We can probably all agree that the world is becoming increasingly complex, with more and more “noise” thrown at us as an attempt at communication.

The messages come fast and furious from all corners, and we react to those messages depending on our mood, what our Twitter feed looks like, and the weather.

We see people at home or at work and listen to them talk, understanding both parties and confused as to why they don’t understand each other.

We are frustrated because people argue over the truth, they pick apart discussions and refuse to focus on the core messages, or they are incapable of reaching their audience.

Why is that?

Why is it so hard to communicate effectively these days?


There is an 88 year-old German sociologist and philosopher named Jürgen Habermas who has spent much of his life working on “communicative rationality,” which says:

In order for humans to be reasonable and reach understanding, there must be successful communication.

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “That’s a bit obvious, no?”

Stay with me. There’s more.

Habermas teaches us that human conflict is the result of miscommunication, and that miscommunication is the result of communicative incompetence.

What does that mean?

It means that all of us (truly all of us, if we are being honest) are incompetent when it comes to the needs of effective communication these days.

In order to be really competent according to Habermas’ model, three things must be true, all at the same time:

1. The truth of the statement is shared by the speaker and the listener,

2. The listener understands the speaker’s intention, and

3. The speaker has adapted to the listener’s worldview.

Let’s break that down a bit more.


The Truth Of The Statement Is Shared By The Listener And The Speaker

Essentially, this means that in order to have effective and useful discussion, we first have to agree on the facts of the situation.

So if we want to converse on Climate Change, the Economy, or the best way to deal with Employee Engagement in our organization, we have to find facts that we can agree on first.

Without agreement on those facts, we can not have effective communication on the topic.

The Listener Understands The Speaker’s Intention

How many times have you been involved in a heated discussion, and been misinterpreted by those who don’t know you well? Perhaps you’ve felt they are nitpicking on nuances that were unintended, and using those nuances to change the conversation.

Habermas states that we have to understand a person’s intention before we can have honest and helpful dialogue.

An example might be someone you work with who, when stressed, can sound angry, even though they really aren’t. Because you understand that, you can focus on the content of the message rather than being annoyed with the angry tone.

My Mum used to use terminology that today would be politically incorrect. Try as I might, I couldn’t get her to delete such words and phrases because when she grew up they were the norm. When I spoke with her I knew her intention was not to be difficult or inappropriate, and I was able to deal with her real issues and points.

Some others might have had trouble with that.

The Speaker Adapts To The Listener’s World View

Many of you may remember the old “Golden Rule” of being nice to people: “Treat others the way you would like to be treated.”

Interestingly, and maybe surprisingly, that rule is now out of date in certain scenarios!

Instead, we might refer to the “Platinum Rule,” which states that we should treat other people how they would like to be treated. This is an important difference, especially when communicating with people who are different from you.

In Habermas’ model, we need to reach our listener by communicating with them in a way that will reach them, not in a way that is most natural or even comfortable for us.

This includes choosing a method of communication that will work best for the other person (perhaps they hate email and phone is better, even though you hate the phone), choosing a style of communication (using bullet points to be succinct instead of your style of long paragraphs), considering personal styles to allow people to feel more engaged (introverts vs extroverts), etc etc.

How can you adapt your communication style so that you are most effective — that is, so that you reach the intended listener in a way that will resonate with them?

Just Imagine

How much less conflict would there would be in our world, our work, and even our homes if we could employ even one of the three components of Habermas’ model more effectively?

  • If we could get rid of Alternative Facts.
  • If we could assume the best intentions in people with whom we are communicating.
  • If we could figure out how to put ourselves in our listeners’ shoes.

Of course we can’t fix the whole world, at least not today, so let’s start with you.

Which of the three parts of Hambermas’ model resonates most with you? Is there something you can do to improve your Communicative Competence?

I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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