argueEvery day you miscommunicate something to someone.

You don’t do it intentionally but it happens.

It actually happens all the time, you just don’t know it.

The only time you realize there is a miscommunication is when something bad happens and even then you may not think it was because of bad communication.

The good things is most miscommunication doesn’t have any bad consequences.

The bad thing is in those rare cases when the stakes are high, the consequences can be devastating and by the time you realize it was a communication issue, it’s too late.

Almost all conflicts (fights, arguments, etc.) are caused by poor communication. If you wanted to choose one skill to better your life today both professionally and personally, it is to improve your communication skills (I know, I know. Please resist the urge to roll your eyes).

“Communication”, like the words “mission” and “vision”, has become a generic term overused by corporate Human Resources Departments. All of the power and meaning of these words have been lost and people have forgotten the importance of good communication in their lives.

Almost every company has some type of training on effective communication skills but does it really help people become great communicators? Unfortunately not. Many of these trainings have great content and tips but they don’t work because they never get to the root of the problem.

They never look at why people are bad communicators in the first place. If you want to be an extraordinary communicator, you must understand why we’re so prone to miscommunicate:

 

Seeing is Believing

Most people tend to believe that because they were at a particular event (e.g. meeting, discussion, presentation, etc.), their account of the situation is correct. They generalize their perceptions of reality to be true for everyone and assume that what they saw is what really happened.

That is not true.

Even for all of you who have perfect vision, there are things you are blind to that you don’t realize.

Watch this 1-minute video and follow the instructions in the video before reading on (this is actually part of a commercial but you only need to watch from the beginning up to the 1:06. The rest is not important):

This experiment not only shows the power of attention but more importantly how our realities are based on our perception and that our perceptions are based on what we focus on. Depending on our experience, our mood, our thoughts, etc., we focus on different things of the same event. This means we only see a part of reality. To be more specific, we only see OUR part of reality.

Despite this being true for everyone, most people don’t realize this. They don’t know what they didn’t see and will generalize their portion of reality to be the full reality. This is why so many people communicate badly. They stubbornly hold on to their “truth” and they discount everyone else’s “truth”.

If you were shown the above video only once and without mention of the gorilla, you probably would have lived your whole life thinking that there were only two teams passing the ball around and that the white team passed the ball around 13 times. If someone later told you there was a gorilla in that video, you would probably argue against it fervently.

Life works the same way. We can’t rewind to see what really happened and arguments start when we think we have the whole truth even though we only have part of the story. Did you ever accuse your spouse of doing something they didn’t do? Did you ever disagree with your boss about how your meeting went? If so, you’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand.

Improve Your Communication by:

  • Realizing that your perception of reality is partial and dependent of your experiences
  • Believing that people have good intentions and being curious about their perception of the world. Even though their actions or ideas may not make sense in your world, it is very possible that it makes perfect sense in their world.
  • Taking other people’s perceptions of reality to be as true as your own

 

We are Speaking the Same Language

In most countries, people speak the same language. In the US, it’s English. In China, it’s Chinese. In France, it’s French.

People can recognize most words in their native language but what most people don’t realize is the same words they are so familiar with may hold different meanings for different people.

If you assumed that just because you speak English and the other person also speaks English that you’re both speaking the same language, you’re very wrong. The meaning you give to words come from your environment (e.g. the way you were raised, your circle of friends, etc.) and your experience with that word. This is why miscommunication occurs so often. We all have unique life experiences and just because we use the same words, your definition of those words may be very different from my definition and you wouldn’t know it until something bad happened.

Here is an example:

Tom and Jane are dating. Tom sees that Jane is unhappy and asks Jane what’s bothering her.

Jane replies that she wants Tom to be more caring. Tom promises that he’ll be more caring and Jane feels better.

The next week, Tom buys Jane flowers and takes her out to dinner. He feels good about it and Jane seems to be enjoying it as well.

A few weeks later, Jane and Tom get into a big fight because Jane accuses Tom of not following through on his promise to be more caring. Tom resents it because he felt that he was very caring and has shown it.

What was the problem?

Tom and Jane had different definitions for the word “caring”:

Tom’s definition of caring = buying flowers and taking loved one out to dinner

Jane’s definition of caring = asking her daily about how her day went

So who’s right?

Was Jane right to be angry or was Tom wrongfully accused?

Guess what, they’re both right.

The miscommunication occurred because they agreed on two different things thinking they agreed on the same thing. Jane thought Tom would ask her about her day more often while Tom thought as long as he bought flowers and took Jane to dinner, he’ll be giving Jane what she wants.

Sound familiar?

