3 Common Communication Pitfalls
(and how to avoid them)
No one is a perfect communicator. Not me. Not you.
In the best of times, communication pitfalls can lead to breakdowns. In times of crisis when emotions run high, the effects of bad habits are amplified. What was previously annoying becomes intolerable, hurtful, or infuriating. But the reverse is also true: a little extra care goes a long way during difficult times. Making an attempt to communicate well calms, unifies, assures, and motivates those around you.
In the current situation—a global pandemic with entire countries “sheltering in place”—we rely almost exclusively on long-distance communication. For now, we can’t meet face-to-face in many parts of the world. Communication takes place over video, phone, email, and instant messaging. With fewer nonverbal cues comes increased potential for miscommunication.
The following three traps inhibit communication even under normal circumstances. Now, they can wreak havoc. Here are some ways to avoid them, particularly when working remotely.
1. Mishandling Difficult Conversations
Delivering bad news or gearing up for an emotionally charged conversation is hard enough normally. When you’re physically separated from others, it’s easy to avoid difficult conversations altogether or to simply shoot off an email. I even heard last week of someone getting laid off via email! But avoiding the topic only prolongs and intensifies negative feelings. Delay, avoidance, and sugarcoating backfire.
When you have something difficult or negative to say, use the power of nonverbal communication to be clear, considerate, and authoritative. A phone call is better than Slack or email. A video chat is better than the phone. Showing up “in person” demonstrates confidence, adds weight to the message, and gives you the opportunity to show compassion and humanity as well.
Use a visual aid, if at all possible. It could be a document such as your policy, a performance review, or sales figures. It could be a photo of the problem, a copy of a note, a drawing on a white board or paper, or anything that represents the issue. For phone calls, use something you can email ahead. Ask the recipient to pull it up when it’s time. If you’re on a video call, you can share your screen. Bring focus to the visual aid when delivering the negative part of the message. Let it be the bearer of bad news. Bring the video back to yourself when you’re discussing solutions and positive feedback. This separates you from the negative, associates you with the positive, and gives the recipient space to process.
Whenever possible, have difficult conversations in person. But sometimes (like right now) that’s not an option. Do everything you can to reduce barriers, improve nonverbal communication, and provide information and clarity.
2. Favoring One Approach
You have a preferred learning, working, and communicating style. So does everyone else. When styles match up, communication is easy and natural. Frequently, though, they don’t match up. Expecting others to accommodate your style sets the stage for miscommunication.
What does the other person need? Do they want all the details or a synopsis? Is it okay to interrupt them or do you need to schedule a time to talk? Do they simply need to know what to do or do they also need to know why? Consider their needs before pelting them with information or requests.
This also applies to the channel you use. Some people prefer email. That’s me! I like that I can read the information and digest it before responding. Plus, I can refer back to it later. Others prefer to talk on the phone. Back in the good old days when we could actually get together with family on holidays, I’d use email to let one particular family member know the details of the gathering. Invariably she would forget or misunderstand something. I learned to call her. (It took me awhile.) If we talked about it, she would remember it. I am not like that at all! It didn’t make sense to me and seemed like a waste of time. But I learned that she needed information verbally. If your method of communication isn’t working, find something that works better for the other person. It saves time and hassle in the long run.
In addition to method, notice where people are coming from. Are they focused on the work, the deadline, the issue? Or are they focused on people, relationships, or emotions? If there’s a mismatch in focus—for example, you need to get an issue taken care of but the other person needs some attention or reassurance—watch out! Miscommunication, hurt feelings, and poor performance could be around the corner. Frame your thoughts according to the other person’s values to avoid derailing.
You could try bulldozing your way through conversations, insisting on your approach. “Must check in with feelings first thing… must get straight to the point… must use instant messenger… must use carrier pigeon…” But your message will go in one ear and out the other. Figure out how to speak the other person’s language. When you give them what they need, communication becomes smooth and efficient.
3. Difficulty listening.
Our me-first culture has led to a lack of listening skills. As one writer put it, we treat conversations as a competitive sport, where the one who talks most wins! In reality, you’re more likely to “win” at conversation if you listen the most.
But under the current circumstances, it can be harder than ever to hear and pay attention, let alone listen. For some, working at home is beautifully quiet, private, and productive. Personally, I love working at home when I have stuff to get done versus going in to the office. At least, I did when the kids were in school! Now, our whole family is trying to do work and school at home. The distractions have skyrocketed. Like many others, you may be working in a new environment with new technology, additional people, different hardware, and possible network issues. After a video conference recently, one of the participants wrote to my husband, “Sorry if I seemed distracted. My two-year-old was in the next room screaming the entire time.” Man, that’s rough! For him and the two-year-old!
Paying attention is hard right now. On top of physical distractions, there are a zillion thoughts, feelings, and opinions swirling around the atmosphere like a whirlwind. So… Do what you can. Acknowledge the challenges. Give grace to others and yourself. Take steps to minimize the distractions within your control. And when you’re interacting with people, do your best to give them your full attention.
To make sure you have the energy you need to be fully present, take breaks that nourish you. It’s easy to sit all day long in one chair when you just go from one virtual conference to another. Get up! It’s good for your brain, good for your body, and good for your attention span.
Mishandling difficult conversations, favoring one approach, and difficulty listening are not unique to our time. But they are exacerbated by it. By noticing and avoiding these pitfalls, you can keep work on track, build rapport and relationships, and lead yourself and your team through the present crisis. Give your communication skills a little extra attention. The benefits dramatically outweigh the investment.
Change your communication, change your life.