The glass is half full... the glass is half empty: communication miscues

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Fred Woodruff
  • 81st Training Group
As a Military Training Leader in the 81st Training Group, I have seen so many occurrences of communication breakdowns or misinterpretations between the Airmen, the NCOs, the officers, and yes, even at home with my own family. Now, I'm not here to say that all communications are misinterpretations. Sometimes when we communicate with each other we simply just don't agree with each other and that's okay. As humans, it's an innate quality to not always agree. However, as members of the most powerful Air Force in the world, it's critical that we communicate clearly and successfully in order to carry out our mission.

As stated in the "oldie but a goodie," The Tongue and Quill AFH 33-337, "Communication is defined as the process of sharing ideas, information and messages with others." Whether it's on a professional level or a personal level with loved ones at home, we all communicate every day in some facet or another. Communication, as defined by most sources, is the process of conveying information from a sender to a receiver through the use of a medium or channel that is understood by the sender and receiver. While this describes communication in a very general sense, communication is far more than simply conveying information. Communication is how we exchange our thoughts, feelings or ideas; how we assign and convey meaning in an attempt to create a shared understanding; how we utilize signals or words to produce a desired effect; and it is a very complex process with a lot of room for potential error.

And that's when the breakdowns and the misinterpretations occur. The misinterpretation of communication can have dire consequences. People who misinterpret communication burn bridges, offend superiors and make enemies, all while having the most positive of intentions. Adding to this problem is the fact that communication is complex; people can often give seemingly contradictory verbal and nonverbal signals that obscure their intended meaning. There are many ways that verbal and nonverbal communication can be misinterpreted, most having to do with ambiguity, cultural differences and mixed messages.

So you're sitting there reading this, then you begin to ask yourself, 'what does this have to do with me? I always communicate well because I have a Master's Degree in education or I have a ton of stripes, so this must be for some of those junior Airmen to read. Afterall, they just came in the military last night, so what can they bring to the table?'

Well, I'm here to say that as a member of the slightly 'older' regime that we may not always understand them, but today's young Airmen bring plenty of fresh ideas and thoughts. That being said, it's up to the senior leaders all the way around from the civilians to the enlisted to the officers, to ensure the lines of communication are always open.

The fundamental problem with communication is the perception that communication is nothing more than an information exchange. Communication is far more intricate than a way to transfer information; it is about acting or changing another's behavior through what we say and about ensuring that the message communicated is the same message received. Too often, we don't really understand the communication that we just received from that Airman. Where, we as supervisors may have heard 'Sir, I'm leaving for the day. Do you need anything else from me?' When in actuality, what we thought we heard was 'Sir, I'm leaving for the day' because we were not using effective listening skills. We were so consumed with a last minute task or email that the commander or chief just sent at 4:29 p.m., so we become enraged with the Airman because he or she had the nerve to just leave without asking us first.

In addition, another misconception is how messages are conveyed when communicating in person. Most people fail to realize that the majority of their message, when communicated in person, is conveyed through non-verbal communication as opposed to their actual words and tone of voice. More than 50 percent of your message communicated in person is communicated through non-verbal communication signals. So it becomes incredibly important to ensure when we are not using any non-verbal signals like emails, texts, or other 20th century advances that we pay careful attention to what we write and read. Remember...we must ensure that the message we send is the same one that is received. Sometimes we see the glass half full and sometimes we see it half empty.

Communication skills are vitally important in any environment where teamwork is important. Simply put, communication enables us to come together to accomplish things better than we can accomplish as individuals. Communication skills are particularly important for leaders. The ability to communicate a vision and direction, to motivate and inspire others and to persuade our superiors are all essential in bringing people together to achieve a common goal. And more importantly in the military environment we operate highly technical equipment in a lethal environment and we are held to very high standards by the country we serve. Miscommunication can cause expensive mistakes, embarrass our organization and in some cases cause accidents.

Remember that each of us has a different job to do and we often see things differently, but we're all on the same team and working for those same goals. We're not always going to agree and communicate well. Bottom line here: we have a fast paced and ever growing mission with fewer and fewer personnel to get the job done, so ensuring that we use effective communication with one another will significantly reduce the demands on our high operations tempo. Whether you are an airman basic or "the Chief," we must all understand that it is important that we communicate clearly and effectively to carry out our mission as the greatest Air Force in the world!