something rotten in Denmark, I persisted. “Oh, good. Tell me about it!”
“We ate a lot. Lots of people came over. It was fine.” And still her computer screen was enjoying more face time than I was.
“Anything else you’d like to add?” I prodded, trying not to feel like a leper.
Hmmm. Even a dolt like yours truly could see something was afoul. I’d just been through a few rounds of other “communication failures” recently so I decided to head this one off at the pass if I could. “Rita, what’s going on? What’s eating at you?”
“Well, it’s important enough to affect how you’re acting—let’s get it out in the open and address it. Have I done something to make you angry?”
She paused and finally looked up. “Okay. Did you forget to tell me something?”
I was completely befuddled. In a state of cluelessness, a place I’m getting more and more familiar with. “Rita, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Help me out here.”
“On Wednesday—the day before Thanksgiving, when you were out of the office. Did you forget to tell me something?”
“Honestly, I can’t think of anything. What is it you think I neglected to tell you?!”
“On Wednesday afternoon the law school became abandoned. Totally silent. No one was around. I found out all the other departments were released early for Thanksgiving. So I called Peggy [the law school’s business manager] to see if we could go, too, and she said she told you about this the day before. Why didn’t you let us know we could go early?!?”
Oh, man. This was a double-barreled comedy of errors. Peggy said no such thing to me so said no such thing to Rita, who—having never heard the “no such message”—felt I had gypped her out of an hour of free time.
“Rita, that is NOT what Peggy said to me,” I explained. “She told me that Paul [the Dean/big Kahuna] might release everyone early. She did NOT tell me I had the authority to do so or that it was a done deal and I could communicate such a plan to you.”
She looked sheepish and apologetic. “Oh,” she mustered. “Sorry.”
With a two minute conversation we averted what might have turned into a weeks-long blizzard in the Career Services Office. If you’re fortunate, that’s all it takes, but someone has to be a straight shooter, to say “I’m really upset/frustrated/whatever because of X and Y. Can we address this maturely and fairly, please?” That often leads to a positive resolution of communication failure version No. 1.
As for version No. 2, well, I encounter that most often with the three amigos. I’ll keep y’all posted on how the warden and the inmates progress on that one.
Timothy Swenson is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.