Avoiding Communication Breakdown

Positive communication focuses on what’s right … not on who’s right.

Communication BlundersPositive communication sees solutions and pathways. It builds bridges and connects people.

That’s our goal for every one-on-one interaction.

Unfortunately, the research says that is not what typically happens. Communication breaks down all too often. People may use the wrong words when they communicate or exhibit inappropriate behaviors that turn others off. And so they do not get the results they want.

Perhaps that’s why someone compiled the silly, tongue-in-cheek “Redbook of Manners” … to tease people in to thinking about what they say and how they behave … so they can avoid some of the communication blunders that will mess up their at-work and at-home relationships.

Last week I gave you a few examples from the book. Here are a few others.

  • While ears need to be cleaned regularly, this is a job that should be done in private using one’s OWN truck keys.
  • When dating (outside the family), the man needs to establish with her parents what time she is expected back. Some will say 10:00 PM; others might say “Monday”. If the latter is the answer, it is the man’s responsibility to get her to school on time.
  • When sending your wife/girlfriend down the road with a gas can, it is impolite to ask her to bring back beer.
  • Dirt and grease under the fingernails is a social no-no, as they tend to detract from a woman’s jewelry and alter the taste of finger foods.
  • When it comes to weddings, even though it may be uncomfortable, you need to say “yes” to socks and shoes for this special occasion.

You get the point. Some words and some actions are horribly ineffective when it comes to communication. As I said last week, there are ten communication blunders you need to avoid. Last week I gave you five of those. Here are the other five words, phrases, and communication approaches you need to avoid … or at least use with extreme caution. 

6. Moralizing

You need to be very careful when you’re telling other people how things “should” be done and what is right or wrong. If you do it ineffectively, you’re going to trigger a negative reaction in the other person.

After all, most people already know what’s right and wrong. Besides that, preaching typically requires years of theological training you most likely do not have.

So don’t preach at people. When I was a kid and had done something wrong, I was more fearful of the sermon I was going to get from my father than any spanking or punishment I might receive. And I think most people feel the same way.

Remember people learn more from a model than a critic.

7. Sarcasm

Although you think you’re “witty” or “clever” when you’re being sarcastic, most people won’t see it that way. They’ll be confused by your sarcasm and wonder what you’re “really” saying, and others will have their feelings needlessly hurt.

It’s like the county agent who was visiting a farmer out in his pasture. As they were talking, the farmer’s dog grabbed a dried up cow pie in his mouth, shook it between his teeth and tossed it away. He kept doing it over and over. “That’s a rather odd way for your dog to act, isn’t it?” asked the county agent. “No,” said the farmer. “He bit a fellow from the IRS this morning and he’s trying to get the bad taste out of his mouth.”

Now you may laugh at that, but if you work for the IRS you were probably offended. So my point is … be very careful about using sarcasm. It’s best used by trained professional comedians and I’m guessing you don’t fit into that category either.

8. Euphemisms

Euphemisms are used to sugar-coat things that are hard to say. And while that may sound nice, it’s actually very cruel … because you’re misleading people … and in a sense saying “you’re not mature enough to handle the truth” … or “I don’t have the guts to say what I really mean because I’m covering my own behind”.

For example, when the news media reports “collateral damage” in the midst of a war story, they’re not making it clear that innocent people are being KILLED. When a politician says we’re going to have some “revenue enhancement,” he or she doesn’t have the guts to say “we’re going to be raising your taxes”. And when you’re told Congress is getting a “waiver” from a new piece of legislation, which may be the truth, they’re glossing over the bigger truth that you, the taxpayer, are going to pay for the personal bills of those in Congress.

As the famous football coach Lou Holtz put it, “Telling people what they need to hear is hard, so most people choose not to do it. Truth is suppressed in deference to feeling.” And I would add, when the truth is suppressed, almost everyone gets hurt … eventually.

9. Jargon, Profanity, and Slang

When you use jargon or use words that are only understood by a small, select group of people, and when you use those words when talking to others, you’re being disrespectful. Whether you know it or not, you’re communicating the message that says,”I know more than you do. I’m better than you. I’m an insider and you’re a lowly outsider.” Of course, that may not be your intention, but often times that’s what the other person hears or interprets.

For example, I speak at company meetings all the time where lots of people are coming from many different departments. Before I speak, I’m often preceded by one or two company leaders who give an update on some project at the company. The leader may say, “Let me tell you about the QRS1010.” When he finishes his presentation thirty minutes later, half the audience is still wondering what is the QRS1010?

Now I don’t expect the leader to stop using the jargon for my sake. I’m an outsider. But his or her colleagues need to know what the leader is talking about if they ever hope to achieve some sense of connection or partnership. So when it comes to jargon, follow this rule. When in doubt, leave it out.

The same goes for slang and profanity. Many people feel uncomfortable with profanity, and others will lose respect for you. And I doubt you ever want that to happen. So leave it out.

And slang is only understood by those in your own small circle. When you use slang with other people, you’re creating unnecessary confusion. When I spoke in Japan, for example, I told my audience I “needed to hit the road.” Several hands shot up in the audience. As one person asked, “Dr. Zimmerman, we don’t understand this strange custom in America. Please explain why Americans feel the need to go outside and pound on the concrete in their streets?”

As a side note, according to TV star Conan O’Brien, “A study in the ‘Washington Post’ says that women have better verbal skills than men. I just want to say to the authors of that study: ‘Duh.'”

Finally, if you’re going to be a better communicator, you need to avoid…

10. Abstractions

Make sure you are specific when you tell people what you will do or what you expect them to do. Instead of saying “as soon as possible” or “next week”, say “I will have it on Tuesday.” You remove the doubt and possible misunderstanding.

At the same time, avoid overly complex words. Authors and columnists know that the clearest and most effective words are at the level of 8th grade language. Sure, it’s nice to show everyone how smart you are by using big, fancy words, but if your goal is absolutely clear communication, forget it. More often than not you’ll be better off when you use simple and strait forward language.

I like the way Mike Krzyzewski, the most winning coach in NCAA Division I men’s basketball history, puts it. He says, “The culture of honesty is a culture I love. I tell all our team members, ‘We need to communicate in ways that are more direct than most people are used to. We can only do this if we learn to tell the truth.'”

Communication works for those who work at it. But it doesn’t work if you use any of these ten communication blunders.

ACTION:  Eliminate one of these ten communication blunders from your communication behaviors this week … and watch how much better things go for you.