Make your communication more powerful: Don’t make assumptions.


The other day I had a discussion that got me thinking about communication. I asked a question but received an answer to a different question. I had thought my question was clear enough but the answer showed something was wrong.

My question was about lines painted on the street outside a military base. The lines were painted in bright green with “U.S. Government Property” written across it. I’ve seen such lines at gates and signs on fences and know it defines a zone where Federal law is in effect and not the local or state law.

The question I had wasn’t about what the lines meant but why they were painted to encompass an entire intersection outside the base. Civilian traffic would be forced to pass through “the base” to proceed on to the other side of the intersection. (See rough drawing below)

Military Base Street Lines

I pass through this intersection on a daily basis and always wondered why the lines were painted to include the intersection. Clearly a large amount of traffic passes through the zone and wondered if it had a less obvious reason, like claiming the traffic to be “base traffic” as it may now officially “pass through” the base.

I had the opportunity to ask the old XO of the base the question about the lines and why they were painted where they were.

“Those lines define the outline of the base so people know the federal laws will be enforced. Federal laws are different than state laws.” he responded.

He had obviously not understood my question, even though I’d tried to make it clear.

“What had happened?”, I wondered.

Was the concept wasn’t too complex for him? He was clearly a bright guy so that wasn’t the problem. At first I figured I had not been as clear as I could have been. “That was my fault,” I thought to myself and as I reformed the question. It took two more descriptions of the intersection for him to understand the question.

What was the problem?

It occurred to me that the fault wasn’t all mine. It was two fold:

  1. He had assumed the question would not be difficult and picked up only on the “Green line painted on the ground” and assumed he knew the question. He was wrong causing frustration for both parties.
  2. I had assumed he knew the situation and described it as if he did. As one of the 3 gates to the base, I’d assumed he had seen the lines before and was familiar with them. By the end of the conversation, it was clear that was not the case.

So what did this interaction teach me about communication? That both parties can assume a commonality that may not exist.

I think this happens a lot. It certainly happens often when technical people speak because we don’t always appreciate that most people don’t know (or care to know) the details we are talking about. It’s common because that gap is often much larger than either party knows. The techies tries to “dumb it down” and the non-techie gets upset at the arrogant tone (even though they only hear ‘blah blah blah’ and aren’t really trying anyway).

But this isn’t just a technical problem.

How often have you explained a chore or task to someone and had them do the wrong thing? I think that is exactly this problem. Both parties assume understanding but they aren’t in sync. Of course the product isn’t right!

Own control of your communication

The next time you assume you’ve gotten your point across, think again. I’ll bet there was room for misunderstanding.

The final “answer” about the lines

By the way, the XO didn’t know the answer – “Maybe that’s what is on the land plot or something.”

In writing this up, I realized a possible reason the lines are outside the proper gate:

When vehicles approach the gate, the military may need to take action before the vehicle gets to the gate or enters the base. Drawing the lines outside the gate allows that action to be taken after the vehicle has entered government property but before reaching the gate proper. If the line was drawn on the actual gate, the vehicle may still be on civilian property and thus any action would be on civilian property. That could lead to a real PR problem!

Post Script: This got me thinking about the lines themselves and any unintended consequences resulting hundreds of citizens breaking the law on a daily basis. See my next entry for those thoughts! My Commute Home Now Causes Me To Break Federal Law? – Paul Bergman

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