“BREAK BREAK – be advised – words mean things.”
That was the interruption I received from my Joint Terminal Attack Control Instructor during the early stages of my training as a young Lieutenant. It came across my primary communication channel abruptly and assertively, a not-so-subtle reminder that I needed to choose my words more intentionally.
I had used one of the “forbidden words” on the radio – “REPEAT.” I hadn’t accurately heard the prior transmission, so I asked for it to be repeated. However, the phrase “REPEAT” spoken over the radio to an artillery unit is doctrinally understood to mean “repeat the previous effects” – in other words, fire all those artillery rounds again.
When trying to time the arrival of an aircraft over a target area to match up with the end of an artillery mission, the worst thing you could do is repeat the entire artillery mission right when the aircraft arrives on target. That’s something I would never intend to do – but to anyone listening to that radio transmission, there would be no other way to perceive my message.
The Intention-Perception Gap is something that happens in every single communication we have each day. It doesn’t have to be in a scenario as complicated as delivering combined weapons effects on the battlefield – it happens on a small scale in regular daily conversations, both at work and home. In the context of small teams, there is considerable potential for this gap to be problematic. Communicating directly and efficiently with all team members is critical as a small team leader.
We all view life from a slightly (or not so slightly) different perspective, one which is uniquely ours. If you are addressing a 10-person team, you are managing ten different perspectives with one message. A leader has to communicate in a way that ensures each one of those people can relate to, comprehend, and internalize the message being delivered. To the vast majority of the world, my statement of “repeat” would have been understood loud and clear to mean, “can you say that again?” To the audience I had on that day, “repeat” could have put the life of a pilot in danger.
There are numerous books, articles, and even peer-reviewed journals that address the Intention-Perception Gap in-depth. All of them point to one simple (but not easy) concept – communication. Effective, intentional, and well-designed communication builds common understanding, strengthens trust, and reinforces alignment within a team. A broadening intention-perception gap is often misconstrued as a personal problem between coworkers, but far more often, it is an issue of poor communication over long periods.
Words do indeed mean things. Choosing the wrong words, speaking them with the wrong tone, or sharing them with the wrong audience can create confusion and broaden the intention-perception gap rather than shrink it (to shrink is the goal, not to eliminate it – it will always exist to some extent). The goal is not perfect communication because nothing in life is ever perfect. Instead, the goal is to communicate more seamlessly over time as a team develops familiarity and becomes more aware of itself.
Also available on Medium.
After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Dan served for over five years as an officer in the elite Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) community. He served both as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) and as a Task Force Advisor on a 2018 deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. His expertise in selecting, developing, and leading effective small teams stems from his experiences as an Air Force Special Warfare Officer, both in training and in combat.
Dan partnered with the Talent War Group (formerly EF Overwatch) in 2019 and now works as the Director of Sales for Kahn Mechanical Contractors in Dallas, Texas. Dan holds a Master of Arts degree in Strategic Leadership from Saint Bonaventure University. He is passionate about mental health advocacy for the veteran community.