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The ARC of Distortion

~ By Patrick Bird

How many times do we come out of a meeting, whether one to one or in a group, and have confidence that we have accurately received the message that the sender was trying to convey or, from the senders point of view, that the recipients have taken away the intended message?

What are the factors that create this disparity between what the sender of the message is relaying against what is delivered to the receiver and why can the message received be different from one person to the next?

In considering this question I would like to introduce a concept called the ARC of distortion which is best described using a diagram:

The ARC of Distortion diagram
Figure 1: The ARC of Distortion

Looking at the top diagonal line we can see the sender's intention was to relay a message accurately and achieve their goal of the message being understood in the same way by all recipients. In actual fact what was heard and therefore the Impact of the message was different and resulted in the message being received along the bottom diagonal line (Impact).

The gap between what was intended and what was actually received is the communication gap and is often referred to as being made up of interference or "noise". Consider the coaching equation [Potential (minus) Interference (equals) Results]. By reducing the gap we reduce the interference and improve our results, in this instance the accuracy of our communication, the equation and the relevant coaching methodologies may also be used to improve performance in many other areas of business.

In order to reduce the gap between intention and impact we need to address the criteria on the right of the diagram.

Feedback is a key to understanding the message and is made up of the following factors:

  • Questioning: Give opportunities to the receiver(s) to ask questions of the sender to clarify what is being said in order to understand the message better.
  • Listening: As the receiver of the message are you actively listening to what is being said in order to understand the message accurately and take the opportunity to ask questions? As the sender are you aware that the recipient is actively listening, are they asking questions, acknowledging what they are hearing, summarising what they hear.
  • Summary and reflection are important parts of gaining clarification around a message, by summarising and reflecting back what you hear and understand as a recipient you give the sender the opportunity to confirm or question your understanding. This gives an opportunity for debate about the message using questioning, listening, summary and reflection as part of the feedback loop thereby clarifying the message.
  • In order for the sender to be confident that the message is being received and their goal is being achieved you should check in at intervals with the recipient as to their understanding. Use open questions what, when, where, how and avoid the closed question which is likely to elicit a yes or no answer. For example, "Do you understand what I am saying?" Answer yes or no. "What is your understanding of what I have just said?" Answer "Well what I have heard is…" As a sender you are able to pick up the areas that are not necessarily being understood.
  • If the recipient is showing signs, through behaviour, that they are not listening or not paying attention then it may be better to pause what is being said to investigate further what is causing this type of behaviour. There is no point in trying to deliver a message if other things are getting in the way of the recipient hearing them!
  • The impact of the climate in which the recipient works and lives should not be underestimated and may result in adverse behaviour. They may be interpreting the message you are sending in a very different way to how someone else may receive it. This may be because of the current economic climate, life at home, previous experience, long held values and beliefs… It is important to understand what the recipient may feel about the message due to their own climate. Everyone lives in a slightly different bubble of their own reality, understanding that as a sender will help you to tailor the message for your audience and improve their understanding of it.

Communication is the lifeblood of an organisation, using the ARC of Distortion and the techniques described above will help you to close the gap and, if done well, will ultimately improve the performance of individuals, teams and of the organisation as a whole.

Best of luck and keep a look out for the next article around influencing, and of course if you need further help or assistance in doing any of the above in your organisations please contact me.


Patrick is passionate that in a very competitive and changing business environment excellent technical skills must be complimented by excellent leadership, personal and communication skills to ensure improved performance and satisfaction of the individual and the organisation. He shares this passion by speaking and presenting at conferences and events around these topics.

Following a successful corporate career and over 5 years as an executive coach, Patrick Bird established InterActive Performance Management in 2009. The aim is to provide medium to large organisations with coaching and mentoring in the areas of communications, leadership, team building and strategy.

For more information about inter-personal, leadership and communication skills to help improve efficiency, effectiveness and ultimately profitability and cost leadership visit InterActive Performance Management


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