Why is communication so complex?

Paul Kelly - January 14, 2019
On one hand, more than 90% of effective communication is common sense.
Why then do so many of us get it wrong; including so-called global leaders?


Over 30 years of leadership development, executive coaching and communication training, I have observed a consistent gap between the recognition of intellectual principles of effective communication and the ability to apply those principles successfully.


There are 5 key reasons for this.

  1. We are programmed for self-interest.

 It’s human nature for us to be primarily focussed on ourselves.

While many generous and empathetic people exist, a communicator’s ability to focus on the needs and preferences of others will often stem more from learned behaviour or from structured approaches to communication such as stakeholder analysis. This learned behaviour or structure will often provide the foundation for effective communication and will offset the instinct to put ourselves first.

A habitual and methodical approach to the consideration of the needs, hopes, dreams, fears and priorities of others will help guide a more audience and stakeholder oriented, and therefore more effective approach to communication.

  1. “I am magnificent”

Many of us might see ourselves as great communicators; or believe that our positional power equates to communication effectiveness.

When coaching and observing leaders, I consistently observe low levels of self-awareness and high levels of delusion. And part of the cause is often a sycophantic or “risk-managed” approach from the internal team who will commonly tell the leader how great a communicator he or she is. Members of internal teams will often see constructive commentary to leaders as a career-limiting move.

The leader who stands in front of her or his team and invites feedback on how things are landing, warts and all, is effective practice. Best practice, however, will look for specific, independent and informed feedback on the impressions they leave on stakeholders.

This input is necessary for leaders to be able to consciously and authentically shape or improve impressions.

  1. Communication is a minefield.

While communication principles are largely common sense, there is a minefield of research, analysis, superficial wisdom and free online communication training and presentation available – and a lot of confusion along with it.

So not all communication training is the same and not all communication feedback is meaningful. How, for example, should communication training, coaching, mentoring, experience and digital learning play a role in development – for whom and when?

Much of the presentation training or coaching assignments I have worked on over 30 years required a degree of “unwinding” of habits that have been imposed on leaders as part of a generic formula by well-meaning, yet incompetent “coaches”.

Great communicators benefit from deep experience from their coaches in knowing how to sort through and apply the right amount of the right type of advice and support.

  1. Everyone is an expert – or are they?

Most communication feedback is superficial and useless. “You were really great” and “You really knew your subject” are common examples of commentary often provided by underlings.

Because we all communicate daily, we often all assume we are proficient advisers and are entitled to pass on our “expert” commentary. Even though much of the commentary is well-meaning, it is often generic at best.

Independent and expert feedback will not only drive self-awareness but will also provide a roadmap for leadership development and communication effectiveness.

  1. “I am a robot now”

“Now, as a presenter, I will flick a switch and become a communication robot – ignorant of others’ perceptions, devoid of emotion and dumping information as fast and as directively as I can.”

Many leaders simply flick a switch and appear inhuman as they begin an important presentation. They can lose all sense of relaxation and authenticity as nerves or the pressures of performance are (self) imposed on them.

Presenters often feel so stressed by the judgment they feel is placed on them, they become physically ill and become someone they are not. In fact, over the past 18 months, I have seen 3 executives pass out with the felt pressure of “performance”

So, common sense does not often translate to effective communication. Instinct and talent often require reinforcement from learned behaviour.

Simply thinking about others, asking for the truth about impressions we create, focusing on the things that matter most, securing help from the real experts and, in the end, being yourself, will make all the difference.