“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

When I think of Cool Hand Luke my mind gets stuck somewhere between how Paul Newman can make imprisonment look so damn good, excessive amounts of eggs, a little bit more about Paul Newman and his classic handsomeness, but then I always go back to and settle on that scene between Luke and Captain and the famous line that we all know and love from that film:

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

A little reminder of how the scene goes….


Captain: You gonna get used to wearing them chains after a while, Luke. Don’t you never stop listening to them clinking, ’cause they gonna remind you what I been saying for your own good.

Luke: I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Cap’n.

Captain: Don’t you ever talk that way to me. (Gives him a good hit) NEVER! NEVER! (Luke rolls down hill) What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.

This scene is a good précis for the whole film – it shows Luke’s brave and sly insubordination against the prison system pretty clearly, but what gets me here mostly is the line that precedes Captain’s little reprimand: “I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Cap’n.” More on that later…

The one thing that always frustrates me in my professional and personal life is how often poor communication, lack of communication, or miscommunication affects relationships, productivity, and overall impact. In my decade in the professional world as I work to build my own professional competencies and modes of operating in professional contexts, I’ve made sure to make astute observations on the way people interact, and then try to make sense of it all. It hasn’t been easy, and what I’ve seen hasn’t always been stuff I am overly impressed by, but I’ve also seen people use methods that bring people together.

I’ve also taken the same keenness for understanding how people communicate in all aspects of my life. As we know, communication is key to any successful relationship (partnerships, marriages, parents, friends, siblings, children – basically everyone in your life); you are best served when you pay attention to the communication cues, and learn from them.

Conducting social experiments in my head over the past few years has allowed me to come to some conclusions, observations and what I hope is a way forward. I credit experience, mentors, and all the people who have come into my life for the way they have also helped me understand the issues of communication, trust, and understanding among humans. Here they are:

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”:Why This Happens

Fonzie tells us that assumptions are the termites of relationships. It was actually Henry Winkler, but I can’t help love the Fonz and jump at the opportunity to mention him.  When you think of it, this is extremely true. fonzieAssumptions are predatory on relationships. Assumptions create holes, gaps, and a loss of cohesion. Let’s run with Fonzie’s analogy for a bit. How do you prevent termites? First, you ensure no termites exist. Then you take action and measures to protect your foundation against termites. Once this is done, you regularly check up to ensure your foundation is safeguarded and regularly maintained. We need to treat our relationships the way we prevent termites. When beginning any kind of relationship, whether it is professional or more personal, whether it’s for a new business venture, or initiative or you are entering into a relationship of vulnerability, it’s good to uncover and look for those termites – those damn assumptions. What do I know about you? What have others told me about you? What do I think about you? How much of what I think about you is based on hearsay or gossip? What assumptions may I have of you that are wrong? What assumptions may be right? This doesn’t need to be about bearing souls and singing kumbaya, but more just about getting real and getting to know a person with intention and with best intentions. We need to prevent our assumptions from creating gaps and holes in our understanding of each other by working to set that foundation that allows assumptions to be explored before they become what hurts the foundation of a relationship. Coincidentally, as I was writing this blog this morning, my sister-in-law in an online silly family banter said “You know what happens when you assume? You make an ass out of U and Me.” We don’t want to be asses, do we? Again, just be real.

Trust is at the heart of everything. A lot of the discordance and tension between people comes from a complete lack of trust. Trust is not something that is easy to build, nor should it be taken for granted that every relationship is conducive to trust-building. Right now, we see a great mistrust in corporations, institutions and those structures that are set up to protect our societies and the people in it. People lash out because their trust has been broken. Relationships dissolve because trust was taken away. Some relationships never truly move forward because trust cannot be built. Our history in Canada shows the devastating consequences of lack of trust. A nation is divided as the constant struggle for reconciliation happens between Canada and our Aboriginals. Those in poverty have been let down by the systems and dallaire-rwandastructures that are supposed to be their safety net. We need to build trust before we can move forward. It’s as simple as that. We need to break down barriers, elevate the voices that have been quieted for too long, and bring people together with the one thing that brings us together – our humanity. I saw Former Lieutenant General (Ret’d) Romeo Dallaire speak the other night, and his words stayed with me: “Not one human is any more human than another”. We need to remember this and get back to the one thing that we have in common in order to build back our trust and learn to communicate more productively.