Improve your communication by:

  • Not assuming that speaking the same spoken language automatically means speaking the same language
  • Asking others to define certain key words to make sure you’re on the same page. Tom should have asked Jane, “How would you “care” for someone?” People tend to treat people the way they want to be treated. If you want to drastically improve your relationship with your loved ones, ask them, “How do you know if someone loves you?” and pay close attention to the answer.
  • Paraphrasing in detail the other person’s definition to make sure you understand what they mean and that you’re both truly on the same page.
  • Treat the person the way they want to be treated.

 

“It’s the thought that counts”

We’re taught growing up that as long as your intentions are good, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter how the other person takes it, if you know you had good intentions, you’re covered.

This is perhaps the biggest reason people get into arguments. When you think this way, you’re no longer communicating. You’re just dumping your ideas and suggestions under the guise of good intention.

One of the most important things I’ve learned that has helped me to improve my ability to communicate is realizing:

Intention doesn’t matter.

The best example of this is a nagging parent. I’m positive your father or mother or both had only the best intention for you but how did the nagging make you feel? Did you feel compelled to listen to what they had to say? Did you listen to what they told you to do?

Probably not.

That’s why focusing on intention is a very bad way to keep score on the effectiveness of your communication.

The only way to see how well you communicate is based on the response that you get from others. If other people are not open to your ideas, it doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, you’re not a good communicator. It’s not up to people to understand your message, it’s up to you to make it clear and acceptable.

Improve your communication by:

  • Focusing on the response that you’re getting to evaluate how good you are communicating
  • Taking responsibility for not getting the response you want
  • Adjusting your behavior and communication according to the feedback
  • Repeating the previous steps until you get the result you want

In a nutshell:

  1. Seeing is not believing
  2. Just because we all speak English doesn’t mean we speak the same language
  3. Your intentions don’t matter. It’s about the response that you get.

Be curious about the other person without judging. If you don’t assume and you’re always curious enough to ask the other person to clarify what he/she mean, you’ll see your quality of life improve drastically. There will be fewer if any arguments and you’ll reduce many of the frustrations that plague relationships.

Life is about relationships and great relationships come from clear communication.

What are your tips for better communication?

If you want to improve your ability to communicate and get your message across, feel free to contact us to discuss the product and services that we offer.

 
Photo be Ed Yourdon
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Robert Chen

Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.

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13 Responses to 3 Reasons Why Most People are Bad Communicators

  1. That’s a very good point you made about Tom and Jane, where Tom should have asked Jane what caring meant to her. It’s so easy to assume that other people are thinking the same way as we are, especially if we feel we already have some kind of connection, but we can be way off the mark. Good communication is something we all have to spend a lifetime learning, and it’s very good to be reminded of just how much of an ongoing learning experience it is. We should never assume we’ve sussed it!

    One thing that I have had a problem with on occasion is focusing on the response you get from others. If you ask someone something and they don’t give an honest reply, then naturally you can get entirely the wrong end of the stick. This happened to me in a work situation once, where I was trying to help someone with something and they kept telling me they didn’t need any help. They then told other people I wasn’t helping them, and it made me look as if I were being lazy and unhelpful. This person was trying to prove her own worth by doing everything herself and showing how hard she was working, and in refusing my help it made her look all the more hardworking in comparison with my apparent laziness. If I had been a better communicator in that situation, I would have found another way of helping her, of doing things quietly without being asked or discussing it. In this instance I lacked the confidence to get on with helping regardless of what she said about not needing it, but there certainly was a serious communication issue and I should have dealt with it better. Hopefully all these sorts of experiences teach us something useful that we can use in the future. Thanks for another great article, Robert!

    • Robert Chen says:

      Thanks Lorna for your comment.

      In your situation, it seems like you felt that your business associate needed help and you tried offering. What I’ve found helpful is realizing that most people never say what is on their mind. They have a reason for doing so. In this case, it was probably because your associate didn’t want to seem incompetent. This is understandable but at the same time, you want to get clear the outcome that you really want. Is it trying to help this person? Or is it making sure your business objectives are met? If you suspect that someone does indeed need help but is just refusing it, it might be helpful to reframe the situation where it seems like that person would be helping you if they gave you the opportunity to get involved. Then this way it looks like they are helping you. Again, it all comes down to what you want out of the situation.

      I hope this helps.

  2. Kent says:

    great points rob. i find that adapting communication material and style to your specific audience is key, especially at amex where one hour you’re speaking to marketers and the next to tech, and then to call centre staff. thanks for the tips!

