Communications Breakdown

You don’t have to get up to leave the room.

As children grow up and learn, one of the key ways they learn is by asking “why” questions. And even as adults, we often wonder “why.” In fact, I recently came across a number of “why” questions that seem to go unanswered. For example,

*Why is there an expiration date on sour cream?

*Why is lingerie so popular … if love is blind?

*Why do Lipton Tea employees take coffee breaks?

*Why does a “slight tax increase” cost you $200 and a “substantial tax cut” save you 30 cents?

*Why is lemon juice made with artificial flavoring and dish washing liquid made with real lemons?

*Why do you have to “put your two cents in,” but it’s only a “penny for your thoughts”? Why is the extra penny needed?

*Why does a round pizza come in a square box?

*Why is it that people say they “slept like a baby” when babies wake up about every two hours?

*Why are people IN a movie but ON TV?

*Why can’t the professor on Gilligan’s Island fix a hole in a boat if he can make a radio out of a coconut?

*Why does Goofy stand erect while Pluto remains on all fours?

I suppose the real question is, “Why do we keep on asking why, why, why?” Because communication breaks down so much of the time.

As I mentioned in last week’s “Tuesday Tip,” any time you do anything or say anything that says “I don’t respect you … understand you … or … care about you,” there’s a significant communication breakdown going on. Or as David L. Levin writes in his book, “Don’t Just Talk, Be Heard,” we’ve got a “disconnect” on our hands.

Last week I gave you 5 of the major “disconnects.” Let’s look at the other 5 today.

=> 6. Right-Wrong Thinking

It’s an easy trap to fall into. The minute you believe your way is the “right” way, all other ways become “wrong.” You start putting your energy into defending your “rightness” and attacking the other person’s “wrongness.” And that’s bound to hurt the communication process and your relationships. It communicates an “I don’t respect you” message.

To get away from this “right-wrong” thinking process, you need to realize that your way may be effective. It may be valid, but it may not be “right.” There’s almost always a better way. So find it … by listening to the other person instead of trying to show him why he’s wrong.

For example, the first telephones were a good way, a better way, even a great way to communicate. However, history has proven that the first telephones were certainly not the “right” way or even the “best” way to communicate. By comparison with today’s telephone systems, they were terrible. This basic concept holds true with everything you do, from manufacturing to customer service. If you get caught in the trap of doing your job the same way you’ve always done it … because you believe it is the “right” way to do it … you paralyze all future progress. Your creative juices stop flowing.

And the same concept holds true in the communication process. If you’re stuck in “right-wrong” thinking, the communication process stops flowing. As Deborah Tannen, a communications expert, notes, “The biggest mistake is believing there is one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation — or a relationship.”

To get away from this “right-wrong” disconnect, follow consultant Bob Proctor’s advice. He says, “The next time you hear yourself saying, ‘That’s right’ or ‘I’m right,’ correct yourself immediately by repeating, ‘That is a good way, and I might act on it. However, there may be a better way and I will look for it.'”

=> 7. Partial listening

David Levin calls it “listen and read.” You may be on the phone with your spouse or anyone else that is important to you. She’s talking; you’re listening. And suddenly she says, “You’re reading something on your computer, aren’t you?” You’re busted.

As Levin asks, “How can she tell? The answer is, you’re not that good at it, but neither is anyone else. I’ve yet to meet the person who can truly pull off ‘listen and read.’ And based on my experience on how well it goes over, I’d say it’s not worth it. Probably best to just not try it at all.”

I couldn’t agree more. Whenever you’re listening to somebody else and trying to do something else at the same time, you’re sending the disconnect messages of “I don’t care about you” and “I don’t understand you.”

By contrast, I think of one set of employees at one company who learned to do it right … who learned how to connect rather than disconnect. As Paul Snyderman of Merck told me, a senior marketing officer spoke with great passion about the need to get “closer to the customer” and directed all of us to meet with our customers. Snyderman said, “In fact, he directed us to spend at least 15% of our time with our customers. We were to meet with our customers … whether face to face, on field trips, or via phone … to just listen.”

And of course, when you do that, you connect. You send messages of “I care about you … understand you … and … respect you.”

By contrast, another “disconnect” is when you demonstrate …

=> 8. Insensitivity to the other person’s needs

It could happen if you give a job to someone … and then take it back if he is not doing it right. Or not doing it the way you would have done it. Levin calls it the “Yo-Yo.” It sends a message of disrespect.

Of course, Levin is a realist. He writes, “I’m not saying absolutely never do this. If the job is critical and they’re clearly not going to be able to make it work, sometimes you may have to. I’m just saying it sends a terrible message. So if you have to do it, be ready for the consequences because you will definitely have hurt your relationship with that person — and your effectiveness.”

On one episode of “The View,” Star Jones was aware of that challenge. She said, “You’re never allowed to step on people to get ahead, but you can step over them if they’re in your way.” It showed a bit more sensitivity to the needs of the other person.

