Why is it so Difficult to Communicate?

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Can you hear me now?Most of us think of ourselves as good communicators. If there is a problem, it’s the person on the other end of the conversation, not us. However, most of the time we don’t even think about the difficulties in communication. We just presume everything we say (write, email, tweet, …) is understood just the way we intended. And, usually, we think that we’ve perfectly understood what we’ve been told or have read.

My personal experience is that’s far from the truth. Humans habitually misunderstand each other and don’t even realize there has been a breakdown in communications. Of course when someone does realize there was a problem – it’s the other guy’s fault.

I want to be clear, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. It’s a human thing. Still, I think if we better understand why we miscommunicate, we can improve understanding and expectations.

Don’t Do What I Tell You, Do What I Mean

One of my favorites is when someone gives instructions and then is angry when he or she gets a different result. I’ll use an example of a dad letting his teenager son borrow the car.

Dad: “Don’t bring the car home with an empty gas tank.” The next morning the dad finds the gas gauge is practically on empty. “I told you fill the car up with gas if it was empty.”

Son: “The fill light wasn’t on and if I made it to the driveway then clearly the tank wasn’t empty.” Dad: “If you didn’t understand me you should have asked me to clarify.”

Son: “I undertand what empty means. This tank isn’t empty.”

The dad knew that if any of his own friends had borrowed the car they would have returned it with a full tank just because that’s the least they could do for borrowing the car. The dad may also be  concerned about the added time to his morning commute from stopping for gas. Time is more important to him than money and he considers anything less than a quarter tank warrants a fill-up. The son has different values and priorities (paying for gas with his own money is a low, low priority).

The dad was 100% positive that the instructions were perfectly clear. Why would he attempt to be “clearer” when the instructions were “crystal clear” to begin with? But the teenager had no reason to ask questions to clarify those instructions. The teen was also 100% certain of the meaning of his dad’s words. Both were wrong.

Why Communication is Difficult

I’m not an expert on communication and you might find additional causes for us humans to miscommunicate. But here are a few reasons I’ve observed.

Life in a Bubble

Each of us lives life in a bubble universe. Not the bubble universe cosmologists talk about, but a bubble universe just the same. We get so caught up in our own world we sometimes forget that others have different experiences and varying points of reference. As a result we forget to add context to our communications with others.

If I’m in sales and have been working hard to close a deal, that process becomes my world. If I ask a colleague a question about the prospect’s company I may forget to clarify just who the prospect or company are. It’s obvious to me and I can’t imagine anyone else wouldn’t know who I’m talking about. But my colleagues each have their own prospects to keep track of – there’s no reason for them to understand the context of my question.

Assumptions

Assumptions are one of the biggest causes of miscommunication. I think you know what I’m talking about when – consciously or unconsciously – I assume you have the same background and knowledge I do. But , each person’s experience influences their understanding of the world. It’s a lot of work to explain details; it’s even a lot of work to listen to them: “Yes, get on with it, I understand all of that.” But do we?

Gender and Cultural Miscommunication

“Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” was a great metaphor for summarizing differences between men and women. The book of that name by John Gray was a popular best seller but I thought the better explanation for these differences came from Deborah Tannen in her book, “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.” It was in that book that I learned that as a male I liked to speak in factoids; I do (my wife will attest to that). Women don’t, and that can cause miscommunication.

As an example, I recently commented that some television show was on that evening. My wife assumed I wanted to watch that show. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. I didn’t expect her to read anything into the comment – it was a factoid devoid of deeper meaning. But my wife had a different context: why would I mention the show unless I wanted to see it?

This works in reverse too. My wife tells me some movie is out. I think, “that’s nice” and then ignore it. She means that she’d like to see the movie. So, I think she’s sharing a fact, and she thinks we should be checking movie times. If she had wanted to see the movie, wouldn’t she have said so?

No – because men and women communicate differently. We don’t mean the same things even when saying the same words.

Deborah Tannen and John Gray both are saying that male culture is different than female culture – even though we may live in the same house. I think it is clear that miscommunication with people from other countries and cultures will be even more difficult because the assumptions we make will be farther from the other cultures’ understanding.

Personality

Not all differences in understanding are due to gender or cultural differences. Sometimes it simply comes down to this: people are different. The Meyers-Briggs personality types are a useful way to understand different personality tendencies.

Here’s a hypothetical example of a personality difference leading to poor communication. ESFJ (Extroverted, Sensing, Feeling, Judging) bosses are likely to be frustrated when they ask a subordinate to find the answer to a question and end up getting a fully researched report a week later. The extrovert expected his employee to just find somebody who knew the answer. Just ask.

But if the roles were reversed there could be equal frustration. The INTP (Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, Perceiving)  boss expects a report and gets a verbal answer that came from asking Hank. The boss is wondering if Hank is qualified to answer the question. What did other people answer? Are there any research papers on the subject?

 Suggestions to Improve Communications

  • Try to remember your bubble isn’t the same world others live in. Try to provide some context even if it seems redundant.
  • Check your assumptions. What seems obvious to you may be news to someone else.
  • Men and women have different communication styles. Neither is right or wrong – they’re just different. But try to adjust for the the other person if that person is a different gender or from a different culture.
  • Even two people of the same gender and culture may have problems because of personality differences. Again, differences don’t imply a right or wrong personality but misunderstanding are common when you process information differently than someone else.

The next time someone does a lousy job of communicating with you, stop and think about your role in the miscommunication. Make it a habit to repeat what you think you hear and ensure that you truly understand the speaker’s intent. You may be surprised that what you heard and what the speaker intended are not well aligned – and by taking this one small step, you can exponentially improve communication with your boss, your co-workers, and your family.

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