Kindness matters. I tout myself to be a bit of a spreader of kindness. Sometimes that annoys people. I’ve relented and through it, I’ve paid attention to the impacts of kindness and how it can make people feel, and I’ve come to the very simple conclusion that no matter what your life situation, who you are, where you come from, what you’re going through, or who you are engaging with, kindness goes a long way. A sad realization of my life is that you just can’t force people to be kind. Some people just aren’t wired that way. Many people are emotionally, mentally, physically not able to spread kindness to the level that I generally wish for the world. That’s OK. It has to be. But that doesn’t stop me from being kind myself, or asking others to consider kindness as a first approach. This is where I go back to Cool Hand Luke. “I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Cap’n,” Luke says, obviously with a great deal of sarcasm and irony. Look how the Captain reacted in this scene, and obviously Luke didn’t come out too far on top in this scene, but he eventually did. Luke killed Captain with kindness, Captain didn’t like it, but it did send quite a message to him.

How can we all work a little harder to communicate to avoid communication breakdowns and come to a bit more understanding of each other in all our professional and personal pursuits? I can present a few ideas:

Talk. We all (self-included) can tend to have the bad habit of hiding behind screens, emails, Twitter handles, or text messages. This has led to a lessening of our ability as a society to effectively communicate, and this is not news to anyone. Text often lacks context. Emoticons don’t help. What ever happened to picking up the phone, or asking someone out on a coffee meeting?A_small_cup_of_coffee The amount of time wasted in the space of misunderstandings and miscommunications can be what breaks an individual relationship, an organization, a society, a world. Make face to face contact a priority. Talk instead of tweet. Call instead of email. 10 minutes over a coffee can do more than what any email, tweet, or text message can ever do.

Learn how others like to communicate and get information. We can’t assume that the way we communicate is the way our audience, or who we’re communicating with, prefers to communicate or receive information. For me, I constantly battle between speaking and communicating academically with more colloquial language. The latter is how I prefer to communicate. I don’t like jargon or conversations where the message seems buried, yet I do have to adapt how I take in information, and put it out to who I am engaging with. When entering into a relationship or professional collaboration, take some time to notice how others communicate. It may not be the same way you do, but we you do what you can do adapt, and “work around” communication styles to keep focus, cohesion and move together in trust productively. You may also learn different communication styles from others, as part of finding our way is also figuring out what is working for people, and what isn’t.

Commit to kindness and thinking the best of everyone. Everyone has something to bring to the table, and kindness helps us see what that is in each and every human. I was reminded that those who are marginalized are not the ones who marginalize themselves. Think about that. Not anyone is more human than another human, as Romeo Dallaire stated the other night. By virtue of being human, we all have the ability to be kind; yet can’t deny that as humans, we also tend often to act out of anger and fear. Personally, I shut down when people are unkind. It is not a space I am comfortable being in and not an approach that I promote. However, I understand why people get angry. People are frustrated with how things are I see this on social media all the time. I’ve seen it in past workplaces where it’s had consequences for everyone involved. I see it at home with my partner if we disagree on something. Anger is a normal emotion, and sometimes it’s incredibly necessary as a catalyst for people to be moved forward into action (the subject of one of my Masters’ research projects actually), but it actually takes more energy to be angry than kind. I think there’s some good science behind that. As humans, we have outlets that can allow us to approach our frustrations and desires to see better things happen more productively, cathartically, and in ways that gets the message across more effectively so that things actually change. We can all work together to find ways that we can work together better in a spirit of kindness and a general love for humanity.

Help others understand and live their worth. One of the biggest inhibitors of people not communicating is because of their own sense of worth. The marginalized people remind us that it is not themselves who create the marginalization, it’s the mainstream who force these people to the margins. As a community, as humans, we need to get rid of notions of “top down” or “bottom up” approaches and meet more in the middle, using communication strategies that help us create spaces where we can be a bit more balanced in delivering our messages. We can create events and spaces that promote people of all backgrounds coming together, and we can use great tools to help facilitate balanced conversations (see Tools page for some resources). As individuals, we can take our time to sit and spend 5 minutes with the individual on the street that you gave a toonie to, and understand their story, and what makes them unique and special. Recognize what is unique and special within yourself and wear that as your badge of glory and wear it with confidence. As a community, we can recognize the barriers that exist when people and positions of privilege aren’t able to reach those they claim to be serving. As people, we can commit to working better together. Let’s all level out a bit, get off our high horses, and walk together. It’s not that hard to do.

 “What we’ve got here is ability communicate.”

I encourage you to keep the Captain from Cool Hand Luke’s soundbite in your head, just like I do. When you feel like things are going off the rails, consider what has happened within your communication. Do you know who you are communicating with? Is your message being heard? Are you hearing theirs? Does trust exist? Are we truly communicating? You may just come out on top if you start from that place.


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