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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.

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Failing the team . . . 0 for 6 . . . and learning about yourself.

Photo by  Max Winkler  on  Unsplash

Photo by Max Winkler on Unsplash

Failing the team . . . going zero for six! How I lost the game with our rivals . . . and learned valuable lessons about myself.

It was my Junior year. I wasn't, as yet, a starter on my high school's varsity basketball team, but I was the "sixth man," and expected to start playing "some minutes" during games. But I had not experienced anything like this . . . getting put into the game at a critical moment . . . with the game on the line . . . and it wasn't expected . . . not when all the starters were available and ready to play.

We were playing the "River Rats"--at least that's what we called our hated rivals--they called themselves the Bluejays. We were in their gym, "enemy territory," and the atmosphere between the two teams, and their fans, was electric. From the time we entered the gym for warm ups, we heard a lot of derisive comments and taunts from the home crowd. Our fans, having commuted the 30 miles in opposition, responded in-kind. Incidentally, our rivals insisted on calling us the "Ducks" while our mascot was properly called the "Dukes." I guess fair's fair. 

The game was a very close one through the first three-and-a-half quarters. The lead transferring, back and forth between the teams, while the player's effort, in line with the "energy" in the gym, was intense on both ends of the court. I sat, on the bench, absorbed in the action. I had been in the game but only briefly--to give one of the starters a "breather." 

The game was now coming to the critical final minutes. The score was still tight, our team was only a basket behind, but our starters, playing the entire game, seemed to be experiencing some "sag" in their intensity and, in our final time out,  the feeling that this game could easily "slip away" hung in the air.

"Miller, check in!" the coach barked. Caught off guard, but more than ready to join the "battle," I tore off my warmup and went toward the scorer's table as the horn sounded, and play resumed. The official at the scorer's table checked me in, and I sat on the bench at the scorer's table waiting for a "dead ball" when I would be buzzed into the game. Finally, the moment came, the scoreboard operator activated the buzzer,  the official on the floor waved me in, and I headed toward the court . . . then I heard coach calling, stopping me, and he waved me over . . . I changed direction and went to the coach . . . "It's your job to win this thing!" he said. "Now, go in there and do it!" he urged.

"Yikes!" I thought, "He's counting on me to win this game!" 

I moved out onto the floor and took up my position. At the time, we were on defense. "Easy enough," I thought.  Just "dog" my assigned player and make sure he can't get the ball. Play resumed, and the point guard, attempted to set up their offense by coming my way, dribbled toward my position--attack the new guy, fresh off the bench. I "fronted" the forward, my assignment, and preventing the pass to start their offense, the guard reversed the play to the other side of the court . . . leading to an attempted basket away from my side of the court. Job well done. The team boxed out the other players, took the rebound, and took over the ball. Down the court we went toward our basket.

Our offense was designed to have a forward (I was one of two) start the "rotation" by taking the defensive player toward the basket, then popping out, to the wing, to take the first pass on the left or right side of the court. I dutifully took my player toward the baseline, popped out, and received the pass.  As the point guard cut to his left, setting up a screen for the other forward coming toward me at the free throw line, I faked a pass to the middle. The defender bit, hard, on the fake, and I drove, wide open, toward the basket.

As I reached the basket, and leapt to complete the lay-up, the center defender crashed down hard and smashed into me--raking my arm and sending me under the backboard toward the end-line. The referee blew the whistle and the blatant foul was assessed. I had missed the lay up but I was awarded a "one-and-one." Meaning, for those not familiar with basketball, that if you make the first free throw, you would get a second attempt.  Convert both and it is no different than making the initial lay up. I went to the free throw line. My coach's words still ringing in my head. I had missed the easy shot. But getting fouled was a nice consolation. I was good at free throws.  I missed. The attempted shot, powered by too much adrenaline, hit the back of the rim and bounced away. No second free throw and no points. I was 0 for 2.

The next time down the floor was almost a repeat of the earlier play. I popped, received the pass, only this time the defender was not so ready to "over-play" the pass to the forward coming across the lane, and did not bite hard on my fake. I began to drive anyway, quickly gave a head-fake, as if to pull up and shoot. He went for it. Off his feet, I easily continued my drive to the basket and my second lay up. This time the center was helped by the off-side forward. They converged and I felt my arms, once again, raked by hands trying to stop the "easy basket." Again, the whistle blew, and again, a one-and-one was awarded,  as I had once again missed the lay up. I was now 0 for 3. 

Cognizant of the last free throw, I attempted to give this shot a little more touch. The ball arched gracefully toward the basket, hit the front of the rim, hesitated, then dropped, outside the basket. It was short, and I was 0 for 4. The other team rebounded the ball and headed the other way.  Surprisingly, they were no better at capitalizing on our lack of execution, and soon we were back on offense, the game still within reach.

One more time, I dutifully popped out, and once more I received the ball. The defender, aware by this time, I think,  that he was not quick enough to tightly guard a highly motivated "I'm-going-to-win-this-game" fanatic, crouched a couple of steps away and eyed me warily. I faked the drive, then a pass to the middle, and drove with the ball, once again, toward the basket. The defender anticipated this, however, and moved quickly to try and get an angle where I would not have another opportunity at a lay up. Seeing him drop back toward the hoop, I stopped--the player was out of position and it opened up the opportunity for an easy 10-foot jump shot. I barely got it off. The player, in desperation, grabbed at me, causing the shot to go wild, and the referee's whistle to blow. This meant I was now 0 for 5 but giving me, what I thought was, an intentional foul and 2 free throws.

