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What We Can Learn From KLM 747

JW Way Fundamental #10: Communicate to be Understood
“Know your audience. Use the language of your audience to write and speak clearly concisely, in away that can be easily understood.”

How important is communicating to be understood? Can the misunderstanding of a few words literally mean the difference between life and death?

In 1977 at foggy Tenerife airport in the Canary Islands, the captain of a KLM flight thought that the air traffic controller had cleared him for take-off. But in fact, the controller intended only to give departure instructions, not clearance for take-off. Although the language spoken between the Dutch KLM captain and the Spanish controller was English, confusion was created by heavy accents and improper terminology. The KLM 747 hit a Pan Am 747 at full throttle on the runway, killing 583 people.

The importance of communicating to be understood is obvious. The following are a few tips the experts recommend to assist us in accomplishing this goal:

  1. Beware of signal amplification bias. This is the tendency to believe that we have communicated fully when in fact, we have failed to communicate clearly.
  2. What is effective communication? It is surely a two-way street. It is not only how you convey a message so that it is received and understood in the way you intended, it is also about how you listen to gain the full meaning of what’s being said and how to make the other person feel heard and understood. Remember the non-verbal components and engaged listening – both are important components of communicating to be understood.
  3. Consider communication preference. Not everyone likes to communicate the same way – for some, it is e-mail, others would rather pick up the phone and talk, still others text, or some rely on instant messaging to communicate. Respect and pay attention to the person’s communication preference.
  4. Restate what you hear. Rephrasing what your client or boss says to you by repeating the important points shows you are listening and that you understand. It gives both parties a chance to clarify if there is any confusion, and by repeating it, you are more likely to remember.
  5. Be as clear and direct as possible.
  6. Be as concise as reasonably possible. There are statistics which quantify how little time people spend focused on a single issue and therefore concise communication is desirable. Develop the skill to make the necessary points in a sharp and focused manner.

When used, these six tips will improve our efforts to communicate to be understood.  In the romantic work of Kahlil Gibran, “Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most of love is lost.” 

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