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5 Reasons Communication Fails

Photo by  Cayla1  on  Unsplash

Photo by Cayla1 on Unsplash

I sat at my kitchen table. where I was eating breakfast, staring, dumbfounded, at the woman, whom I did not know, who had just burst into the house. She saw me, and demanded, “What are you doing here?” “I live here, it’s my house.” I stammered, vexed at her demanding tone, and surprised by her brashness. Afterwards, as she stomped out, I knew she had “heard my words,” but really wasn’t listening and certainly didn’t get the point.

What is the problem?

  • Parents know that if they can get their kids to listen they can provide valuable guidance.

  • Teacher’s know that if students listen they will learn, grow, and be inspired.

  • Doctor’s know that if patient’s listen their health can be improved.

It’s obvious, the problem, often, is getting people to listen. Isn’t it? So, based on this belief, parents spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get kids to hear what they say; teachers continually train, and plan, and work to help kids learn; and Doctor’s worry about compliance with their recommendations and helping patients heed their advice. Yes, getting others to listen is a problem . . . but often it it’s not the right focus and certainly it’s not just for kids, students, and patients!

Yes, getting others to listen is a problem, but . . . and here is a big but . . . it’s the good listeners (parents, teachers, and doctor’s) who have the most influence on those they are trying to “get to listen.”

Too often, Communication is handicapped, not by the intentions or efforts of the listener—as if patient's want to have bad health, students want to remain ignorant, or kids want to make bad life choices—but because of a basic human error of “attribution.” In other words, the “expert”—parent, teacher, doctor—assumes that they are independent from the problem, and therefore, the problem must be the other person. Those doggone “others” are, it is assumed, just not properly motivated—they are willful, distracted, resistant. But, in reality, the experts tell us that people are always motivated . . . by something . . . it may be to avoid conflict, feel less stress, get attention, have less work and more fun . . . or something else that impedes their performance. Yet, even when people say they trying to listen and understand, rarely, are they “simply” motivated to really listen.

Listening, often shows up in lists as a critical skill for those trying to influence others but rarely is it a skill that’s value is demonstrated by tenacious practice or active training of this particular skill. But, then again, remember, most of us think we possess this skill and the speaker may not be anymore aware of their lack of motivated listening than the person they are trying to help. The truth is, communication is harder than people think it is and they are often unaware that the real problem is their own poor listening and communication skills.

An Example

As I said, in my three decades of working with people, I find that secretly, most people—no, not all, but most—believe that they are at least adequate or even good listeners and thus have few communication problems. But the reality just does not bear this out. Give someone a random sequence of data, say numbers to keep it simple, and ask them to repeat them . . . “59387274” . . . most people will struggle. It’s not a memory thing. It’s attention, emotion, and a lack of skill. Give them a “grocery list” of 18 items, with one repeated 3 times, and 60% and 75%, respectively, will remember the first and last item; 80% will remember the item repeated three times; almost no one gets the whole list correct; and, interestingly, a full 20% will include a common grocery item (like bread) that wasn’t on the list at all!

Now ask these same listeners to listen to and remember (track) complex information . . . in an emotionally charged environment . . . and their performance will drop even more precipitously. Oh, they’ll may the major point(s). But they’ll miss significant information related to the context of the conversations and the more subtle details that make the difference between “hearing” and “understanding.” Without that high level of understanding, their strategies to get others to listen and influence them are more likely to fail.

By contrast, if you run into an exceptional listener, you may not overtly label that expertise, but you will know it . . . because you leave conversations feeling really heard and understood. You may even find yourself starting to soften toward their views when expressed. Not a common experience.

So, why don’t we listen better? Why does communication often break down? Here are five common reasons.

5 Reasons Communications Fail

1. We don’t value listening. To be honest, few people are there to really listen they are to tell. "Waiting your turn to speak." Listening is work. Telling is, often, easy and many times fun. Listening requires effort and may cause us to reconsider our position. Listening can lead to genuine conflict, recognizing we have differences with the speaker where telling may gloss over those divisions. However, telling often leads to conflict over “surface issues” instead of real divisions. Listening promotes griping and dissatisfaction.

