How to avoid communication breakdown


I’m out for coffee with a friend. She asks me, “don’t you just love going to lectures and listening to a subject you’re really interested in?” My response is a firm No! I’ll explain…

As soon as the speaker begins, my mind switches off. My natural reaction is to let my mind wander and take the opportunity to make plans or daydream about what the future holds. I don’t respond well to someone speaking at me. But if you get me doing activities based around the subject, I love it! The activity has my full attention, and guess what? The information goes in and I understand it. Ask me a question about what the lecturer just said and I won’t be able to tell you. Total communication breakdown.

My friend has a different thinking style to me. She responds to a more direct type of communication whereas I prefer to be more active and engaged in the conversation. 

Communicating to build understanding

Managers and leaders can learn a lot from the conversation with my friend. The secret of successful communication is to adapt your approach to ensure others understand. As the source of the message, it’s your responsibility to take ownership of what you say and ensure the recipient has understood. 

Communicating in this way might take a few seconds longer, but you’ll save time further down the line by avoiding a communication breakdown.

Discover the best way to share information

Some people love detail and will send lengthy emails thinking the other person now has ALL the information they need. They then become frustrated when the recipient asks them about something that was in the detailed email! The email did not achieve its objective. The sender may have felt satisfied they’d got it all of their chest but the recipient didn’t take a blind bit of notice.

The easiest way to understand how your team members like to receive information is to ask them. Personality profiling is another useful tool leaders can use to learn how the people in their team like to give and receive information. Different personalities respond to different styles and techniques. 

If you want to get a message across successfully, you need to consider the other person’s needs and expectations and flex your communication style to suit. Everyone is capable of doing this.

A classic example of communication breakdown

I was on a conference call to a client taking a new project brief. The aim of the call was to research the business’ needs and develop a solution to address these. 

There were four people on the call in total, three from the client side and me. The client team were in one office and I was on speakerphone. The telephone reception was terrible and kept cutting out. I explained, “I’m sorry I didn’t quite catch that” several times. 

Next thing, I hear one of the people on the other end exclaim, “Oh I’ve had enough of this. What we need is…” He proceeded to just talk and talk, irrespective of whether I could hear or not. I guess he thought his job was done thinking well ‘I’ve told her’! 

Luckily another person on the call saw what had happened and caught up with me separately straight afterwards. She was embarrassed. We had a conversation and the outcome was positive. I felt much better about the situation because this lady had understood things from my perspective and sought to put the situation right.

The first conversation is a shining example of how to be an ineffective communicator. Thanks to him, the brief took twice as long. 

How many times have you seen this happen in your own organisation? 

I know I’m not alone in experiencing this kind of conversation. Communication breakdowns are common in most workplaces. When something goes wrong, people claim ‘I’ve told them!’ 

My question in this situation is always this - why did the other person not respond? If you don’t know the answer, perhaps your own communication style is flawed.

Let’s go back to my last blog – Communicate with intent to understand. It’s so important you check the person has understood your message. In the conference call example the gentleman who talked at me didn’t once think to confirm my understanding. He delivered his message and he walked away. Imagine if his colleague hadn’t thought to follow up with me. I would have been floundering with no clarity on what they wanted me to deliver. I would have had to arrange a second meeting to try and understand their expectations. 

What happens when communication breaks down?

Lack of clarity is just one of the problems we see when there’s a communication breakdown in the workplace. Did you ever play the game Chinese whispers as a child? When the message is not clear in the first place, it becomes diluted as it’s passed on. This can result in urgent or complex messaging not landing or employees failing to carry out actions.

When communication breaks down the culture of the organisation can take a hit. Lack of clarity breeds mistrust. It creates a disjointed workplace where people don’t understand their role and what’s expected of them. This often culminates in reduced employee engagement, and we all know where that leads.

I believe everyone has it within them to become a more effective communicator. When leaders and managers lead by example and take time to ensure their communications are effective, the whole organisation gains a competitive advantage and becomes a happier place to work.