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Communication Breakdown Part 1: The Cube and the Zwygl

The biggest single problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw

Consider the following situation: Person A has a thought. The thought begins as something abstract, but A tries their best to find the words to articulate that thought accurately. Person A then says those words aloud to Person B. As B hears those words, each word triggers associations in Person B’s mind - the meaning of each word, the interplay of the words, and the context around the words. Based on B’s interpretation of the words, B makes sense of what Person A said.

The question is: Did the interpretation that Person B arrived at the same as what Person A intended? Most likely, the interpretation was a bit off, but hopefully close enough so that their engagement resulted in some mutual value. Our daily struggle between “perfect communication” and “reality” is something causes us endless frustration, cost us billions of dollars in suboptimal coordination or mistakes, and perpetually keeps us from realizing our collective potential – but despite it all, we are still seem to be doing alright. With something as simple as the words we use - How do we move from communication that is simply “alright” to communication that is “better”?

In the situation above, there are several translations that happen between the original thought and the final interpretation by Person B – each an opportunity for the original idea to get distorted or misunderstood and reduce the likelihood of “perfect communication”.

  • Person A needs to translate their thought in words – this is limited by A’s vocabulary (i.e. the list of words and phrases known to them) and the depth of A’s understanding of the meeting of various words and phrases.

  • Person A needs to articulate those words in a way that communicates the intent accurately to Person B – this depends on which words are emphasized, how intently B is listening, and the credibility/confidence that the B has in A.

  • Person B needs to interpret what they heard accurately – this depends on their vocabulary, their understanding of the various words and phrases and their perception of what Person A meant by those words and phases.

The three translations above pose very different issues for the speaker and listener that we’ll explore below: 1) Absolute versus relative meaning, 2) attention & clarity, and 3) sensemaking & context.

Absolute versus Relative Meaning

Some of you may have come across this kokology (self-knowledge) game called “the Cube”. This game asks a series of questions that the subject needs to visualize and describe accordingly. (If you are interested in actually taking the test, you should draw or write down your answers after each number as you read the narration below)

The questions are as follow:

1) You are in a desert and you see a cube. Describe the cube (color/transparency, size, feeling about the cube, distance between yourself and the cube, etc.).

2) There is also a ladder. Describe the ladder. (where is it, is the ladder leaning on the cube, color of the ladder, what is the ladder made of, distance between the cube and the ladder).

3) Then you see a horse. Describe it. (distance between the cube and the horse, color of the horse, impression, is the horse tied, is there a saddle, etc.).

4) There is a storm. Describe the storm. (distance between the cube and storm, size of the storm, is the storm moving or stationary).

5) There are flowers. Describe them. (where are they, how many, what color are they, how do you feel about them).

The answers are then interpreted according to some basic Jungian and Freudian psychological theory. You can go to various sites to interpret your results such as: or

Other than this being a fun sort of personality test, the critical point I’d like to make is that every single one of us will have widely different answers to these basic questions. Although we all know what a “cube” is (i.e. a volumetric solid contained by six equal square sides) – this is the universal meaning of “cube”. The relative meaning of “cube” – it’s size, color, materiality, transparency, relationship to other things – will be totally different depending on our individual perspectives, the context, and cultural connotation.

This tension between the absolute meaning and relative meaning is a discussion that goes back at least 2500 years ago to the writings of Plato and the teachings of Socrates. They explored this idea that somewhere in our consciousness there is a world of ideal images – THE horse, THE house, THE plate, THE river. Everything we experience in reality is a version or representation of this ideal – it has all the same essential characteristics (so that a thing can be universally understood to be a horse, house, plate, etc.) but each is different in various ways.

In everyday communication, when an image comes to mind, we try our best to use find the right word that accurately conveys that image (e.g. house). We are relying on the fact that both the speaker and listener to have the same basic understanding of the universal concept of “house”. However, the speaker may need to clarify several aspects of their relative meaning (two-story single family home, quarter acre lot, white siding with grey shutters, gable roof, attached garage, etc.) so that the listener can better understand – especially if it is critical to interpreting the rest of the conversation. This is a careful judgment by the speaker to understand what is universally understood about the word and what needs to be further clarified.

Attention & Clarity

Regardless of the words one uses, the listener needs to actually hear what was intended. Elements such as trust, status, personality, and charisma are things that influence the perceived importance of what someone has to say and therefore get people to listen more intently. These things do not have any direct effect on the actual quality, validity, or importance of their words, but it does influence perception – which in some cases is everything. For example, a soft-spoken entry-level person will not command the same attention as a charismatic vice president with 30 years experience – regardless of whether the information they are sharing is exactly the same. People will listen more intently and for longer periods of time to the vice president.

Getting someone to listen is one thing, but making sure that they truly hear the important parts of the message is another. The way that the speaker emphasizes certain words, the cadence of their speech, repetition of critical ideas, utilization of words that evoke an emotion, or articulating the key parts of the message clearly and simply (instead of drowning them out by a whole lot of less important noise) – this is what ensures that the most important aspects of the message are heard loud and clear.

Sensemaking & Context

A person’s mental model is how one makes sense of the world. It is created from the aggregation of all one’s firsthand and secondhand experiences. It is also the frame of reference from which someone makes sense of new information. Take, for example, the “zwygl”. You probably have no idea what a “zwygl” is (i.e. it does not exist in your current mental model). If you had to guess, for some of you, a “zwygl” may conjure thoughts of a fantastical furry creature in some Dr. Seuss book. To others it may sound a lot like “squiggle” and make them think of a curvy line. To others, it may sound like the name of some new tech startup. Our interpretation of this randomly constructed word is totally informed by our association and experience (i.e. our mental models) – which for every one of us is different.

Chances are that if I were to use “zwygl” in a conversation, most would not stop to ask me what it meant. Instead they would try to infer from the context around the word what it meant. This, at best, would give you a vague understanding of the word’s meaning and significance – but you may totally misunderstand the meaning of it. Even terms that we all know such as “reflectance” may have different meanings to each of us – ability to see one’s reflection, the amount of visible light that is reflected by a material, a material property that has implications for energy efficiency, surface temperature, or imaging. Even this common word could mean very different things in different contexts.

In our teams and more casual interactions, the key to more effective communication is understanding another person’s mental model so that we can better anticipate how someone may interpret a thought or how we can phrase things in a way that will better resonate. There are many subtle signals and deliberate questions one could ask to gain that type of understanding – but this gets into much deeper study of psychology, behavioral theory, body language, etc. At any rate, a person’s ability to gage their audience, navigate the world of absolute and relative understanding, earn attention, focus that attention on the most important elements of a conversation, and connect/build upon the existing mental models of others are the keys to more effective communication.

The whole point of this post is that something as simple as a single word is loaded with variability in its meaning depending on the speaker’s understanding and use of that word, the listener’s understanding of that word, and the context around that word. We use multiple words in every conversation. So how can we ensure that our intended meaning is accurately conveyed so that we can best leverage our collective expertise? This will be the focus of the next few weeks of posts.


Some weeks ago, Greg Howell (who some of you may know as one of the forerunners of the lean construction movement) asked me if I would consider writing s series on how people use language in their work together. He also sent me a plethora of references (including the Bell & Wechsler Leadership by Designarticle I’ve been referencing) to jumpstart the thought process. Thank you for the push Greg - it's a bit out of my comfort zone, but I will try my best to do this critically important topic justice over the next few weeks.

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