2. We are impatient or assume listening is a simple process. “I heard you,” we often state, at the very moment the other person is not feeling heard. We don’t recognize the miscommunication when constructs are not defined and assumptions about the meaning of words (think “hose”) are made.

3. Our minds are already made up and our attitudes stink. “I don’t need to listen. I already know what they are going to say.” Ever hear that one? How condescending that must feel to people whose future thoughts and verbalizations are redacted to simple characters as if they cannot have independent or unique thoughts or change their opinions. Nonverbals often signal true intent—and it is often not a “posture of wanting to hear.”

4. We just don’t get it. The people with the highest need for improvement—the poorest communicators—often are the least aware that they need new skills. Often they have a general lack of emotional intelligence. For example, one morning I was sitting at my kitchen table eating breakfast. A woman, whom I did not know, burst into the house, saw me, and demanded, “What are you doing here?” (I must pause to say we lived in a very small community, so knocking and entering among friends is not uncommon.) “I live here, it’s my house.” I replied, vexed at her demanding tone. “Where are Jim and Elna?” she demanded. “We bought the house from them, six months ago, and they moved across town.” I stated, feeling a rising irritation over her brazen attitude. “Why did they do that?” She quiried. “I guess you’d have to ask them.” I pointed out. “Humpf” she snorted, turned, and walked out. There was no apparent embarrassment at having burst into my home or interrupting my breakfast. No awareness that cross-examining me about my presence in my own home may have been “over the top.” No apology for her mistake. Nothing. Just verbal demands and then, a swift exit. I found out later that I had just “met” a woman who was infamous in our town for her poor social behavior. Not surprised. It’s the same principle as “you only need fences with bad neighbors who, likely, don’t think you need fences” in other words, good neighbors respect your property for the others, you need fences.

5. There is no focus on skill building. If I “played around” every day on my piano would I become a skilled piano player? No, I would not. Maybe someone with a true musical “gift” could learn this way but an average person would gain some skill . . . but never become a master. Because people “dabble” everyday with communication many come to believe they have expertise. Repetitive misunderstandings, conflict, communication failures of various types does nothing to challenge this fallacy. To master a critical skill, be must engage in intentional and focused practice not just “play around.” Few—outside those whose training, education, or interest in communication—have undertaken this challenge.

Organizational Learning

One of the most fun activities we do as consultants—and what our client’s have identified as the highest impact exercises we do with teams—is to have the workteams attempt to complete a task or game that relies almost entirely on communication. One example is having the team deactivate a live “bomb” where a team member is the only one who can see and manipulate the bomb while other team members can only access the manual that explains how defuse the armament. The only way to succeed constantly at this task is to communicate well. The team quickly becomes aware of the difficulty of communication and how their conditioned behaviors—even if well intentioned—can cause the team to fail. With each round, we tease out the assumptions, defenses, and behaviors that impede the team’s performance—including team members who are not actively participating in the solutions.

This process of game-playing, typically creates a “low-threat” environment, The perception that “it’s just a game,” can lower apprehensions about engaging as a team (in front of peers and often with the bosses in the room) and this then sets the team up to talk about their real strengths and also the growth areas they need to focus on as a team. Peers often identify strengths in other team members. Individuals, themselves also self-identify their own strengths and often even publicly state their own need for growth in a particular area.

The critical factor here though is not “raising awareness” or even “teaching” it is having the teams experience and practice the skills. Afterwards, they will need continued repetitions of practicing the skills to make this a habit leading to reliable and sustainable success . . . but it is incredibly fun to be there as it begins and to promote this skill development as they begin to experience deeper listening and better communication.

Enjoy this? Let us know it helps us target content to what you want. If you liked this you might want to check out our post on the proper relationship of mistakes and learning.

P.S. — Do we use “P.S.” anymore? Two things. One, if you have questions about how to help your team feel free to contact us. Two, if you are a professional “people person” and want to learn about using games in training, we occasionally do free trainings on our process. Let us know if you are interested.



Good Communication?

Photo by  Jon Flobrant  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Good Communication?

Vizzini: "Inconceivable!" Inigo: "You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

When did you last feel like you really connected with some one as you talked?

