Three Steps to Avoid Communication Failures

Failure to communicate.

Far too often, poor communication is cited as the reason for not getting the results we want. For people doing something other than what we had expected. For confusion. For inaction. For frustration.

I suspect that sometimes it truly is a communication failure. And other times, it is not.

While communication failure may be an easy scapegoat or excuse when things don’t go as expected, there is room aplenty to get better at it.

Communication, after all, remains the primary tool we humans have to convey information, thoughts, direction, and rationale. It can knit us together or pull us apart. It can educate or mislead. It can lift our spirits or dash our hopes. It can bring people together or tear them apart.

Human communication is complex. We are competing for attention and then for understanding. True communication is a meeting, finding a commonplace (even if it is not common agreement). It can touch; it can transform. But only when done well.

When communication fails, how often do you blame miscommunication on the other? They didn’t “hear us.” They misunderstood. They took it wrong. They didn’t listen well enough.

Once again, there may be elements of truth in that. But the hard cold truth is that if we want more effective communication, we need to be the ones that communicate better.

There are three elements of communication that, when done well, significantly increase our chance of success. And if even one is missing or awry, it can dash our hopes of “communicating.”

  1. First is our message. This is WHAT we want to communicate.
  2. The second is the context in which we communicate. This is the WHEN and WHERE we communicate.
  3. The third is the intent we bring to the conversation. This is the HOW of communication.

Bungle any one of these at your own peril. Be mindful about melding the three, and your communication becomes more masterful.

Here are some examples of what happens when one of the elements is missing or goes awry:

  • I was working with a client on a large change to the organization. We had carefully crafted the message. We had excellent leadership alignment on the message and prepared them to share the message with their teams. The leadership team truly was committed to the change and had a sincere desire to see it succeed (good intent). Yet, knowing that it was a change likely to elicit concern and some pushback, several leaders opted to communicate via email rather than face to face. The choice of the wrong context communicated all the wrong things (and overshadowed the real communication). What employees heard was typically some version of:

I’m not committed enough to this to have face-to-face communication.

I’m afraid of this conversation, so I’m going to avoid looking you in the eye.

I’m not very interested in your questions or point of view on this change. Read this email and get on with it.

  • I had a team member that was struggling. His performance was not what it needed to be and was not what it had been in the past. I prepared my message carefully and could cite specific examples, and had clear expectations defined. My intent was clear and positive. I had a deep respect for this gentleman and his work and wanted to turn the situation around. I planned the context well enough (in my office at an appropriate time). However, as we moved into the conversation, the context changed. He became emotional, sharing some devastating events in his personal life. He became embarrassed. I become uncomfortable. Rather than adjusting the changed context and allowing some space for the emotions to surge and then recede, I plowed through. I forced the ending to the conversation rather than honoring that we both needed a bit of time and space to absorb his revelation. Had I been more proficient at context, I would have just listened (which is a huge part of communication), acknowledged, and allowed some time to pass before getting to closure.
  • I attended a presentation on implementing a new software solution, an extraordinarily complex topic. The CIO had done her homework and had thoroughly prepared her presentation. There was solid thought in the process to come to a recommendation and the outcome, so the message was clear and well crafted. The context was appropriate: the right people were in the room, prepared for the discussion, and enough time was allocated to the topic. However, the COS’s intent was NOT to ensure understanding but to use this opportunity to be “the smartest person in the room.” She found many opportunities to bedazzle others with her brilliance. She was disdainful of questions she deemed uninformed. The end result? An overall lack of understanding (by design), frustration at the time wasted, and a leader that was seen as technically brilliant but lacking the leadership to work effectively with an executive team.

When I’m facing an important communication opportunity, whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or a presentation to a large group, running through these three questions greatly enhances my communication effectiveness:

  1. Have I crafted my message well? Am I clear about the main points I want to convey? Can I convey it concisely? Is my message crafted with this specific audience in mind?
  2. Have I selected the proper context? What is the best time, place, and way to communicate this? Do I need to do something to help others prepare for the conversation?
  3. What is my true intention? What is the best possible outcome for this conversation? Am I truly striving to use this opportunity in affirming and healthy ways?

True communication has many facets and nuances, such as being present, listening deeply, attuning to body language, or asking great questions. As such, attending to message, context, and intent are not the only skills needed.

While not failproof, working through these three questions does greatly increase your chances of truly connecting and communicating with others.

So while not the entirety of communication skills, I hope that these three questions help you reap the benefits of good communication: shared understanding, connection, and alignment.

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