People are obsessed with the idea of clear communication. We are told that if you can’t communicate clearly, you’ve failed.
People’s obsession with communication clarity can be downright pathological.
Maybe you have heard your boss or colleague or spouse say: “I couldn’t be more clear,” “it wasn’t clear what you meant,” or “we’re looking for clarity here.” These are just a sampling of things we regularly hear about clarity — the supposed ideal goal of communication.
Clear communication does not exist. At least not like you think it does. People think of clear communication as their point “getting” across. As in, “they see my point.” But this is dangerous thinking. Clear communication is less “My point got across.” and more a question of “Oh! that’s where my meaning and their understanding overlaps!”
What it means to be “clear” when we communicate is a tricky question. Clarity can mean many things. Ask 100 people what it means to communicate clearly and you’ll get just as many different answers.
Are we talking full transparency? Did the intended message got across? Are we implying efficiency with language or brevity? Are we talking about accuracy, as in they “painted a clear picture of what happened?” We talk about clarity in many different ways.
Clarity is commonly associated with accuracy, certainty, directness, precision, simplicity, and transparency and usually boils down to suggestions like: “state things simply,” “keep it short,” “be specific,” and “be direct.” These are all different.
What’s the opposite of being clear? Vagueness. Opacity. Inaccuracy. Unintelligible. Equivocal. Abstract. Again, all different.
Everyone thinks they know what clear communication is, but in reality, nobody knows.
When it comes to clarity you cannot disassociate it from ambiguity. They are yin to each other’s yang. Two parts of the same communication whole.
Ambiguity is often overlooked and misidentified as some sort of a “lesser” communication outcome. This is wrong. We don’t need to abandon the idea of clear communication, but it does warrant more explanation and exploration than it gets.
Clear Communication Isn’t Necessarily Better
Let’s be straight that clear communication doesn’t equate to good communication. These ideas must be uncoupled. Clarity isn’t always desirable.
Are we ever really 100% transparent? Do we tell other people everything we are thinking? No. Are we ever 100 % efficient in how we use language? No! Of course not. Is everything we say always short and simple? Obviously, no.
Communication is always a mix of clarity and ambiguity. It’s both. Focusing solely on clear communication is a vast over-simplification of an unattainable ideal.
Mystery can be good too. There’s always wiggle room in a given conversation. We’re always clear in some ways and ambiguous in others. This is just part of the ebb and flow of conversations.
Sometimes, we desire precision and accuracy. At other times, we are vague. Sometimes, we try to be certain and at others we equivocate to be diplomatic. At times, we try to explain things simply. Other conversations require nuance, complexity, and depth. For example, if you had to confront a friend about some bad behavior that resulted in hurt feelings, you might try to clearly point out exactly what they did that troubled you, but leave it ambiguous as to how they should respond and what they should do. Clarity and ambiguity are tied together. Communication is rarely one or the other.
Being entirely transparent or specific or accurate — aiming only for clarity — doesn’t often paint a full picture of our communication goals. It’s not realistic. It’s a false god.
The Problems With “Clear” Communication
The idea of clear communication lures us into a false path trap — that communication has only worked if our intended meaning has been received.
People tend to think about communication as information transfer: what I have in my head – information, meaning, or an understanding — ends up in your head. What is in Brain A gets deposited in Brain B.
We think: if what’s in my head ends up in their head, communication has occurred. “They got my point.” But this isn’t how communication works. Communication is not linear like this. It is not a direct deposit. It is more than information transfer. Nothing transfers directly.
Communication is more than information. There is ritual where everyone takes away something different. Think, for example, about an event of gathering designed to bring people together maybe a church service, live concert, or gathering of friends. Meaning is both collective and individual. There are places where we overlap. Communication isn’t just about being “clear”?
What Does It Mean to Be Clear?
I don’t want to abandon the idea of clarity. It’s a topic to be explored and examined further. I would advocate stepping back from the cliffs of clarity madness. Stop holding clear communication up as an idol of worship. It is not the end all, be all. Leaving room for ambiguity and mystery doesn’t kill communication and it won’t kill most relationships.
For example, I could be clear with my partner when we’re running late to leave the house. I could tell her exactly what I’m thinking about being late makes me anxious and I’m blaming her for not being ready to go. But after 17 years, I know that a clear message of “I’m annoyed we’re running late and I blame you” is an unnecessary pushing of buttons that ultimately works against the goal of a happy relationship.
Being less reliant on clarity can actually result in better communication. Humans have a high tolerance for ambiguity. This is a feature, not a bug.
What is clear communication? Great question. It comes down to what do you want to get out of an interaction or in that relationship. Sometimes clear simplicity might be the answer. Other times, we happily roll right along with ambiguity. Clear communication shouldn’t be wielded as a weapon in pursuit of an unattainable possibility. Clarity need not be our goal unless we’re thinking of it as common understanding. Better to think of clarity more as a question of “What did we understand in common?” and “Where do we overlap?” instead of “Did my intended message arrive?”
Perfectly clear communication is not worthy of our obsession. It is a false, unattainable god.