Communication. Everyone does it. Largely we manage to get things done and seem to usually reach the same conclusions about what happened. Few, state that they are deficient in this basic skill. Yet, to those whose work is dependent upon communication, the pitfalls are only too obvious.

Consider this, why is it that nurses repeat surgeon's requests? Why do pilots have checklists and get confirmation from copious and air traffic before proceeding? It, obviously, is not a lack of skill or intelligence; no, it is the dependency on communication to be flawless in a critical task. 

Fortunately, just talking to your spouse, your kid, or your employee (maybe they are both relative and employee) isn't critical. Oh, wait . . .

So, here some things to consider . . .

Do they/you . . . Demonstrate these Non-verbals?

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Nod or use other encouragers
  • Have a neutral or positive facial expression
  • Avoid distracting behaivors
  • Face the speaker and lean slightly toward them
  • Incorporate both the speaker and yourself in your comments
  • Stay engaged and follow the speaker

Does their speaking include these traits?

  • Respectful language (and behavior)
  • Asks helpful, clarifying questions
  • Keeps comments short to allow listener to follow
  • Paraphrases and repeats speaker's points
  • Let's speaker complete their thought
  • Transitions smoothly from listener to speaker (and vice versa)
  • Encourages agreements but able to state their opinions

If these things are happening, it is likely that as the speaker you will feel "heard" and as the listener you will gain greater information and insight!

Engaging Your Team is a free eBook about people. Understanding what makes them "tick" helps in communicating well to your employees, supervisors, and others. Download it free.

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Leadership Fail? . . . It's a communication problem



Where did that go wrong?

"Employees recommend having insurance benefit meetings in the evenings," I said as we gave our report to the senior managers of a large manufacturing company.  We were finishing our consulting work with a company that had surveyed employees, found out some areas of concern, and asked us to come in and figure out how to help. "We already do!" the HR Director exclaimed, "I can show you!" he said, waving the company newsletter in the air. Sure enough, there in the newsletter was an announcement: Employee Benefit Meeting, Thursday, 7 pm. The date was the same week we were finishing up our interviews . . .

The classic 1953 skit "Who's on first" by Abbott and Costello is a delicious bit of miscommunication that often, sadly, is reminiscent of our business communications.  We think we are communicating but often we simply . . . are . . . not. Worse than a "Who;s on first? miscommunication--which at least gives the parties the change to discover that their message is not be received as intended--we often "swing and miss," failing to communicate at all. 

Take the senior management meeting I shared above. My colleague and I had spent six days working with employees in focus groups to follow up on the employee satisfaction survey that had identified some problem areas. One problem was "employee benefits." Our focus groups (Two three-hour meetings on this topic with 20 employees across 9 plants and all 3 shifts) focused on identifying what were the specific problems with employee benefits and creating recommendations for action plans for the senior management to follow up on.

One of the suggestions was that having benefit meetings in the evening would be helpful. This suggestion was particularly relevant because this company operated in a male-dominant industry (with fewer than 20% women employees) and the spouses were overwhelmingly the ones accessing the benefits. Employees explained that due to childcare, jobs, and other factors their spouses could not get away of attend meetings during the day and the employees, who could attend the meeting, did not because they did not "handle" the benefits.

So, a recommendation was crafted to ask for benefit meetings in the evenings. But, they already did have the meetings in the evenings. as the exasperated HR Director pointed out. He showed us the newsletter with the announcement. The air in the room was still with anticipation. What did this mean? How could employees not know this? Are the recommendations even valid?  I pointed out that although this particular recommendation was a moot point, "It is obvious that you are already doing this. However, the fact that 20 of your employees were involved in drafting this recommendation and no one said, 'Uh, guys? We already do this!' says we have a problem."

Diving In

This led to a discussion on the use of the company newsletter.  It turned out that the company was simply posting the newsletter on bulletin boards around the plants. However, employees only had time to read the newsletter before or after work with the result being that almost no one took the time to actually read them.

