Clear communications: Oxymoron or smart goal? Join our debate!

by | Feb 14, 2011 | Blog | 12 comments

Is clear communications an oxymoron or an attainable goal?

Tom Peters, the famous author, speaker, professional agitator (his words) and I have opposing points of view on this topic, which I discovered last week. Here’s our Feb. 10 exchange on Twitter:

tom_peters: “Clear communications,” alas, are an oxymoron.”

Leadershipfreak: (Dan Rockwell) RT @tom_peters: “Clear communications,” alas, are an oxymoron. // RU sure?”

lizguthridge: “Clear communications possible w/care & discipline. RT @Leadershipfreak: RT @tom_peters: “Clear communications,… (cont)

tom_peters: “@lizguthridge @Leadershipfreak Disagree, think one can try and try and improve and improve but communication never ‘clear.’”

lizguthridge: “@tom_peters So is communication always unclear? Or something in between? @Leadershipfreak What do you think?”

tom_peters “@lizguthridge @Leadershipfreak Degrees of unclear. Hey, spouse you love, have lived with 20 yrs & mis-communication literally every day.”

lizguthridge: “@tom_peters So how do you make ‘I love you’ clearer communication? Surely some degrees of unclear are clear enough to be understood?”

tom_peters: “@lizguthridge Surely you are joking ….”

lizguthridge “@tom_peters I’m not joking. I believe you can achieve clear communication. May not be perfect, but clear enough to be understood for action.”

So it seems appropriate, after mulling over this give-and-take, to use my blog on Valentine’s Day to expand on my point of view. And I also want to invite anyone who’s interested to weigh in on the subject, either by taking the poll or commenting, or both.

Granted, clear communications may be a challenge to achieve; however, it’s a more admirable goal to strive for than reaching lesser degrees of unclear. Call me a cockeyed optimist. (In the interest of full disclosure I am a native of Oklahoma, a subject of another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.) I support the positive psychology movement, which I hope would advocate clear communications as a worthy search for excellence rather than settling for mediocrity.

In this case, isn’t it better to view the glass as half full rather than half empty? And who wants to strive to be not too foggy, muddled, or ambiguous?

Even more important, aren’t the results of the communications more important than our attempts to communicate clearly? For example, your communications may not be perfectly clear, yet it’s clear enough so that the people you’re communicating with understand your meaning and can take action.

Plus, you often have multiple opportunities to communicate the same message, especially to support a change initiative. That means you can take time to test for understanding. If you missed the mark, you refine and restate. And if the people you’re communicating with didn’t pay attention or ignored you, you can repeat and reinforce.

You also can share some laughs over the misunderstanding, provided you catch the problem early enough without too many missed hand-offs, extra work, or hard feelings to cause problems.

For instance, the day after this interchange, Social Media Insider (@socialmedia411) posted this joke on Twitter: “OH: ‘Doctor, doctor, I think I’m addicted to Twitter.’ The doctor looks at him and says, ‘Sorry, I don’t follow you.’”

Back to serious stuff though. What do you think? Is clear communications an oxymoron, such as jumbo shrimp, industrial parks, and light heavyweight? Or is clear communications an attainable goal that makes our lives better? Take the poll. And share your comments.

Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope that’s clear!


  1. Dan Rockwell

    Hi Liz,

    I believe clear communication can be attained for mechanical activities. For example, place nut A on bolt B.

    However, concepts and emotions are more challenging because listeners make up the message in their own heads.

    It’s been fun discussing this topic.



  2. Meredith

    I think there is real skill in being able to “read” between the lines… if you already “know” the person – communication can happen. For new people (who are harder to read) social media can cause real misunderstandings.

  3. Paul Larsen

    Hey Liz:

    Great debate. I think clear communications are attainable but it takes a lot of effort in creation, delivery, interpretation and checking for understanding (sometimes frequently). Per Dan’s point: concepts, motivation (i.e. agenda) & emotions are what cloud the “clearness” of the message. Your example of “I love you” can be an example of “clear communication” but the definition of love can have a variety of meanings to both the deliverer and receiver of the message…thus begging the question: Is the communication really clear?


  4. Anastacia

    I’m with Tom on this one.

    Clear communication would require that people have exactly the same perceptions, the same understanding of the words being used, the same understanding of verbal, non-verbal, and paraverbal cues, the same exact levels of emotional and relational maturity…to just scratch the surface.

    Liz… you asked whether some degrees of unclear are clear enough to be understood. This is, in reality, how we all muddle through our lives. Hoping (and to some degree, assuming) that the simple language we use will be. And often it is–in spite of all that the message is up against.

    But, in reality, if it’s unclear even by a degree, it’s not clear communication. Know what I mean? 😉


  5. Pat Matson

    There was a time when I really, truly cared about communicating with others clearly. Way back then, I felt somehow responsible for them understanding me. I’ve since understood that no matter how clearly I communicate, there will always be those who don’t get it. For them, I don’t think anyone can articulate clearly enough! So then: clear communication? I now know that if I get it, I get it. If they don’t, they don’t and they will always be with us. I lose no sleep over their lack of getting it.

  6. Kathleen Alexander

    We often attribute meaning based on our own mental maps. For example, what might be simple, non-controversial feedback can be taken as criticism by one person and as heartfelt (and welcomed) advice by another.

  7. Jesse Stoner

    Well, you certainly helped me get clearer in my communication last night, Liz! 🙂 But seriously, we do need to help each other to achieve clarity. I believe real communication depends on a contract – where people are actively engaged in the process, committed to understanding each other, and not assuming they already know what the other person means or attribute motive. In other words, the more clear we are, the more clear our communications can be.

  8. Steve

    I believe it is definitely attainable. I agree with Dan, it’s primary role would be to direct or instruct someone. This topic is definitely engaging and open to various possibilities.


  9. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    Although this whole thing may just be semantics, I would generally agree with TTom. If you define clear communications as “impossible to misinterpret”, then clear is the ideal. We have to measure clear with the standard by what is heard, including interpretation, by the other person. This is ultimately what matter, much more so than what we say or write. Of course, like any worthy ideal state it is the pursuit of that ideal that matters.

  10. Liz Guthridge

    All, thanks for the lively and thoughtful comments. In a later exchange on Twitter, Tom suggested “Clear communications: an oxymoron AND a smart goal.” I think “perfect communications” is the oxymoron. Communicating perfectly is almost impossible for all the reasons many of you pointed out.

    I still maintain you can communicate clearly with care and discipline. For example, consider the US. road system. As Jamie wrote in his great book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, 100 million drivers are able to navigate the nation’s highways with less chaos than most 50-person departments.

  11. Jean

    “Houston, we have a problem.” This clear communication made the folks at NASA sit up and pay attention. Yes, they needed more info, but the NASA engineers knew, from those 5 words, that they needed to act. That is our goal: Communicate as clearly as possible to achieve desired results. It’s not perfect, but it can be clear.

  12. Beverley Moore

    If we aim for unambiguous messages we have a chance of producing clear enough ones, because we’re thinking about why people might misunderstand. We’re always left with the difficulty that communication takes both parties. If the person being communicated to doesn’t want to understand, or doesn’t want to approach the issues constructively for whatever reason, then they will always receive a different message than the one we intend to send.

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