The Noise Factors That Break Down Communication

“Be careful; think about the effect of what you say. Your words should be constructive, bring people together, not pull them apart.”
Miriam Makeba

On the very day Marie left for a business trip her dog died. That night when she called home to chat with her husband, he immediately blurted out, “Your dog’s dead!” Marie was not only shocked but offended. She scolded her husband Mark for being so utterly insensitive and said, “You should’ve broken it to me gently. You could have said, ‘The dog’s on the roof.’ Then the next day when I called home, you could have added, ‘He fell off.’ The following day you could’ve said, ‘He’s at the vet.’ And the day after that you could have told me he died.”

Mark paused to consider her advice. And then she asked, “By the way, how’s my mother?” Cautiously he replied, “Well dear … she’s on the roof!”

Whatever other problems the two of them might have, they certainly have some communication problems.

Communication should be a fairly simple process of sending and receiving messages. But all too often, a host of distracting, distorting NOISE factors come between the speaker’s intended meaning and the receiver’s interpretation of that meaning.

Last week I outlined 6 of those NOISE factors and told you how to overcome them. Let’s look at the other factors that may be getting in the way of your communication effectiveness.

7. Hidden agendas

These happen all too often in business meetings. A person comes to the meeting with one thought on his mind … what HE wants … and the quality of his listening and the sincerity of his comments are all geared to getting what HE wants. If a particular item on the agenda doesn’t relate to his hidden agenda, he tunes out. If a team mates makes a suggestion that competes with his own personal desires, he may deliberately dispute the comment or disparage the team mate.

For example, if James is trying to keep things the way they are at work, if James is trying to stop the changes and re-organizations being discussed in various meetings, he may say, “All of us in the factory know what works and doesn’t work in manufacturing. We’ve had years of experience. What do those outside consultants know about doing a real day’s work in the real world?”

So ask yourself if you’re being sincere and honest when you’re in the midst of a conversation. Or are your comments motivated by a hidden desire to turn the conversation and the results in your favor? If you’re guilty of that, chances are you’re going to miss or dismiss some excellent ideas from people who have some new, fresh, and possibly better ways of doing things. Hidden agendas almost always damage the communication process.

8. Lack of verbal skills

Since clarity is one of the hallmarks of effective communication, if you have not developed your verbal skills, you may be crippled for life. You won’t move upward in your career and you won’t move ahead in your relationships.

That’s part of the reason I recently released my book on “The Service Payoff: How Customer Service Champions Outserve and Outlast the Competition.”

Of course a number of things can affect a person’s verbal skill. You may not have taken enough courses in speaking, listening, and writing, or if you did take a few courses, you probably took those courses back in grade school or secondary school. You may need to brush up your skills. And why not? We brush up our skills on just about everything else in life.

One great way to brush up your skills is to join me at “The Journey to the Extraordinary” experience some time. We spend a nice chunk of time on this very subject.

Other people may lack verbal skills … by the world’s standards … because they simply come from a different cultural background. It is at this point that verbally administered standardized intelligence tests become invalid. An Appalachian child was once being tested by a psychologist who asked the child to name the seasons of the year. The child replied, “Deer season, possum season, fishing season …” The child showed an excellent grasp of seasonal variations throughout the year, but because his response was not the “standard” one, his score was downgraded.

In case your communication effectiveness is hampered by this NOISE factor, there are two things you need to do. First, take some communication classes if needed. Second, don’t use your lack of education or cultural background as an excuse for not being an effective communicator. You can learn how to communicate more effectively … and indeed … your success in the business world depends on it.

9. Stereotypes

It’s so easy to take a few bits of information about a person and then jump to some huge generalizations about his/her entire character … and the character of everyone else like him. It’s called stereotyping. And if you hold any stereotypes, you can be sure of one thing: Whenever you are communicating with someone who falls into your stereotypical category, you ARE going to have communication breakdowns.

I saw this happen repeatedly when I was a university professor. A conservative-dressed member of the faculty may hear a bearded, T-shirt, jean-clad colleague say, “A bachelor’s degree in general studies would serve some of our students better than the traditional degree programs,” and angrily dismiss the comment as an attempt to downgrade the “standards” of the university. Yet another conservative-dressed colleague might make the same proposal, and the faculty member would respond, “Yes, that may be exactly what need.”

