The sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol on April 16 might have been prevented if one simple thing had occurred- good communication regarding cargo weight limit. Reports show that the ferry exceeded its cargo limit on nearly every voyage in the 13 months before it sank.

One entity recorded the weights. Another set the weight limit. Neither knew what the other was doing. This and other factors failed passengers April 16 when the ferry sank leaving more than 300 people missing or dead.

The Korean Register of Shipping examined the Sewol early last year and reduced the ship’s cargo capacity by more than half and said the vessel needed to carry more than 2,000 tons of water to stay balanced. But the register gave its report only to the ship owner. Neither the coast guard nor the Korean Shipping Association, which regulates and oversees departures and arrivals of domestic passenger ships, appear to have had any knowledge of the new limit before the disaster.

This is a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing, and with catastrophic results. Most of the time poor communication does not have such serious consequences but it can and does damage human relationships. Someone said that “Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.” On the other hand if you are not willing to work at it, disaster is sure to occur.

To put it plainly, communication is a balance of talking, listening, and understanding. It is important to say things clearly, pay attention to what others are saying (or not saying), and make sure that there is common understanding of the interchange. In good communication we say clearly what we mean and we really mean what we say. It is not fair, nor safe, to assume that others “know what we mean” when we speak. Don’t use “code words” and expect others to interpret them accurately. Bill Clinton said, “No wonder people don’t trust politicians. Every few years they hear promises that are never intended to be kept.” Politicians are not the only ones. Sometimes we say what we think people want to hear but don’t really mean them.

You have heard that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. That is important to understand but it is equally important to know that we all have filters through which we hear what others are saying. We may have to ask questions or restate what we have heard in order to be sure we understand what the speaker intended. Christopher Morley suggests that, “There is only one rule for being a good talker – learn to listen.”

According to Emma Thompson, “Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening.” That is true not only in a family but in all human relations whether it is between individuals or, corporate entities, or nations. Sometimes the problem is that we just don’t think about who will be effected by our words or actions and so we “miss a step” and our communication is deficient.

On one occasion I contacted an employee of a colleague to inquire if that person would be interested in coming to work with me. She was and I hired her. A few days later her current employer called to suggest that it would have been nice if I had talked with him before offering his employee a job. He was right! I should have extended the courtesy of at least letting my friend know of my interest and asking permission to talk with his employee. I apologized and fortunately he was gracious and kind to me.

Good communication requires patience and the willingness to work at it. There are many tips to good communication. Let me offer just three that are not original with me but I cannot identify the source:

1. Remember that the goal of effective communication skills should be mutual understanding and finding a solution that pleases both parties, not ‘winning’ the argument or ‘being right’.

2. This does not work in every situation, but sometimes (if you’re having a conflict in a romantic relationship) it helps to hold hands or stay physically connected as you talk. This can remind you that you still care about each other and generally support one another.

3. Keep in mind that it’s important to remain respectful of the other person, even if you don’t like their actions.

I hope my thoughts have been expressed clearly. One common mistake is to assume that good communication has occurred. I would be happy to hear from you. Do you agree or disagree with my perspective? What else could be said to help us communicate well? What skills have you learned and practiced that have been helpful?

Jamie Jenkins

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