Our ability to communicate, that is, talk to one another, is something that sets us – humans, apart from other animals – well, most – we’ll set aside dolphins and mice for the moment.
It is even argued that it is Homo Sapiens’ prowess at communication that led them to become the dominant species on earth when the Neanderthals were numerically and physically superior.
I don’t know a great deal about these things – suffice it to say, that a key to many aspects of success in life is communication – sharing your thoughts with another, spreading ideas, addressing concerns and misperceptions.
In the hospital which is in many ways a microcosm for society as a whole, it is communication that most often lets us down – whether failures of communication resulting in clinical incidents or harms, or people feeling insulted or aggrieved because their concerns are not felt to have been addressed. Communication is by far the greatest cause for complaints in the health service – and, I imagine, in most other walks of life.
We humans are so incredibly expert at communication that we often forget about its importance, a little like breathing – which in a similar vein, is only an issue when you can’t.
I can sort of ‘get’ the failures of communication where people don’t think through ideas or actions, when they forget or misinterpret signals and signs, when the needs perhaps of a person in bed who is hungry or thirsty are missed – their basic human needs not addressed – I get this, as, it is something I think we can work-with, educate, train, nurture.
The other sort of miscommunication or failure of communication is far more sinister.
Yesterday, while at the gym, I was watching a documentary by the New Yorker Magazine about 9/11.
It seems that the whole event, particularly the Twin Towers could have been avoided if the CIA and the FBI had communicated with one another; for example, several of the terrorists were known to be moving in and out of America by the CIA, meeting known terrorist groups, exchanging money, saying farewell to families and friends, before all the events that occurred.
This is perhaps common knowledge, something I have forgotten from all the media at the time – after all, it was 15 years ago; yesterday was the first time I had realised the nature of this miscommunication.
You see, at the time – (I don’t know if things have changed or improved), the FBI – responsible for investigating internal events relating to security in the USA and the CIA – responsible for covert actions, spying, espionage, etc, didn’t get along.
The leaders of the two organisations didn’t like one another, they were in effect competitors.
And – it is this, that is most frightening, aggravating and maddening.
At the time, no one thought, ‘Perhaps this is bigger than our competition or our feud,’ ‘Perhaps the broiges has gone a little too far,’ yet, no, they maintained their separation right up to the bitter-end and beyond.
As to why these two organisations couldn’t get it on, couldn’t overcome their mutual distrust and put people first, I don’t know; what is clear is that the CIA, the FBI and no doubt other organisations are not unique, for, they are all run by people, and people, being people, have human fallibility as part of their DNA.
This fallibility relates to fear.
Fear that by sharing information, by making yourself vulnerable in some way, you might give the opposition an advantage, you might make your stance inferior, allowing others to take-over. You might lose some of the power which you believe you hold.
The reason for my linking these two – that is fear and communication, is that people tend to revert to type when the pressures of life are at their greatest, when people perceive that they must hold-on to every little bit of information, every scrap of advantage over another to protect their or their friend or tribe’s position.
When the heat is turned-up, when the pressure cooker is fizzing away, no one wants to be the one to first show their hand.
And, what happens in these situations, where everyone is doing their best to demonstrate that they are the best, that they are the most effective, most efficient, most indispensable?
Communication breaks down, information is seen as a currency and we are left with the disasters.
It is said, in the poem by Heathcote Williams, ‘Mokusatsu’ that the Atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened because of a failure in communication – for when the Japanese were sent the Potsdam Ultimatum, their response was mis-translated as, ‘message received with contempt’ rather, than its true meaning, ‘please wait for our response.’
If we are to continue to thrive and survive either within the health service, nationally or internationally, we need to look at communication; we need to ensure that people feel safe – that they feel secure that they will not be acted-upon through the hubris of disempowerment that is so rampant in organisations. People must be included in decisions about their fate, they must feel part of the system, not cogs in the machine, but, individuals with thoughts, feelings and opinions that are valued and respected, no matter their place in the hierarchy, the organisational structure or the chain of command.
Look, listen and communicate!