Inexplicably, the referee told me that it was going to be, yet again, a one-and-one. Surprised, and wondering if the player had tripped when he grabbed me, if the referee had just got it wrong, or this was some home court advantage--I took the ball, bounced it three times, relaxed, bent my knees, and shot the ball. I missed . . . again. I was 0 for 6 and far from winning the game I was a significant part of why we lost that game in the final minutes.

I'll spare you the agony of the failure, the critical self-review, as well as other people's attempts to heal my wounded ego. But I will share how this utter, degrading, humiliating failure made me a better player . . . a better leader . . . and perhaps a better person.

I should say, I didn't learn all this that night. The walk to the locker room, the comments by other players, coaches, parents etc, the looooong bus ride home. It was not a night of inspiration or insight. It was a grueling ordeal to be endured. But returning to practice with my team, preparing for the games to follow, competing and once again being trusted to be on the floor during games, even when the outcome was uncertain, I began to learn from that failure.

Through this failure, I learned:

1. Confidence. Really? Yep! It took time but eventually, I realized that what had happened was not entirely a failure.  Before I had failed to perform, my Coach saw me as someone capable of playing both when the game was on the line and with the ability to take over and win a game. As we used to say, he recognized "He has game," meaning ability. My teammates were "sagging" and at least I had "good looks" at the basket. My shots were not necessarily forced or bad decisions. They were not executed successfully however. The following year, my senior season, the Coach implemented two plays for critical moments like the end of a game. Given my earlier failure, the two plays (see below) were counter intuitive, Never-the-less, Coach demonstrated, once again, his confidence in me as a player. 

2. Effort. Varsity players, even starters, could not stop me if I was determined. Only I could stop me. I frankly was surprised at how easy it was to get all 3 of my "open" shots on the basket. The defender simply could not prevent me from getting open. There was a problem however. When I went in for those first two layups and was pummeled by those senior players, I believed that I would not make those shots. After all, I was fouled! No one could be expected to make those baskets. I needed to learn some tenacity and how to complete a shot when I was fouled. I began to take pride in "going up hard" and making those baskets even if the defender "mugged me," making contact with my body, arm, or shooting hand, and seemingly making the lay up impossible.  My playing time increased along with my effort and soon I was playing "significant minutes" regularly and converting those lay ups . . . and the bones free throws if the foul was called.

3. Success is controlling myself. I didn't want to fail like that ever again!  I realized that my mistake was playing "out of control." I was trying to win the game. Me alone. Was my teammate open cutting across the lane? I don't know. I was planning my move to the basket. When the center crashed down on me, where was our center? Perhaps standing, open and unguarded, only a few feet from the basket? Probably. But I was going to make that lay up! I was going to win the game for the team, the coach, and--of course--myself. I played to win and my lack of playing with self-control hurt the team's chances.

4. Expectations are a two-edged sword. Trying too hard can be as bad as not trying . . . but I will never be okay with low expectations. It's a trap. How do I have "lower expectations" and still succeed?  The trick is, making sure the expectations you have are yours and they are reasonable. You control the effort you exert . . . but not the outcomes. Had I made all of my shots in that game would we have won?  Maybe. But I wasn't the only one playing that game. Taking on the projected expectations of others, or putting unrealistic expectations on yourself--the outcomes you hope for--is a recipe for failure.

5. Stay within Yourself. Don't listen to outside pressure.  I took Coach's words too seriously. I should have ignored them.  Afterwards, I realized that I accepted the premise, that it really was my job, and mine alone, to win that game. After all . . . that is the stuff of dreams isn't it? Hadn't I spent countless hours in my driveway, practicing for this exact scenario--taking the "winning shot"--and now I was asked to perform and I was ready to live the glory of winning the game. But the stress of accepting Coach's premise,  and my own expectations, failed me. I should have said to myself, "Right Coach, it's my job to win this game. Not the starters who played 90-95% of this game.  Not the team's job. It's mine." (Hear sarcastic tone of voice) Then, I could have ignored what he had said and just "played ball." I probably would have been more successful.

It was a painful experience but one that taught me a lot about myself and stood me in "good stead" for the future.  The next year, my Senior season, Coach had two standing plays for when the game was on the line. Called by our school colors, Blue and Gold, the plays were essentially the same play--mirror images of one another--one to the right side of the court and the other to the left. Both called for the team to get the ball to me, then the players would clear the floor--to one side or the other, and I would go, one-on-one against my defender. It was a role I learned to cherish.

 

Epilogue: Social scientists have noted that "finding positive attributes in bad experiences--even ones that are painful" is one indicator of resilience in children. I think the same is true of adults and of leaders. Too often, leaders faced with a failure spend their time trying hard to spin the failure into "non-events," finding someone to blame, defensively explaining their motives and avoiding responsibility or simply trying to hide from the repercussions of the experience altogether; rather than facing it, publicly, head on, and learning from it.

Failure is most often a complex situation. Rarely, is it as simple as "someone failed." It's a core belief in our work with leaders that failure often is an opportunity for a leader to learn and to grow  As Mohammad Ali put it, "You don't lose if you get knocked down, you lose if you stay down" and "Real success comes when we rise after we fall."

 

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