#183 - When communication breaks down

Have you ever tried to describe a problem to someone on the phone and no matter how much detail you went into, they didn’t understand what you were trying to describe?

I’ve had this happen twice in one day. Two separate calls to the same company. Two different people and neither one could understand the problem I was trying to describe! In both cases, I asked to be connected with someone at a higher level, either a coach or a supervisor. In both cases when my call was escalated, I was able to get my questions answered by the second level person in half the time I spent trying to explain the issue to the first person!

Not only is this common in dealing with many businesses, but it happens in our inter-personal relations as well. No matter how many ways you try to explain something, the listener just doesn’t get it. Is it the way we are trying to explain it that the other person doesn’t understand or is it that they are not open to listening fully to what we are saying?

It’s probably a combination of both. What I’ve found helpful is to ask more questions when I’m not understanding what the other person is trying to explain. It usually isn’t until I’ve asked sufficient questions that I get a better, if not clearer understanding of what they’re asking.

So many times we’re used to dealing with questions in a certain way. In fact, many times we think we have the answer before the question is complete. It’s like I can name that tune in one note!

Communication is a funny thing
We all think we do it really well when, in fact, most of us don’t! The average person knows about 40,000 words. They will use about 5,000 in their daily conversations and as many as 10,000 when writing.

When you practice the ability to communicate, you are much more effective at conveying your ideas to others. Great communicators will naturally challenge your ability to communicate. It’s like anything else, if you want to get better at something, you spend time around people that are better at it than you are.

I learned how to snow ski in my youth. How did I get better at it? I spent time with friends that worked at the ski school. I would watch their form, pick their brains and even get some informal lessons. Over time I became a decent skier. You can do the same thing with anything you want to get better at, including communication.

Speak in terms the other person understands
When I was taking flying lessons MANY years ago, I was sitting in the pilot’s lounge talking to couple of corporate pilots, one of which was a former air traffic controller. He told one of the funniest and instructive stories that I’ve ever heard.

One day he was working approach control for a busy east coast airport. Air traffic was building up and he needed to start slowing some airplanes down by putting them in a holding pattern. The conversation went something like this.

ATC: Delta 2468 please give me 720 degrees of left turn. (That’s 2 complete turns and the pilot wasn’t happy about this request!)

Pilot: Tower, Delta 2468, do you know it costs $900 to turn this plane around? (Said with sarcasm.)

ATC: Delta 2468, roger. Please give me $1,800 worth of left turn.

The point of this story is that sometimes we can’t use our normal terminology or phraseology. We need to be flexible enough to change how we say things and how we ask questions. We may need to be more direct and to the point.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
Have you ever had a conversation with someone that used a word or phrase incorrectly? It can be very hard to follow along. You may even ask them their definition of the word they are using incorrectly.

This is a time to be tactful, assuming you know the correct meaning and usage of the word. You might say something like this. “I know the word you’re using but not familiar with its definition or meaning as you’re using it. Can you share the definition with me?”

In the English language it’s quite possible that the word may have multiple meanings. I’ve experienced this with one of my best friends. He used a word in a way I had never heard before. Rather than say anything up front, at my earliest opportunity I pulled out a dictionary (I know…I’m old school!) and low and behold, there was a definition that I hadn’t known before! I learned something!

Helpful tips
Here are a couple of tips to help you become a better communicator.

  • Learn the meaning of the words you’re using. There’s almost nothing more difficult than trying to follow a conversation where the other person isn’t using a word or words correctly.
  • If you’re having a formal conversation with someone, learn to speak concisely. In many, if not most conversations, people use way too many words. They get into side stories that are completely irrelevant to the conversation. Those types of side conversations are okay for causal conversations, but not when seeking specific information.
  • Learn to listen to the whole question or the whole thought before responding. If there is something you don’t understand or are unsure about, ask questions that will help clarify the information for you.

Why a blog on communication?
The simple fact is that great communication is paramount to a great relationship. If you don’t know how to effectively share your ideas, thoughts and concerns with your mate, odds are you’re going to have a rough relationship.

Spend time honing your communication skills. You will probably need to step outside your comfort zone for a while as you learn to develop great conversation skills. One of the hardest parts of communication for any of us is the ability to be vulnerable and share our deepest feelings.

Being vulnerable requires a great deal of trust in your partner and that’s a topic for another time.

Thanks for reading. Have a great and blessed week.