The Two-Tunnel Trap

By Larry Wilson, Author of Play to Win, Excerpt from the book, Cracking the Business Code

Leaders need to be great communicators to grab and keep the attention of their followers. No easy task since the natural result of communication is misunderstanding. Odds are you misunderstood what I just said, so again: “The natural result of communication is misunderstanding.”

construction signHere’s a story to support this point:

A wise engineer had the task of digging a tunnel through a mountain. As his workers were unskilled at the task, he brought them together to explain. “See that mountain over there? Well, you’re going to dig a tunnel through it. Half of you will start digging the tunnel from the east side. The other half will start digging from the west side. When you meet in the middle, you’ve dug a tunnel. Now, if you don’t meet in the middle, you’ve dug two tunnels.”

The fact is that most communication ends up being separate tunnels. This has brought many a leader to their knees, especially when the stakes are high.

I’m saying this to remind you how important, and yet difficult, it is to have one-tunnel conversations. So how is it done? Start by agreeing on a mutual definition. In our case, we need to define the word “communication.” We’ll define it as: A sense of mutual understanding.

How do we get others to understand us? Here’s a three-word solution to the two-tunnel trap: Simple, familiar and dramatic. Use simple words, familiar examples, and wrap up your point by telling a relevant dramatic story.

Digging Deeper

Let’s dig a little deeper into our tunnel of understanding – or mis-understanding.digging

  1. Simple. Use words that everyone understands. Forget the million-dollar words you used to impress your English teacher.
  2. Familiar. Use words that your audience uses on a regular basis. No insider jargon – that just confuses things and ends up excluding people rather than including them.
  3. Dramatic. Tell a brief story or example that parallels the situation you’re trying to communicate. This will help your audience bring the information together into a whole picture, rather than just the parts.

Here’s a non-example of this simple formula. To set the context, you are a new army recruit whose drill instructor (leader) is introducing you to a new safety device. Let’s listen in:

“All right you people, today is the day we introduce the new Regulation Missile Whistle, Model M-1. This is a self-repeating, lung-operated, air-cooled general personnel model issued to all relevant ranks. The whistle is divided into two component parts. These are the Whistle Cylinder Blowing Assembly and the Whistle Retaining Chain Assembly Mechanism. At the Blowing Aperture, there are two raised sections. You people in the back had better stand up so you can see this. The opening from the blowing end into the main cylinder is called the Compression Blow Channel. The other remaining component part of the whistle is known as the Chamber Operating Assembly Complex. This consists of the Opening Sound Admission Slot, the Cylinder Butt Lock onto which the Whistle Retaining Chain Assembly Part is attached, and the Cylinder Reverberating Operating Cork Pellet Device.”

Whew! How many tunnels do you think were dug in that mountain?!

whistleLet’s look at what happens if we apply our ‘simple, familiar and dramatic’ formula to this scenario? The DI/leader might sound something like this:

“OK folks, this here is a whistle. When you blow into it, it makes a very loud noise. If you ever find yourself pinned down in a foxhole, bullets whizzing over your head in every direction, take out this little jewel and blow like hell. We’ll come and get you out.”

Now that’s a message anyone could understand. Simple, familiar words put together in a dramatic sequence that keeps everyone digging the same tunnel.

Say what?

Here’s a learning process that can help you keep getting better at making sure everyone is digging one tunnel: “What did I plan to say, what did I say, and what will I say next time in the same situation?” Getting better on purpose is what makes a good leader into a great leader – and a primary reason why others want to follow.

Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2016 

Larry Wilson was an internationally recognized pioneer in change management, leadership development and strategic thinking, and is the co-author of The One-Minute Sales Person and Play to Win. He founded two companies, Wilson Learning Corp. and Pecos River Learning. Larry worked with companies to help them “create the organization that, if it existed, would put them out of business.” Larry passed on in 2009 and will be greatly missed, yet cherished through his books and articles for years to come. One of the things that Larry used to say was “Love your customers so much that they want to refer business to you since who can resist love?”

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