Training To Avoid Communication Breakdowns
“The problem with communication,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in the early 1900s, “is the illusion that it has occurred.”
I start my communication skills classes with this quote because everyone seems to understand its meaning: We leave an interaction thinking we’re all on the same page only to learn later that somewhere, somehow, something went wrong, and we find ourselves confused at best, and angry at worst, when what we thought would happen doesn’t happen.
Today’s problem with communication is a topic of interest to employers around the country as hundreds of articles with tips on how to communicate better populate the Internet, and authors find their place among the many trying to help bridge the gap between social media communication and interpersonal oral and written interactions in the workplace. While understanding why the problem with communication seems to have evolved into an epidemic in the last 20 years is important and interesting, as an educator and a coach, I am more interested in how to help people who have been told by their colleagues and their bosses that their communication stinks!
3 COMMUNICATION CONCERNS
Teaching communication skills is not easy. In an effort to help others improve in this critical skill area, I’ve read dozens of books and self-help articles on the Internet. None of them has been helpful because what I’ve experienced is that the issues themselves and the corresponding solutions are not cookie-cutter in nature; just as each individual is unique, so, too, is the communication “problem.”
First of all, communication is a big concept with many meanings. I’ve learned this as I get calls monthly from leadership asking for ideas on how to improve the communication skills of their direct reports. After working with many employees in my current position, I have discovered these requests fall mainly into three categories:
- The individual tends to ramble, unable to focus on the main point of the conversation.
- The individual isn’t able to articulate a response to a question or request clearly and in the moment.
- The individual doesn’t take the appropriate action when asked to perform a task.
So how, I ask myself with each request, can I possibly help?
In the broadest sense, I see all three of these concerns as involving a lack of awareness of the other party in the communication relationship, which includes a sender and a receiver of information. The sender (speaker or writer) seems unable to simultaneously understand what the receiver (reader or listener) wants or needs to hear and tailor the communication to those needs.
For example, people often tell me, “I know what I wanted to say, but it just didn’t come out right.” My response is to ask, “Did you know what they wanted to hear?” It’s a simple question without an easy answer because the answer requires us to think from the perspective of the other person or people, and we are hardwired to think from our own ego-centric, and, therefore, limited, worldview. The trick, then, in improving communication skills is to train people to think from the other’s perspective, but this can only be done by understanding each learner’s own perspective of his or her role in the relationship in which he or she is communicating.
Let’s take the first request category: The individual tends to ramble, unable to focus on the main point of the conversation. Let’s use Sue as the name of this individual. The first things I needed to find out were:
- What does Sue think her boss means when he says she rambles?
- Does Sue agree with her boss, or is she not aware of this tendency?
- If she is aware, does she ramble only in certain situations or is this a recurring theme?
Here’s what I found out, interestingly: First, Sue did not ramble in our conversation. She was articulate, and while she agreed she sometimes loses focus, she did not feel the issue was problematic in all situations. The two situations during which she seems unable to focus are when she is talking to more senior people and during employment interviews—both situations involving stress and a case of nerves.
I could simply have advised Sue to find ways to manage her nerves, but the issue was, in fact, a communication problem; Sue needed to understand her relationship in terms of the communication. What, for example, did the “more senior people” or interviewers want to know when she spoke with them? What might she have wanted to know if she were in their shoes? What elements of their communication style and choice of words could she connect with in order to have more control in the conversation? How much or how little did they need to know? I explained that if an interviewer asked what she liked to do outside work, the answer should be about what she liked to do outside work, not the entire background of her interests.
Rambling is the inability to determine which idea is most important to relay and how to sequence ideas so they are understood easily. People who are excellent writers are able to state their argument and support it using various organizational techniques, such as general to specific or chronological. Learning these techniques is also helpful in training people to focus.
As Sue and I talked, it became surprisingly apparent to us both that she honestly had never thought a simple answer was enough. She felt she had to explain everything so she didn’t seem “stupid,” especially when it came to explaining a process at work to her bosses. Once she acknowledged they didn’t have to know every detail of every step and the decisions leading to using those steps, and had a strategy for representing her thoughts, she became much more confident, and her communication skills improved.
DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS
The second category of request addresses the issue of someone not able to articulate a response clearly and in the moment; in other words, someone who might look like a deer in the headlights when asked a question. I’ll call this individual Todd. Here are the questions I asked Todd:
- Does Todd agree he has trouble articulating his thoughts?
- If not, why do others perceive this about him?
- If so, is this a persistent problem, or one that only happens on occasion with specific people?
- If so, why does he think it takes him time to answer or respond?
Like Sue’s responses, Todd’s answers were telling: He did not feel he had trouble articulating his thoughts; instead, he admitted it sometimes took him longer than it took others to respond. He said that when asked a question, he often interpreted the question in more than one way and so had to think through all possible answers before responding. In addition, he was often unclear about the context of the question or why the question was being asked and how his answers might be used to solve technical-type problems. In other words, Todd was overthinking everything.
Todd’s scenario is an example of a complete disconnect between the speaker and the receiver. The person asking the question may be stating the question clearly but may not be providing enough information for Todd to answer comprehensively. Todd, on the other hand, was making assumptions about the content and answering the wrong questions! This can be frustrating for both communicators. What Todd learned was to ask questions to find out more about the what, why, how, when, etc., of the questions he is being asked without sounding like a prosecutor.
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Asking questions is the key to effective communication; without probing and clarifying questions, communication breaks down. In scenario three, where an individual doesn’t take the appropriate action when asked to perform a task, the right questions haven’t been presented by either the sender or the receiver. I’ll name this individual Carrie, who thought of herself as a good communicator. The questions I needed to ask her concerned her thoughts about the disconnect:
- How frequently does this disconnect occur?
- Are there similar communication breakdowns between Carrie and others?
- What was said before, during, and after the request and the subsequent behavior?
As it turned out, Carrie often was confused by her boss’ requests but was afraid to ask clarifying questions for fear of looking stupid (not an uncommon concern, it turns out). She admitted her behaviors were either hit or miss when it came to meeting her boss’ expectations. Also, her communication style was to provide more, not less, direction when giving instructions, so she expected the same from others. One example she shared was that her boss asked her to write an e-mail to a customer explaining the company’s decision on a claim. After sending the e-mail, her boss stated he had not asked her to send the e-mail without his review and without copying him.
Both Carrie and her boss made assumptions in this situation, and as a result, both were frustrated and angry. Learning to think of all possible outcomes of a request and asking questions to eliminate undesired outcomes would help Carrie avoid this type of communication breakdown.
As you can see from these examples, communication is not easy, and solutions to problems arising out of ongoing miscommunication are not always clear cut. Telling someone, “Be more direct,” or “Ask more questions,” or “Say what you mean,” is not always helpful. Teaching others to communicate more effectively involves understanding each communication situation, the intent of the communication, and the individual expectations each person brings to the situation—all of which are influenced by past experiences and training. It also involves patience and an acute awareness of its value. People yearn for connection, but connection can only happen by consistently encouraging and sharing thoughts, ideas, concerns, beliefs, attitudes, and support through effective and meaningful communication.
Cindy Woods, AINS, AIS, is the chief learning officer at USLI, an insurance company in Wayne, PA. She has spent more than 30 years in corporate training and development as a course designer, instructor, and coach, specializing in communication and leadership development. Previous to joining USLI, Woods worked with many organizations in the Philadelphia area to develop and design training strategies in support of corporate goals.