By Justin Wright
Communication breakdowns happen in every industry, to every team, and within every family. A high percentage of my clientele hire me specifically to aid and assist with communication strategies for their team. These breakdowns can be frustrating to deal with and often difficult to diagnose internally. In addition to the headaches involved, businesses also lose countless dollars every year as people work to remedy the adverse effects caused by poor communication.
So where do we begin? Understanding first what communication is and what the requisite steps are is a good place to start. From there we must analyze where things go wrong at each step, and how messages can become distorted and misinterpreted. This will give us a roadmap for better understanding where communication errors occur within a specific team or organization.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution; communication breakdowns happen for a number of reasons which are often specific to the industry or group in question. Regardless of where in the sequence your specific problems lie, there are strategies at each step which can reduce pain points and improve the effectiveness of your team.
What is communication?
To understand where breakdowns in communication occur, we must first understand what exactly communication is. Communication between two parties essentially involves three phases. It is first a transmission of a signal, followed by the reception of that signal, and lastly followed by the interpretation of that signal. Each of these phases provides opportunities for things to go wrong, and each is critically important.
When a signal is transmitted, we must analyze how effective that transmission was. Let’s use the signal from a radio station as an example. If there are issues with the radio tower, then regardless of the content of the message being sent from the station, it will never be received properly by the target individuals. There is an inherent issue in the signal being sent that is unrelated to content or context.
Likewise, if your personal radio is broken or malfunctioning then you will be unable to receive the transmission as intended. The radio station is sending out perfectly clear, high-quality audio, but difficulties in reception limit the audience’s ability to hear that signal. A more personal example of issues with reception include language barriers; if the listener does not understand the language of the message, they will be unable to deduce its meaning.
The last phase of communication is a bit more nuanced. Every message requires interpretation after it is sent by one party and received by another. This category is difficult to understand and can be difficult to positively affect, and thus it largely goes ignored. Part of this is an unwillingness for many to step inside the shoes of another and try to see things from their viewpoint. It can be difficult to think of how we would interpret a message if we were the receiving party, because we all carry our own inherent biases and life experiences. These life experiences drastically affect the way that we interpret the messages we receive. Nonetheless, this category is an important area to put forth effort when it comes to improving our own communication.
There are a number of ways we can improve the transmission of any message that we send. First, and potentially most obvious, is to make sure that we are clear with the articulation of our message. Whether we are sending a message digitally, or delivering it in person, we should be clear and concise with our delivery. Adding more variables is a common strategy that I suggest as well; this can be accomplished by delivering a message over the phone versus email, or in person versus over the phone. By adding in voice and, progressively, body language, the signals we are sending become even more clear. The more serious the message, the more variables are required. There is a reason that we do not traditionally inform relatives about a death in the family via text or email.
Avoid using unnecessary words and make sure that the instructions are clear. If you have trouble being verbose, practice delivering shorter messages more regularly. I told a coworker one time that if they couldn’t deliver their entire message in the span of a 1-minute instagram video, they were probably speaking too much. Find ways to condense what you are saying so that the main deliverables, points, and action items are clear. Combining these strategies will ensure that your message is as clear as possible to those you are delivering it to.
Issues with reception generally stem from timing, language, or technical errors. If a message is delivered quickly and at a bad time for the person receiving it, there is a high likelihood that they will not retain the important details of that message. Oftentimes important communication is delivered as individuals are heading out the door in an effort to inform them before they leave. The downside to this is that the message is rarely received correctly. Additionally as we have previously discussed, if there are any language barriers or translation issues then the message will be incorrect as well. Prioritizing accurate translation and clarity in these situations is critical.
Technical issues have created more problems in the modern age of communication as well. If you are having a video conference and the feed is fading in and out, this distraction can cause people to miss key pieces of the presentation. If the cell reception is poor from where you are calling from, words or phrases can be dropped from the call. Working to improve these factors to the best of your ability will make communication more clear across the board.
The interpretation of a message is where many factors are at play which can negatively affect how this message is processed after reception. The primary issue with interpretation is that it is based on a wide range of life experiences, biases, previous interactions, cultural norms, past history, etc. A person’s life story will literally affect how they interpret every message that they receive.
With this knowledge in hand, it becomes important to remain sensitive to these factors any time you are delivering a message to someone else. You must give thought to how they will receive and process the information you are giving them. For example, the phrase, “Break a leg!” means something far different in the acting community than it does in other industries. This knowledge is critical when choosing which colloquialisms or phrases to use in conversation. Even certain hand gestures mean something far different in other countries outside of America.
Ensuring proper interpretation of a message relies, in large part, on having empathy for the individuals you are speaking with. As a teammate in any capacity it is our responsibility to understand our teammates and gain a deeper understanding of their life experiences, wants, and needs. With this information in hand we can more effectively communicate in our daily lives.
With a deeper understanding of the three phases of communication, it becomes possible to “reduce the static” at each phase. This allows for messages to be delivered more clearly, be received more readily, and properly transcribed or interpreted by those receiving them. Focus on truly understanding the people you spend time communicating with to ensure that your messages to them are received and understood properly. Constantly question and analyze yourself to make sure that you are being clear, concise, and direct with the messages you send out. Focusing on all of these areas together will allow you to reduce the common pitfalls of poor communication which negatively affect every industry in the world. Increasing the effectiveness of your communication within your teams will drastically improve the output and success of those teams; as all individuals get on the same page, massive, positive action can be taken more readily.