The problem? Communication.  Leadership thought they were communicating by creating the newsletter. Employees were not happy but their "voice" had not been heard. Everyone was aware of the tensions in the workplace but until the survey identified benefits as a problem no one was tasked with figuring out how to fix it. The key, often, lies in communication. How do we communicate, when do we communicate, who do we communicate to, what do we communicate, and why is it important should be important considerations for any leader.

But communication is complex. People often communicate through their actions rather than their words. To reach their own personal goals they may obscure their real thoughts and emotions. They may avoid communication that, although important to the success of the team, puts them in a situation where they will feel uncomfortable or fear their job might be threatened.. Aggressive, avoidant, or "freezing" at moments of high emotional stress--such as when conflict occurs in the workplace--may further block good communication. If you've been a leader for a few years you know.

What can be done?

But what can you do as a leader to mitigate the impact of poor communication?

1. Model a belief that the goal is to grow, be efficient, improve, or master your workflow . . . not simply avoid mistakes. Employees know what you really value. It oozes out of everything you do--what you pay attention to, what you reward, what makes you react--and they know it's in their best interest to "give the boss what he/she wants."

2. Learn about your own communication style and challenges. Are you aware that you have a tendency to get defensive?  Do you avoid the "hard" interactions with employees? Are you just tired of being a boss? Knowing where you are and how that effects your communication--and how it is effecting the organization--is critical to making adjustments.

3. Promote awareness of communication as an important business tool. One reason communication is often a problem is that no one focuses on it as a business concern. Yes, many are quick to not that it is a factor in the problems they experience but how many times have you hear of a company that has a "communication initiative" or a "communication program" for employees of managers? If you have, drop me an email. I'd love to hear that story.

4. Encourage the development of communication skills. Make communication one of the critical factors in evaluating your team, and each individual's, performance. Remind them that no successful team has ever been poor at communicating. If you want a practical, low-cost, and fun way of illustrating this check out the game "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes." It's a fun game (about $15) where one person tries to defuse a "bomb" while another person or several people use the bomb manual to assist--but neither participant can see what the other one is seeing/doing. It quickly illustrates the challenges of  communication. (We used it recently with a work team and it was the highlight of the workshop!)

5. Periodically and regularly use an external tool to identify and developing problems. Look, employees don't sit at home and ask themselves, "Is there anything I should be communicating to management that I haven't said?" Worse yet, they may know things that they would like to say but, like teenagers with parents, there are complex dynamics to actually having the courage to speak. "What will my boss think? How will other employees react? Will this influence who is promoted?" Employees need an "emotionally safe" space in order to give real accurate feedback. Anonymous surveys, external consultants, even Employee Assistance providers (if management focused) all can be independent sources of information and a "reality check" on what is really going on with employees.

6. Proactively address any issues identified. Communication is enhanced or diminished by what happens after the fact. People expect to see actions a result of their communication input. That action may be as simple as "thank you for your help" but often it needs to be something more. It needs to imply, at the least, that we really "heard what you told us" and, even more often should have an added element of "here is what is the result." Even if the result is negative it can meet this standard.  "We understand what you are telling us but because of X we are not changing this right now. But we will reconsider it if or when X happens," can be effective action even if the employee does not like the outcome.

7. Expect new communication glitches., Time, learning, growth . . . many things contribute to having new communication problems. The compliant 5 year old becomes a pushy 13 year old. They have grown and developed but now there are new issues. I mentioned using the game "Keep Talking" above. When we were using it with the group the results at first were quite bad . . . the "bomb" went off overtime before they could defuse it. However they were beginning to understand and anticipate some of the problems. One was that they needed to figure out how to communicate more effectively about the "wiring" on the bombs. For this round, I gave out 3 bomb manuals to team members to help defuse the bomb. They immediately set to work organizations how they could "attack" the problem of understanding the wiring and help the team member who was at the "bomb site" working on the devise itself. This would have been a great strategy . . . except . . . it was based on the assumption that the next bomb would be like the others they had already attempted! But the new bomb didn't even have any wires. All their communication and preparation was useless.

Leaders, communication is central to everything you do. Just like branding, marketing, public relations are elements you need to be aware of in order for your company to succeed communication is key to your leadership success.

 Free ebook Engaging Your Team: A framework for leading "difficult" people.