Or let’s say a coworker comes to you … if you’re a manager … and asks for some time off for some “personal business.” Did you feel that your coworker was trying to take advantage of you? Did you immediately question her commitment to the corporate mission? Or could you see the legitimacy of the request … if indeed it was legitimate?

More importantly, speaker Phillip Van Hooser asks, “How did you respond? Did you say, ‘Jane, I don’t really see how we can afford to have you out right now, with the trade show bearing down on us. You’d better try to make other plans.’ Or was your response just a bit more in line with her needs, ‘Jane, you know that it’s a busy time, and you know better than anyone else what needs to be done before the trade show. But, if you need some time off, of course you can have it. Just let me know what I can do to help you out on this end.”

As Van Hooser concludes, “If she senses a since concern on your part, her attitude toward you and ultimately, toward the organization, will be different. Make no mistake: Followers are very attentive to the words and deeds of their leaders.”

That being the case, throughout your day, check up on yourself. Ask yourself how sensitive you’re being to the needs of your coworkers, customers, and family members.

=> 9. Assumptions

Angelo Donghia, a prominent interior designer in the 1970’s and 80’s, had it right when he said, “Assumption is the mother of screw-up.” All too often we “assume” the other person will understand us rather “ensure” his/her understanding.

For example, there was an obvious misunderstanding when Cathy Groves’ husband went to the lumber store. She said he uses scraps of wood, called “shorts,” for carving. One day when he was in a lumber store, he saw some lovely pieces in a bin behind the counter. But he had a lot of explaining to do after he asked the clerk, “Do you mind if I come around and poke through your shorts?”

There was another misunderstanding when a man came home and was greeted by his wife dressed in a very enticing outfit. “Tie me up,” she purred, “and you can do anything you want.” So he tied her up and went golfing.

Now we can chuckle at the some of the misunderstandings that come about because of faulty assumptions. But in reality, if you’re not careful, assumptions can send heavy messages of misunderstanding that really hurt you, the communication process, and your relationship with others.

Levin calls these hurtful assumptions “phantom messages.” They’re messages that others pick up loud and clear even though they’re not spoken by us.

Consider these 2 scenarios that Levin lays out. The first one: your buddy buys himself a new boat. Naturally he’s excited about it, and so one afternoon over a beer he talks your ear off about it. The second one: everyone is called together for a big meeting at work. When you get there, the BIG BOSS gets up and starts things off with a “funny” story about the trouble he’s having finding storage for his new 50-foot yacht.

These are both scenarios of someone talking about their boat. But from the standpoint of connecting with others, they couldn’t be more different. The first scenario … at worst is slightly annoying … but could be fun, depending on how you feel about your friend and boats. The second scenario turns you totally off.

You feel like the BIG BOSS is rubbing his BIG YACHT in your face. In a sense, his “funny” store inadvertently communicates, “I don’t understand your world, because I live in a completely different world than yours.”

In both cases, the speaker “assumed” the listener would get the intended message … even though he did very little thinking about how the message would be received. You’ve got to think about what you’re going to say … before you say it … and you’ve got to think how the other person will interpret your message … before you send it.

And finally, the 10th “disconnect” that hurts relationships, that communicates an “I don’t respect … understand … or care about” message is …

=> 10. Jargon

Organizations are filled with it. And each department within the organization might have their own words and acronyms that other people outside the group may not understand.

The cartoon strip “Dilbert” gave an example of this in last week’s Sunday newspaper. Wally approaches his manager and says, “I need to spend the next year optimizing the WDNW system.”

The manager replies, “I’ve never heard of the system.”

“You only hear about the systems that have problems. If everything goes as planned, you’ll never hear about WDNW again.” says Wally.

“What does the WDNW system do?” wonders the manager.

“It keeps our zeros and ones from accidentally forming tens.” responds Wally.

“That can happen?” asks the manager. “Not on my watch.” Wally says.

And then as Wally walks away to converse with another colleague at the coffee maker, his colleague asks, “How’s the ‘Wally Does No Work” project?” Wally answers, “The acronym helped.”

Well, it may have helped him escape some work, but it didn’t help him build a working relationship.

As Levin points out, “Not a big shocker … but talking to others in ways they don’t understand is not a great way to connect. It’s a disconnect for ‘I understand.’ Using language, terms, acronyms, or other verbal shorthand specific to your world is like having a big flashing sign that says, ‘We’re different from each other’ And anything that points out how we’re different from someone else says ‘I don’t understand you.'”

Unfortunately, some people think their big words, fancy acronyms, and complex words will impress other people as well as garner their respect. Typically not. All your jargon does is leave others frustrated … which is another “disconnect.”

When I used to teach teachers, I would ask them, “Which of these two sentences would you prefer to hear … if you were a student: 1) “Never try to impress people with the profundity of your thought by the obscurity of your language.” or 2) “Keep it simple.” They always say #2.

So skip the jargon … or at least minimize the jargon … if you want to connect with people outside your own inner circle.

Action:  Ask yourself which of the 5 “disconnects” listed above do you engage in most frequently. And then ask the same question of three coworkers and two family members. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll learn fast what you need to do to improve your communication effectiveness.