Ten causes of communication breakdown
A Special Edition of The Ruffian
There is a surfeit of advice out there on how to communicate successfully, effectively, persuasively. Some of it is even useful. But maybe we should lower our expectations a little: how about we start by trying to avoid the most frequent and predictable screw-ups?
(Although I’ve framed much of what follows in terms of person-to-person conversation, it applies to other forms of human communication too).
Believing you have communicated. In 1990, a Stanford psychologist called Elizabeth Newton divided participants into two groups: Tappers and Listeners. The Tappers were asked to tap out a familiar tune (like Happy Birthday) on the table. The Listeners’ job was to guess the tune, based on the taps. As you’ll see if you try it, that’s hard. Out of 120 tapped renditions, Listeners guessed right only 3 times (2.5%). After the tapping but before the Listeners guessed, Newton asked Tappers the odds that the Listener would guess correctly. They predicted 50%! In other words, they vastly over-estimated the likelihood that Listeners had understood their message. Tappers were amazed when Listeners didn’t get it: it seemed so obvious to them. At least the Tappers found out the truth; in our normal lives we blithely tap away while assuming our message has landed. William Whyte, an astute observer of post-war corporate life, put it this way: “The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.”
Talking without listening. The ur-mistake. When we talk, we can hear ourselves, which is enough for us to convince ourselves that someone else has heard us. But much of the time, they are not even hearing our beautifully crafted eloquence, let alone absorbing it. Either they are oblivious or they are aware of what we say only as a stream of noise, like Gary Larson’s dog. The fundamental reason for this is that we haven’t engaged their attention. The only way to do that is to figure out what they’re interested in, what they care about, and speak to it. It’s so much easier and more pleasurable to focus on what we’re saying rather than on what the other person is taking out.
Failing to connect. As the saying goes, I don’t care what you know until I know you care. Communication scientists identify two fundamental levels operating in every conversation. There’s the content level - ‘what we’re talking about’. Then there is the relationship level - a subterranean, emotion-driven, inarticulate conversation about whether you and I like and respect each other. Success at the relationship level is a precondition of success at the content level; if no mutually satisfactory connection has been made, then no matter how eloquent and clever you are being, the conversation is guaranteed to go badly.
Trying to convince. Paradoxically, the worst way to convince someone of anything they don’t already believe is to make a confident argument for it. Instead of communicating I want you to understand or I want you to see what’s best for you, it actually communicates I want to push you over. The other person stops listening to us because they feel threatened, and they push back with whatever weapons are at hand - irrationality, aggression, silence. They do anything except concede they’re wrong. Psychologists call this “reactance”. Reactance is generated when the persuader hasn’t made the other side feel that they are being treated as an equal - only then will people lay down their arms and listen.
Second-guessing. Sometimes we make no effort to understand what our audience is thinking and feeling, and that’s not good, but it’s probably better than making an over-confident guess. There are few things more annoying than a person who seems to believe they know exactly what’s in your mind when they really have no idea.
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