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How To Be Clear In Your Communications

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The first challenge in communication is that most people don't know what the word means! Now, of course you know what the word means in once sense; however, my experience suggests that most of us don't really know the purpose side of the word's meaning. So, here goes!

Let's pretend that the word communication is actually made up of several words. Starting with the letter "C", what is the first, little tiny word you can find inside the word "communication?"

"Co": what does "co" mean? Together, with, part of, all come to mind.

How about the first compound word, with two or more syllables? Starting with the letter "C", we come up with "commun." What does "commun" suggest? More about together, part of, etc. You can see the "commun" in words like community, communal, etc. More about togetherness.

Does "commun" look like another fairly ordinary word, just slightly misspelled? How about changing the "u" to an "o"? That leaves us with:


What if communication has something to with togetherness and "in common?"

Take the last five letters in the word - "cation." Does that look like another fairly ordinary word, with the letters slightly out of order? How about reversing the "c" and the "a"? That leaves us with:


Just about any word in English, French, Spanish, Italian, etc that ends in "ion," "tion," or "ation" means "requires action."

So, put those two together, and what do you get?

Common Action

The word means something about acting together or acting in common. The keys are "action" and "in common."

About the only time we ever bother "communicating" with another person is when we want something from them: approval, cooperation, support, agreement, encouragement or just plain companionship. What happens when you don't want or need anything from the other person? In most instances, we don't bother saying anything at all!

If we are looking to "act in common" with another, what do we both need to know before we can "act in common?" If we are going to act together, we probably need to know something about what we are acting together for - some kind of sense of direction. Or purpose. Or outcome.

Common Action
(Acting in Common)

(a commonly held)


Now, think back to the last time you had a "miscommunication" at home or at work, and I'll bet you will discover that the other person (or team) had differing versions of the purpose, outcome or goal. If this rings even slightly true, then I'll also bet that your actual conversation was more about the action (who is going to do what) and less about the purpose, outcome or goal.

Whenever a human being takes some kind of action, it is usually toward some kind of purpose, outcome or goal. If we fail to clarify that we are both on the same page in terms of overall purpose and outcome, we are then quite likely to take actions toward something slightly, even hugely, different.

What happens when we notice that one of us failed to meet the other person's criteria of "good outcome?" One of us might feel like the other person "screwed up." Or didn't understand. Or didn't explain it very well. Or didn't try hard enough.

How often have you experienced some kind of miscommunication or failed outcome, and then found everyone focused on the "action" part of the equation? "Tell me again what you heard you were supposed to do (action)?" "Tell me again what you did." "Let's review the action plan one more time."

The assumption in these kinds of "review" conversations is that someone screwed up at the action level. "Do it again, harder" becomes the mantra of improvement. And, it could be that doing it again is the right answer. However, we all know the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

There are times when reviewing the action plan or action sequence makes sense; however, before going over the actions taken or not taken, my suggestion is that the first order of review would be to go over the intended purpose and outcome, to make certain that everyone was on the same page to begin with. If both parties have different versions of good outcome right from the get go, you can pretty much predict disaster, or at least disappointment, downstream.

Our advice

Start any "communication" with a discussion (discuss for action) with an understanding of purpose, outcome and goal. Make certain that both of you can explain the desired outcome in terms that the other can both repeat and visualize. "What do you imagine the outcome looking like?" "What will be produced?" "What will it/we be able to do?"

Next, spend some time on action steps and responsibilities. Who will be responsible for doing what? What are the deliverables that each person will be producing? What are the timelines or milestones? What are the consequences for missing a timeline or milestone. What should we do if one or the other is in danger of missing a milestone, or actually misses one? What impact will that have on the desired outcome? What should we do if one of us needs help?

The primary emphasis should be on the outcome or purpose first, then on the actions required to produce the outcome.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)