Communicating is Like Flying an Airplane—It’s Always Off Course

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Like many of you, I’m a frequent flyer. It recently occurred to me that as a plane leaves the ground, it is already off course. A crosswind is blowing it left or right. A tail or nose wind is speeding it up or slowing it down, and any changes in atmospheric pressure is having it climb or descend. The pilot’s job is to intervene to get the plane back on course. Once she course corrects, she’ll have to course correct again bringing the plane back on its planned trajectory, altitude, and speed. The pilot will keep course-correcting until the plane lands at its intended destination.

And in that same insight, I saw the very same phenomenon occurs in the world of communication.

As a frequent flyer in boardrooms and in big gatherings where the participants are intent on creating breakthroughs in some area of their business, I’ve also noticed that conversations are off course. In fact, they are off course before people get in the room, and they remain off course until we land the plane on some aligned set of outcomes or agreements. Just like the pilot who is course-correcting until the intended destination is reached, the astute manager will course-correct until the accomplishment is achieved.

Have you ever had the experience of someone saying something to you and you heard something completely different? And, have you said something that was heard differently? Did you notice that if you didn’t course-correct the communication tended to veer way off course and in some instances completely crashed?

There is nothing new and exciting about what I just pointed out. What could be novel is the idea of considering yourself to be a pilot in every conversation you participate in. Instead of assuming that the conversation is on course, assume that it is already off course before, during and after the conversation. Your job as an effective manager or leader is to pay attention to any course-corrections that are needed and adjust as required.

For example, if I said, “elephant” to you. I know you heard the word, “elephant”. And if we assumed the conversation was always on course you would assume that your meaning was my meaning.

But, if I asked you what your meaning of elephant was, you might say, “big grey animal”. In my mind, however, I was thinking, “peanut”. So, if you were a pilot of this conversation, (assuming the conversation was off course), you might say, “wait, when you say elephant, do you mean big grey animal or peanut, pink, dumbo, or elephant in the room?” The willingness to interrogate if there is shared meaning could ensure the plane maintains its course.

The point is this, I have noticed that the most effective people in a group, the ones who had the ability to keep elevating the conversation to new and productive heights, seemed to always double check meaning by asking questions.

So, do you assume a shared meaning or are you a pilot?

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