Communication Blocks and Communication Tools for Leaders
At its worst, poor communication can cause deadly plane crashes, preventable fatalities of patients from “simple” errors like one wrong word in a chart (try “do” vs. “do not” resuscitate), and broken relationships. Even its daily best, communication in our professional and personal lives is fraught with challenges, misunderstandings, and unintended outcomes. In fact, faulty communication causes the most problems for leaders, leads to confusion, and causes many a good plan to fail.
We have to consider first…what IS good communication? In definition, it is simple: effective communication is when the receiver of the information understands the exact idea the conveyor intended to send.
That looks so simple on paper…how does it so often go horribly wrong? We will first take a look in this article at “communication blocks,” and then discuss a corresponding “communication tool” of how to improve our leadership communications.
As we go through this list, think of a communications sender and receiver, with an open window between them through which to share information. As the following communication blocks go into the window, the message becomes less and less understandable…and eventually obliterated altogether. The corresponding communication tool will knock out that block (and probably others) to again clear the passageway for clear messages to be sent and received.
One consideration before we proceed, however, is that there are times a sender of the message gets a window slammed shut, curtains drawn, by the necessary recipient. The receiver may not be ready or able to accept the message at the time, no matter the delivery method. A rather common example of this is when a leader is puzzled by a particular problem or set of problems in the office. What is causing this challenge? In one office, for example, the presenting challenges seemed to shift day to day. One day, it was incomplete paperwork. Another day, it was an inexplicable strain among the staff. Yet another; a key team member from another department tells you that he is thinking of quitting, citing problems with his supervisor. He spills it all; citing another member of that department who is slithering around with gossip, trouble “bombs”, and other destructive behavior.
Seeing the truth of this assessment after some more research and thoughtful questioning of others that are involved, you address the manager in charge of that department. When you tell her what you deem to be the problem, or rather WHOM in this case; she is not receptive to the information, because that person is so outstanding in one specialized area of the operation that he can not be readily replaced. The manager has just stopped receiving information: window slammed shut! Blinds yanked down! Curtains snapped closed!
That kind of real life example should convey the importance of being aware of the communication blocks and corresponding tools below: COMMUNICATION BLOCK: Not What They Want to Hear. This is a perfect example of the scenario just stated about the manager reluctant to see the destructiveness of an individual otherwise brilliant in their field of specialty. COMMUNICATION TOOL: Listen FULLY, and be prepared with all the other communication tools. Listening is studied further in part two of this article this month, also in the Development Tips section. For now, suffice it to say you need to thoroughly understand the intended receiver’s viewpoint before attempting to communicate your own.
COMMUNICATION BLOCK: The recipient focuses on himself or herself more than on the intended message. This is a common problem. We are often trying to communicate (or receive) a basic message being filtered through defensiveness, ego, superiority and outright selfishness. This is called listening with the intent to reply instead of the intent to understand. COMMUNICATION TOOL: Affirmation and common ground. Recognize the person’s positives in detail and with sincerity, affirm understanding of his/her r position (back to proper active listening), and then proceed on to well-substantiated common issues with logical action steps.
COMMUNICATION BLOCK: Cultural differences and biases. It’s an inevitable part of today’s diversified workforce: misunderstandings according to deeply entrenched beliefs and prejudices. For example, a man at a leadership development seminar for blue-collar managers told the woman presenter he wouldn’t listen to anything she had to say. When she asked why, he said verbatim, “Because I ain’t never met a woman who had something worth saying.” Without missing a beat, the presenter said, “you just did.” COMMUNICATION TOOL: Humor. When faced with that comeback, the man in question laughed, and was more receptive to the presenter throughout the 16-week series. At the end, he stood up at the awards banquet and said it was the best leadership training he had ever attended. In more routine situations you face daily, laugh WITH the person, not at them. For example, it is acceptable to crack, “I realize it is like being a one armed paper hanger when you get caught by yourself up front on Fridays, but please ask for help…” NOT “You act like think you’re Superwoman who can just do it all when you are caught in a busy spell, when all you have to do is ask for help.”
COMMUNICATION BLOCK: Inappropriate delivery. A supervisor asked an employee why there was so much defensiveness. The employee honestly answered with examples of the leader’s sarcasm, zings and zaps and otherwise inappropriate delivery. COMMUNICATION TOOL: Awareness and correct delivery. Sarcasm and otherwise hurtful delivery methods, even when disguised as “I was just kidding,” have zero place in an ethical leader’s toolbox. The Superwoman zing is a real example that caused a star saleswoman to quit her high-level retail management position (when added to numerous other proverbial straws over the years.)
COMMUNICATION BLOCK: Simple distractions, poor word choices and other “littles” that cause big problems. An example is when someone becomes irritated at the use of the word “chairman” instead of “chairperson.” Something this small can block a person’s mind from further reception to your presentation. For this reason, do not ignore furrowed brows or other signs of blockage; kindly but directly address the person with an open question like, “You seem very thoughtful about what I said…would you share your thoughts with me before I move on?” This will either force them to let go of their block or get it out in the open for discussion and dismissal.
COMMUNICATION TOOL: Thoughtful preparation, attention to details, and use of good facilitation skills. We can’t hope to know and avoid every trip and trap, but it’s certain that the more we talk, the more likely it is we will say something others don’t like….so consider your words well and keep it as simple and short as possible. Also, a big trap can be avoided with lack of preconceptions. Thoughts like “surely they know that; I won’t state such a basic” have been the very cause of major blowups in communications. Take the time to simply restate the basics and foundation before moving to higher ground.
To wrap up the outcome of the case study above, the manager of the destructive staff member received the proper communication and tried to use correct communication skills with the perpetrator. When the blocks were immovable, the troublemaker had to be dismissed. While a loss for the department of outstanding talent, it was a gain for morale and others’ contributions to gain momentum. Had communication remained blocked on the original source of the problem, the department would have ended up stuck with the bad apple with the loss of several great employees.
It should be obvious by now with this far-from-complete list of communication traps why so much of what we say and hear bounces off of a hard block before getting through with the intended meaning. But even if you do not remember anything else, keep in mind this quote from the prolific Anon: “ The basic building block of good communications is the feeling that every human being is unique and of value.” When approached respectfully from that firm foundation of ethical treatment, you’ll find far more open windows than blocks when you communicate.