Approaching Zero Error Communication

Posted On: July 8, 2013 by: Doug Lundrigan

“One-third trim, niner ze-ro feet, two degree up bubble,” ordered the commanding officer to his diving officer.”

“Aye sir, one-third trim, niner ze-ro feet, two degree up bubble,” acknowledged the diving officer.”

“One-third trim, niner ze-ro feet, two degree up bubble,” relayed the diving officer to the control room.”

“Aye sir, one-third trim, niner ze-ro feet, two degree up bubble,” acknowledged the control room.”

Privileged to observe the inner command workings of the USS Helena, a fast attack nuclear submarine that holds greater fire power than the entire U.S. Navy did in World War II, was a humble reporter.

“Sir, are these people a bit slow on the uptake? Are they hard of hearing?” he queried. “Why all the repetition?”

“Son, how many mistakes would you like us to make aboard a nuclear submarine?” asked the commanding officer.”

“What do you do if they don’t repeat it back correctly?” asked the reporter.

“I repeat it to them again until I hear it back correctly. We have a zero-tolerance policy for communication errors here,” explained the commanding officer.

Is there anything we do all day, every day that is more important to do well than communicate with others? Yet, with all the practice we have had throughout our lives, misunderstandings seem remarkably frequent and almost the norm in many organizations.

Obviously, a breakdown in communication on a nuclear submarine would be catastrophic. Yet, in business, miscommunication can be fatally damaging, too. Technology makes communication fast and loud. A company’s culture and its customers’ goodwill can shift quickly. Is it any wonder that some of the world’s leading businesses invest considerable resources developing better communication skills in their people?

While the challenges to achieve an accurate transfer of meaning between people are as numerous as the people on the earth, improving on a few common errors can go a long way toward stamping out miscommunication.

Intent is Everything
When communicating with others, don’t we often focus on getting our point across, making the case for our position and being heard? I know I do. When listening to someone, my mind often goes to the place of preparing my rebuttal. Contrary to some, I believe we can’t really listen when our minds are in that place. Oh, we might hear the words he or she is saying while our minds churn, anxiously waiting for our turn to talk, but the meaning of the other person’s words are often lost in the chasm between our ears and our mind.

The remedy is in our intent. An accurate transfer of meaning between two people occurs when both communicators have a pure intent to understand the other not to win an argument, advance his or her own agenda, or demonstrate superiority. In this scenario, we consider the other person’s thoughts, opinions, and perceptions to be just as valid and important as our own. We sincerely want to understand them and to add them to the pool of shared meaning. This is the foundation of active listening. People in such a conversation find it richly fulfilling, even uplifting. Stephen R. Covey said it well: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989)

False Assumptions
The human mind is an incredibly creative force. When we have less than the complete facts (almost always) our minds will automatically try to fill in the blanks based on past experience. A complete story emerges in our minds – a hybrid of fact and fiction. This is the birthplace of an assumption. The trouble is, our assumptions are often wrong. The supreme assumption that leads to myriads of error is the assumption that our perception and interpretation of events is accurate. We think we’re right. And if I’m right and someone else’s perception differs, it means the other person is wrong. Now we have conflict.

The remedy is to be constantly aware that at any given moment we probably harbor some false assumptions about people and events around us and would be wise to acknowledge that there’s probably something in our head that is not factual.

Submarine Approach
“…We tend to see ourselves primarily in the light of our intentions, which are invisible to others, while we see others mainly in light of their actions, which are visible to us; we have a situation in which misunderstanding and injustice are the order of the day.”
E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed

This insightful statement gives us cause to reflect on how we might reconcile what we observe others saying or doing and to what their intent is. If we’re not careful, this is where false assumptions may sneak in. Isn’t misinterpreting others’ intentions a common malady in communication?

The remedy is surprisingly simple: play submarine. When someone says something, repeat it back. Perhaps repeating it verbatim might seem a bit tedious or rude, but a simple statement rephrasing what you think you heard can do wonders in matching words to intent and increasing mutual understanding.

How to do it? Try using the following phrases to ensure you are receiving the message that is being offered:

  • “If I understand you, you’re saying . . .”
  • “Let me make sure I understand you. You said . . .”

Further discovery into intent may be accomplished with these statements:

  • “What is it that causes you think that way?”
  • “Please tell me more about why you feel that way.”

Zero tolerance for communication errors may be an important standard on a nuclear submarine, but in day-to-day living it might be somewhat impractical. Being flawed humans as we are, there will always be miscommunication leading to inefficiencies in business, interpersonal conflict and an occasional disaster. Yet, whatever we can do to improve our communications skills, such as attending a seminar, reading books and articles, or meeting with a coach, can only serve to make our lives and all those we interact with more successful and rewarding.

Doug Lundrigan, MBA, is the President and founder of Lighthouse Leadership in Portland, Ore. Lighthouse Leadership is a trusted business partner to the world’s leading organizations with respect to human capital. Its client relationships are shaped by a deep understanding of its clients’ needs, a collaborative working style and a commitment to exceed client expectations. He can be reached at

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