Communication Breakdown

December 4, 2020
# min read
Rob Long

George Bernard Shaw famously said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Being an effective communicator is key to success in life and business.

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have been dominating the headlines. News reports suggest there are multiple causes for the troubles in Ferguson, however, communication breakdowns appear to be a significant factor.

Communication breakdowns occur when the parties involved don't communicate clearly. Rarely is this due to the lack of desire, rather the lack of good communication skills. I reference the Ferguson matter because in a recent news report I heard a resident say "The community feels like there is a cover-up going on." This is a pet peeve of mine; the use of the word "feel" when expressing a thought. It's problematic because the speaker is invoking feelings, which typically raise the stakes, but not saying what the feeling is. What does a cover-up feel like? A cover-up is an observed event, not an emotion. The reaction to it is, but in order to understand clearly what is going on we need to know the emotion. For example, if the resident said, "The community is angry because we think there is a cover-up going on." the listener would have a much clearer sense for the state of affairs.

Whenever we use the word "feel" to express thoughts the communication waters get muddied and may lead to undesirable results. This is relevant in both our personal and business lives. Imagine if a manager says to an employee, "I feel like you aren't working hard enough." What does that feel like? The employee might have a sense, but how can he or she be sure. Often the meaning gets left to the imagination, which, in this case, is the wrong use of imagination in managing!

What if a husband said to his wife, "I feel like we are not spending enough time together." What does that feel like? The wife won't know because the husband hasn't said; a communication breakdown.

The flip side to this is that the person speaking may not be able to articulate what they are actually feeling. That is fuel for a communication breakdown as well. Remember the foundational principle of taking responsibility for how you feel. Doing so requires one to understand his or her feelings, which, once understood, can be communicated with clarity.

To avoid this communication breakdown:

  • Listen for times when you communicate a thought with the word "feel". If you catch yourself, and you can identify your underlying emotion, restate by saying something like, "I feel (the emotion), because I think (the observation)."
  • If you miss this opportunity realize that the desired outcome may not occur until you accurately re-communicate your thoughts and feelings.
  • When you're in a conversation with someone else who expresses a thought with the word "feel", gently ask them what that feels like. If conditions permit, use the experience as a teaching moment to strengthen the communication between the parties.

Clear communication yields optimal results in business and in life!

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