Experiencing Failed Communication

The following activities were designed and facilitated by Mercy Corps staff who attended a train the trainer session in Amman, Jordan. Each activity demonstrates one or more reasons why communication fails.

Secret Message: Heba Asaad created a game about seven factors of communication. She split the eight people into four teams: A and B. The A teams at each table were given a secret message and told to mold playdough so that it represented the message.

Once the A teams were done, Heba placed clown masks on them. She told the B teams that they could only ask closed questions to try to ferret out the message. Because of the masks, the B teams weren’t able to read the body language of the A teams, who could only nod yes or no. She debriefed the activity by introducing the list of seven factors and asking the participants to identify how well each factor came into play.

In each instance, communication failed because the factor was not fully realized. For example, the message lacked sufficient clarity to be understood; the nonverbals were masked; and feedback was constrained by the closed questions.

Body Confusion: Eman Darabseh had everyone stand up to have them experience that we pay more attention to nonverbal messages than verbal messages. She would say “nose” and point at her knee- and most of the group would point at their knees. She would say “arm” and point to her chin, and most of the group would point at their chins, etc.

It was a very powerful demonstration that when our nonverbals (expression on our face, tone of voice, smile) conflict with our verbal message, people believe and react to the nonverbal message.

Story Numbers: Abdallah Zarma had everyone stand up on one side of the room. He explained that he would tell them a story. Every time they heard him mention a number during the story, they had to form groups of that number. They loved it, racing to be part of a group and not be left out. Since they were listening for the numbers, they did not follow the story at all. This became clear when Abdallah asked them questions about the story and received only blank looks in response.

Communication will fail if the listeners have some reason to pay attention to just one part of a message- to hear only what they want to hear.