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Field Manual – 4 Ways to Dismantle Communication Breakdowns

Communication. Whether you are building a non-profit or a unicorn, it will be the cornerstone of your business. We spend most of our time communicating with customers, stakeholders and team members. And sometimes it can be the difference between positive profits and destroying your brand.

Let’s face it, though communicating our ideas is one of the things that separates us from other animals, we can be quite terrible at it. Communication breakdowns are bound to happen (and are just a function of being up to something important).

Here are four ways to dismantle a communication breakdown:

1. Communicate that you are not ready to communicate.

It may seem counter-intuitive but sometimes saying you are not ready to talk is the best solution. This is most especially true when tensions are high.

man-on-fire“I’m not angry why the fuck would you even say that?!” (Photo from happysweetmama)

We make bad decisions when emotions are put into the picture. Creating some space and distance can help you create the clarity you need to manage the situation. This goes both ways if the other party is the one with fuming nostrils. 

“Sometimes, I wish this was appropriate in start-ups”

Give a responsible time to begin communication again. Being responsible with the time means:

  • Not making it too long that the issue becomes an unspoken issue (something swept under the rug) – make a time limit the shorter the better (as I’ve said before – drama lingers and multiplies)
  • That other matters like outputs and performance don’t get damaged significantly (this can be avoided by addressing what you will be doing until you restart communication) – weigh it out with the potential damage of saying something while emotions
  • That you are doing it for a higher purpose – not letting emotions getting in the way – instead of shrugging off a real concern

When done responsibly, a time out can make a huge difference.

2. Deal with Facts.

This may seem apparent but as human beings we have a natural tendency to mix opinions, judgements (and even complete fiction) with fact. There’s actually a phenomenon called “confirmation bias” that shows we look for “facts” that match our already existing opinions and worldviews.

Still not convinced on how an opinion and fact can be muddled? Here’s a concrete example:

  • “You’re ugly” – is an opinion
  • “I don’t like your face” – is a fact about your opinion of a person’s face
  • “You have a nose.” – is a fact (in most circumstances)
  • “You have an ugly nose” – is an opinion mixed with the fact that you have a nose.
  • “I don’t like you’re ugly face” – is an opinion mixed with the fact about your opinion of someone’s face

See how it can get confusing?

“Snow White – This was a communication breakdown with dire consequences.” (Photo from wikipedia)

The best way to deal with any communication is get clear with the facts. If you get confused and start arguing about what’s a fact, stick to this rule of thumb, it’s only a fact if it’s specific and measurable.

By doing this you deal with the facts rather than your emotions, opinions and other biased judgments that could get in the way of a solution.

3) Write it down first

Not all of us are built to be eloquent. So it makes sense to aside from following step one that you get clear on what exactly you want to say.

Anyone who has had a boyfriend or girlfriend knows what I’m talking about. Our words can get tangled and those intertwined miscommunications can produce unrepairable results.

“Dear Darla…”

Let me be clear, I don’t suggest reading your wonderful composition to the party concerned. But getting clear on what exactly you intend to say can help structure the conversation. Remember conversation is two way so it will be difficult to anticipate the interruptions in between your exquisite piece of prose.

4) Search for the commitment behind the concern

My years being a communication coach has given me a lot of experience in dealing with a wide range of miscommunications and communication breakdowns.

Back when I was working with My Masterpiece Movement, a community of teaching-artists who did organizational coaching and training, one of my favourite key insights that we always shared after our core communication model was “search for the commitment behind the concern”

It’s a simple reminder that a person wouldn’t get pissed if they didn’t care about something. Whether it is a concern about a project that they hold close to their heart, your opinion about their decision making or simply what they think is the best course of action – it is YOUR job, if you want to dismantle the communication breakdown, to find out what that underlying concern is.

“When “let’s hug it out…” is not a viable option”
(Creative Commons, ucamari photography)

How do you do that? Ask questions. Dig deeper. Listen. The deeper concern is usually hidden between the lines.

Once you dig through the angry voices, opinions, judgements and sometimes defensive behaviour, you can deal with the real problem that is usually manifested in the form of a concern.

I could give you more coaching tips on how to handle miscommunications but usually these four will do the trick. So remember…

If tensions are high, communicate that you are not ready to communicate. Give a deadline for restarting communication. If you’re unclear, write down what you want to say. Always deal with facts and LISTEN for the concerns behind the communication.

Have you used any of these methods? Share in the comments section!

Field Manual is a series of instructional insight-driven posts designed for founders, entrepreneurs and changemakers.

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