How Interpersonal Communication Failures Contribute to Disasters

How Interpersonal Communication Failures Contribute to Disasters

How Interpersonal Communication Failures Contribute to DisastersDisasters such as the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents, the Deepwater Horizon incident, the Texas City refinery explosion and other high-profile events capture the attention of the public.

They are also of interest to professionals tasked with preventing, preparing for and responding to similar events. Investigations of such incidents provide a wealth of data that allow a retrospective analysis of events and a clearer understanding of their many contributing factors. It is frequently observed that interpersonal communication failure is a common thread in such events. This is not surprising since interpersonal communication, and the relationships fostered through communication, are the primary ways we accomplish our work and make sense of what is happening around us.

As we explore the critical role that interpersonal communication failures played in contributing to selected disasters, examine common themes and suggest a model that provides insight into how communication failure contributes to adverse events. Occupying the privileged position of having access to more information than each individual involved in these events and the luxury of time to reflect on their interactions, we can better understand how communication failures contributed to decisions made by accomplished professionals in difficult situations.

The Sensemaking Continuum Model, developed during this evaluation process, explores how expectations, assumptions, roles, responsibilities and other factors resulted in filtering of information to decision-makers and how it affected their choices. Based on the model, specific recommendations are provided on what organizations and individuals can do prospectively to improve information reliability for decision-makers, thereby minimizing the likelihood of similar interpersonal communication failures for those whose responsibilities include preventing, preparing for or responding to disasters.

Key issues to consider when dealing with interpersonal communication are:

  • Being aware of common themes related to interpersonal communication based on a review of previous events;
  • Having a mental model describing how communication failure contributes to adverse events; and
  • How to improve information reliability for decision-makers in your organization, thereby minimizing the likelihood of similar interpersonal communication failures.

Hear more about the importance of interpersonal communication from David T. Duncan at CPM West!  Register for his session and get access to 40+ others (including all GovSec West sessions).  Visit for more information!

Posted by David T. Duncan, Ph.D., CIH on Oct 10, 2013

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