Isn’t it interesting that many large organisations spend a significant part of their PR budget on advertising and very little on training their people to communicate effectively? Deficiencies in communication played a part in some famous engineering disasters such as the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia catastrophes, writes Carmel Wynne.

Turned risk and danger into disaster

In its final report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) concluded that Nasa’s reliance on informal communications to manage space shuttle operations – coupled with the agency's insular culture – turned risk and danger into disaster for the space shuttle. 

Underlying both disasters was the problem of relaying complex engineering information to management in an environment driven by schedules and budget pressures. 

Carmel Wynne

A significant element in Nasa’s management and decision making failure was a pattern of ineffective communication which resulted in leaving risks improperly defined, problems unreported and concerns unexpressed. 

Miscommunication occurs when people who work together speak in a kind of shorthand, using imprecise language, with the expectation that others will understand precisely what they mean. As children we learnt how to speak but not how to listen. 

We were taught that God gave us two ears and one mouth because we should listen twice as much as we speak. However, beyond checking that our hearing was healthy, hardly any attention was paid to how we listen. 

Hearing is not a skill that develops naturally. Two people say exactly the same thing, yet one version sounds like a threat and the other is heard as an invitation. Why, because the tone of voice changes the meaning of the spoken word. One can understand every word in a sentence yet miss the intended message simply because of a failure to pick up a change in the tone of voice.

Cadences communicate different messages

If a colleague says Have you a minute in a cheery tone of voice it will have a very different connotation compared with if your boss says Have you a minute in a sombre tone of voice. Exactly the same words spoken with different cadences communicate different messages. 

Have you ever left a meeting under the illusion that everybody present was clear about the decisions that were made? Later you found it difficult to comprehend how a colleague, who was at the same meeting disputed decisions that you were convinced were agreed. Silence may wrongly be taken as assent. It’s unwise to assume that a person who makes no contribution to a discussion is in agreement. 

One reason why people who take part in the same conversation or attend the same meeting give opposing and sometimes contradictory accounts of decisions that were made is that they focus on different, though equally accurate sets of information. People can only respond to what they think you mean, which may be an accurate or an inaccurate reflection of your intended meaning. 

You might like to try a simple exercise that will show how clearly you communicate. Be open to receiving feedback when you check for understanding. 

Find an incident when you feel confident that you explained something well. In a curious tone of voice say something like, 'I’m not sure that explanation was clear. What did you hear me say?' Learning from feedback is the quickest way to discover deficits in how we communicate.


No organisation will ever totally eliminate communication deficiencies because of the complexity of communication. The belief is widespread that if you and I speak the same language we will both attribute the same meaning to the words we use. It is surprising how often we don’t. 

A weakness in the assumption of shared meaning is that people believe they are having a conversation about one topic when they are actually having two different conversations. 

From Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) we understand that the meaning of communication is the response we get. NLP is now seen as one of the most powerful communication tools available. Neuro refers to what goes on in the brain and nervous system. 

Linguistic refers to how we use words and how this affects our perceptions and relationships. Programming refers to the interactive process which allows us to make precise choices about how we speak, act and think.

All communication involves a whole host of non-verbal signals that have a major impact on what we see, how we listen to words, if we hear and understand the totality of a communication. 

Can you believe that we communicate by what we do and what we don’t do, by what we say and by what we don’t say, by the messages we intend to communicate with words and by the myriad of unconscious non-verbal signals that others respond and react to emotionally?

One can only guess at the mind reading that occurs because of indirect, non-verbal communication. For example, Jack and Jackie worked on the same team. John asked Jack if he would like to work with Jill. He didn’t want to, but rather than explain why, he said Yes with his words and communicated No by shaking his head. His ambivalence made John uncomfortable. He picked up on the mismatch between the positive spoken message by Jack and the unspoken negative of the head shake.

Put projects at risk

Managers and team leaders who have communication deficits may come across as demanding, bureaucratic, inflexible or unapproachable. Where there is a culture of closed, insensitive communication, unreported problems and unexpressed concerns put projects at risk and have the potential to make for costly mistakes.

Our relationships are as good as our communication. Studies show that the success of any person to person communication, for any purpose, depends on the level of rapport that exists between the people involved. In her book NLP at work author Sue Knight says "most business decisions are made on the basis of rapport rather than technical merits"

In a family context it is appropriate to engage in a warm, intimate and loving level of rapport. In a business context it’s sufficient to develop rapport to the level of mutual respect. A simple communication technique for generating rapport is to use the phrase I’m wondering if; you’ll talk me through x, help me clarify y, you can suggest a way forward with z. 

Skilled communicators understand that there are three elements to effective communication: talking, listening and hearing. Some experts suggest that in a face-to-face conversation words are only 7% of the communication, tonality is 38% and body language 55%. 

Hearing involves listening beyond the words to hear if a voice is loud or soft, harsh or gentle, fast or slow. With a little training in communication one learns to become aware of vocal variety. Even if you have no concept of why these are important you unconsciously notice eye contact, facial expressions, body language, hand movements and other gestures which influence what people understand when they hear a person speak.

Would you like to increase the chances that people will hear what you mean, not just what you say when you give a presentation? Would you like to learn the communication skills of giving short punchy two-minute impactful answers if you speak ad hoc? 

Would you like to watch experienced communicators offer three minutes of constructive feedback on a brief speech, give an opinion on what worked well, what would make the next presentation better and end with an affirming comment? 

You could enjoy all these benefits by attending a meeting of Engineers Toastmasters Club. Meeting are from 7.30pm to 9pm on the second, fourth and fifth Tuesdays of the month. Guests are welcome. While Covid restrictions continue the meetings take place on Zoom but hopefully that will change shortly and meetings will resume at 22 Clyde Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin.

Author: Carmel Wynne is a life coach, master practitioner in NLP, cross-professional supervisor and writer.  Author of 'Coaching The Key To Unlocking Your Potential' she has facilitated workshops, written numerous newspaper and magazine articles and given media interviews on how an in-depth understanding of what happens when we communicate can make for significant improvements in all aspects of one’s family, professional and social relationships. She is education vice-president of Engineers Toastmasters Club and a distinguished toastmaster.