What's your point? Tips to avoid ­communication breakdowns

Karen Natzel, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Have you ever experienced the unfolding drama of communications gone awry? Communication breakdowns happen frequently and rapidly, and when left unchecked, can fester into a beast of a problem.

What may have started as a simple misinterpretation can erupt into an unnecessary waste of resources, a ding to productivity and often a sad deterioration of relationships – sometimes even destroying trust and respect. Show me a culture that lacks capacity for candid, authentic conversations and I’ll show you an organization that is nowhere near its potential.

How can you reduce the frequency of communication breakdowns?


Get clear on your message

When you are trying to convey an idea, task, frustration, need or expectation, get crystal clear on what it is you want to say. Don’t be fooled by the clarity of the thought in your head; your colleagues are not mind readers. What do you want that person to walk away understanding? What impact are you trying to have? If you had to write down your key message, what would it be?

Distill your message to its simplest expression. I’m not suggesting you oversimplify; rather, clarify to the most digestible morsel for optimal absorption.

Sometimes we fail to be direct because we are trying to be considerate of how the message will land. We recognize if we come across too harsh, we will not be effective.

During a coaching session with Roxanne, an emerging leader, I was struck with her difficulty in being forthright with a low-performing team member. In her attempt to be thoughtful about her delivery, she was pussyfooting around the content.

I asked Roxanne what she would say if she didn’t have to worry about how it came across. She replied, “I’d tell her to stop whining. Our clients rely on this data to make important safety design decisions. I need her to deliver timely and accurate reports and to meet the internal deadlines. All I hear is excuses. I need her to bring solutions.”

While I appreciate Roxanne’s attentiveness to the tone and delivery of constructive feedback, it’s also necessary to deliver the message without coddling or softening, lest you lose the point and the impact. Remember, employees want to know what’s expected of them – don’t add to the confusion by muddying the waters.

You can be clear, firm and compassionate. Author Susan Scott, in “Fierce Conversations,” says to “take responsibility for your emotional wake.” An emotional wake is what is remembered and felt after you’re gone – inspirational or deflating. A leader’s words, tone and attention carry weight. By being more aware of the effect your words have on others, you can be thoughtful while confronting issues in a productive way. A good communicator blends candidness with tact, respect, empathy and professionalism.


Know your point, and get to it

As I was coaching an executive, he expressed his exasperation with a team member’s long-windedness, lamenting to me that he wished she would “get to the f------ point and get there quickly!” To executives, getting to the point is a solid, efficient business practice for getting things done.

Of course, there are times when a discussion requires a thoughtful and reflective exchange of ideas, or when casual banter builds rapport. I’m not suggesting being blunt, impatient or otherwise disrespectful. However, if you want to operate optimally and diminish breakdowns, you’ll need to be willing and able to get to the heart of the matter.


Be accountable for your message, your emotions and the change you want to see

When a communication breakdown has been tolerated, it becomes a pattern that weaves its way into becoming an organizational “truth.” In relationships, this often results in frustration with and the blaming of others for how they show up. If you experience this, ask yourself what you can do to drive the change you want to see. Anything short of that is slipping into “woe is me” territory. In that zone, one feels stuck. By naming and owning your frustration, you are in a better position to affect the outcome.

Emotions fuel our thinking, our decisions and our relationships. If we lose our connection to them, we risk being reactive. Pay attention to any strong emotional responses you have in conversations. They are your cues for the work that needs to be done. And the work begins with you.

Ready to get to the point? Practice these tips to become a more trusted communicator.

• Get clear on your message and share it unequivocally. Do you sugarcoat your message? Beat around the bush? Imply or infer? Avoid? Consider this in your emails, how you participate in meetings, how you engage in one-on-one conversations with colleagues.

• What does the conversation need to be about? Are you having THAT conversation, or are you having one around the edges?

• How and where can you be more clear and direct, while remaining respectful and aware of your “emotional wake?”

• Own it. If the problem you are facing isn’t going away, consider that you haven’t done a diligent job of communicating your frustrations/needs/expectations nor provided necessary real-time, real-world, specific feedback on attitude or performance.

• Simplify your message. Be succinct.

Ultimately, do you show up ready to engage in an authentic conversation, or do you hold back, being precariously cautious? If you really want to demonstrate respect, be willing to have the real conversation. And, if you can model “getting to the point” for others, you will set the tone for candid, robust, genuine, powerful and emotionally mature dialogue.

Besides being efficient and reducing confusion and chaos, knowing and getting to the point builds trust and respect, keeps you from tolerating what’s not working, and sets the tone for a healthy, focused sense of urgency. You owe it to yourself, to your team and to your organization to drive the clarity and precision of your message. Know your point, and get to it!


Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at 503-806-4361 or rx@biztherapy.biz.