A few years ago, I was sitting in the conference room of a resort in Cyprus. Me and two other guys were sitting around a table, discussing a new development project we were embarking on. Normally, we don’t get such an opportunity – our conversations about topics like this are done via text, or video calls, from the comfort of our own homes or offices. This was a special occasion – we were together at just the right time to sit down and figure out how this was going to work, together. It was exciting – we’ve built our entire business around the idea that you can generally communicate well enough remotely to get things done, so the increased bandwidth of a face to face conversation, with the nuance of body language, tone, and no latency was a special treat.
So we sat, and we talked. And we misunderstood. And we talked more. And we misunderstood more. After working for several hours through ideas and plans via discussion, hastily drawn diagrams on hotel notepads, and wild hand gestures, we realized that we still didn’t agree on a fundamental, core piece of the project – a piece we thought we all had agreed on hours ago.
We weren’t bad communicators. We knew each other pretty well. It didn’t matter.
Communication is hard.
Really hard. Discussing anything other than concrete objects that can be independently experienced and corroborated through other senses at the time time – like, stuff you see in front of both of you, and can point at, see, touch, smell – is fraught with misunderstanding and miscommunication. Abstract ideas? Feelings? Good luck.
Sometime after that, in a separate conversation about communication, a friend introduced me to Wiio’s laws:
- Communication usually fails, except by accident.
- If communication can fail, it will.
- If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.
- If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding.
- If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.
- If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.
(there are more, but these are the ones that most interest me at the moment)
Osmo Anteri Wiio was a Finnish academic, among other things. He seems to have written the laws facetiously, but it’s hard to avoid the deep, depressing, uncomfortable truths from which they spring.