To prevent stereotyping NOISE from damaging your communication, be aware of the kinds of people who turn you off. And when they’re speaking, remind yourself that you don’t have to like them or even agree with everything they say. All you have to do is give their comments a fair hearing to see if you can LEARN anything you can USE.

10. Perception/Selective Perception

This may be one of the biggest interrupting NOISE factors in communication. Two people can look at the same situation and yet see it very differently. One person “sees” a government stimulus plan as a way to save the economy while another person “sees” it as the destruction of the economy. You see your product or service as fairly priced while your customer sees it as unfair gouging. And to complicate the communication process, both parties are right … in their own minds.

It gets even worse. Once you have a perception, you tend to pick out the words and behaviors of the other person that support your perception. If, for example, you believe your manager is sexist, you’ll zone right in on those things that reinforce your perception, even though your manager hasn’t done anything or said anything that would make anybody else think he/she is sexist. It’s called “selective perception.” So it’s no wonder our communication breaks down so often.

Just remember, you and the other person will always have some degree of difference in your perceptions … because your perceptions are based on what you’ve experienced or what you’ve learned so far. And no two people have had the same experiences or have learned the same things. That’s why children are so amusing. Their limited experiences cause them to perceive things very differently than an adult, and as a result, come to some very strange conclusions.

I remember one police officer who was approached by a child who kept noticing the dog in the back of the van … the dog that just so happened to be the officer’s K-9 partner. Finally, the child asked, “Is that a dog you got back there?” “It sure is,” replied the police officer. Puzzled, the little girl looked at the officer, looked back at the dog, and then said, “What’d he do?”

In a similar case of mis-perception, a little boy opened the big family Bible. He was fascinated as he fingered through the old pages. Suddenly, something fell out of the Bible. He picked it up and looked at it. What he saw was an old leaf that had been pressed in between the pages. “Mama, look what I found,” the boy called out. “What have you got there, dear?” With astonishment the boy answered, “I think it’s Adam’s underwear!”

To reduce the perception/selective perception NOISE factor in your communication, remind yourself there’s always more than one way to look at things. Try to understand how the other person “sees” the situation you are talking about. Try to come to a meeting of the minds.

11. Defensiveness

Whenever you or the other person in a conversation is defensive, you can expect the communication to break down. One or both of you won’t “hear” everything that is said or you may inject things that were never said. And this is most likely to happen when one or both of you are feeling insecure.

For example, a wife may ask her husband if he happened to pick up a gallon of milk when he was grocery shopping. Her intention is purely informational … because she is going out for a bit and could pick up some milk on the way home. However, the insecure husband may respond as if he was being attacked, saying, “No, I didn’t. I can’t think of everything, you know, when I’ve got the kids with me and time is running out. I suppose you think my buying milk is more important than watching the kids this afternoon!”

With communication like that, they’re headed for trouble. As Oscar Levant chuckled, “There are two sides to every question: my side and the wrong side.” While that may be funny, it isn’t smart.

To remove this NOISE from your communication, remember to check it out. When you feel yourself getting defensive, STOP. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t respond too quickly. Check it out to see if you really understand what the other person is saying.

Just as importantly, learn to say things tactfully so the other person doesn’t get defensive. That doesn’t mean you should be deceptive or insincere. No! Not at all. Just learn to be considerate when you speak so you don’t hurt others unnecessarily.

I learned that years ago when I worked my way through college selling women’s shoes in a department store. My boss taught me to avoid saying something like, “Lady, your foot is too big for this shoe!” Instead I should say, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but this shoe is a little too small for your foot.” Both statements expressed the facts, but one was an insult … the other a tactful compliment.

As long as you live and work and find yourself around people, you will need the ability to communicate effectively. If you’re aware of the 11 major NOISE factors that can disrupt your communication, you can improve your communication.

Action:  When and where do you tend to get defensive? Plan out a strategy you can use the next time you’re about to get defensive … so you will know how to respond instead of getting caught off guard.