  3. Jack says:

    “If other people are not open to your ideas, it doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, you’re not a good communicator.”
    You have got to be f—ing kidding me. This is blaming said communicator for the other person’s closed mindedness. Intentions don’t matter at all? We shouldn’t use them as an excuse but it doesn’t mean we can’t be empathic to others. If I know someone’s intentions don’t match up to the outcome- I know they made a mistake but tried. If they had intentions I admire or think are good, then I will be all the more likely to be forgiving and empathic to them for their communicating mistake.
    Communication involves more than just one person. You can’t always put the blame on one person. I came here out of a random Google search, because I am tired of my dad being a poor communicator. He makes mistakes constantly because of sleep deprivation, having way too much on his mind and being deaf in one ear. We could say he is communication-disabled. And for me, the person that goes out of my way to try and get him to understand, it just does nothing. He just can’t understand, and that’s not my fault. It’s his. But he also can’t change it, and this is where I have to understand communication is sadly impossible.

    It has been like this for all 18 years of my life. Don’t try to convince me to not give up. However if you do and fail, it doesn’t mean you are a bad communicator. It just means I was not open to your ideas, which I’ve told you outright.

    My dad’s life is a walking tragedy, in so many ways he doesn’t really take steps to improve his life. He also has a small time gambling addiction and probably spends about $10,000 on lottery tickets a year. He always talks about that and doesn’t focus on the things that actually put stress on his life and definitely on his communication.

    I am actually pretty aware of the importance of the big picture and context, as you were talking about with the “seeing is believing” concept. It’s not wonder people can be poor communicators when they try to think their vision is seeing the whole picture. I actually go looking for other perspectives a lot, nearly all the time, and then you could say I do have a bigger picture. That being said, I don’t really think the communicating problems with my dad are my fault. I have done everything I can possibly think to do, it’s the one problem I can’t fix, and have to accept it can’t be fixed. So I have to find out how to avoid communication with him at all costs.

    He constantly interrupts, he doesn’t pay attention- trying to get him to pay attention is like wading through sludge- he mishears the question or misunderstands the sentence 15 times no matter what synonyms or definitions are used, and by the time I’ve defined every single word we’re off topic talking about one of those words and I never get my questions answered. He’s also thoroughly disinterested in what I like to do and I’m thoroughly disinterested in what he likes to do. Since he’ll just interrupt my description of my newest music composition to point out a tire on the side of the road, I’ve decided there is no point in us pretending to take interest in what the other person is doing.

    He is the only person in my immediate family still in my life. I cut off my mom and sister because they willfully abuse and manipulate everyone around them. My dad is a kind and broken person. His life is a tragedy, and I for one am tired of witnessing it.

    • Robert Chen says:

      Hi Jack,

      Thank you for your comment. It is clear that you’ve made a lot of effort to communicate with your father and that it has been very frustrating. We all have our way of seeing the world and I cannot say your view is better or worse than mine. I strongly believe that the effectiveness of my communication is the feedback that I get from the other person. If I don’t get through, I take responsibility for that and think of other ways to get through. I am entitled to that belief just like you are entitled to believe that your are not responsible for the current situation with your father.

      My experience tells me that I cannot change anyone that doesn’t want to change. I can only change how I respond to the situation with hopes that a change in my response might change the situation. There is no right or wrong, I just choose the beliefs that work best for me.

  4. Jade says:

    My number one all time pet peeve is someone who is unable to communicate effectively. Take my university tutor for example. She gave us an assignment to produce a proposal. Whilst we had the marking ruberic we were not given specific instructions on style etc. Having written lots of proposals before i was confident in my ability to complete the task. It was only when the marking was complete did i find out her specific requirements. I contacted her and communicated clearly that the specifics were not told to us. Instead of apologising or rectifying the situation she placee the blame on me and reminded me of her position of power. In other words she expected us all to read her mind and understand what she wanted how she wanted and why.

    Perhaps i should have been more proactive and asked for clarity. However i am a fee paying student and i expect to be told what it is my tutor expects of me as set out in the student handbook. My expectations are set according to what i was told to expect but what i got was very different.

    Its like saying to someone paint me a picture of the ocean. So the painter spends hours painting the ocean in his own way only to be reprimanded by the buyer for not including fish and dolohins in the piece. If the buyer wanted that her should have asked for it as the painter can only act on the information he has.

    I wonder is it my responsibility to continually think for the other person and ask them to clarify just in case they are nit being clear? To me its not my responsibility to make sure the other person has clearly communicated their desires because that would negate their personal responsibility.

    I know this differs depending on the relationship but overall i think each and every individual has a personal responsibility towards the people they are communication to which includes being clear,and precise about what it is they want and be very clear on their expectations so the receiver understands.

    When i ask my son to clean the house and my expectations are that he do this or that in a specific way because i know it will achieve the best outcome i am looking for ill tell him. Hey sin please clean your room, but start by dusting first that way you or i do not need to vacuum twice.

    But if i said clean your room and he vacuumed first then dusts and all the dust goes onto the floor then i come in and yell at him for not doing a proper job the fault is with me because i was not clear in my communication therefore i have no right to blame him and it is my responsibility to apologise and clarify and be flexible whilst the situation is resolved peacefully.

    • Robert Chen says:

      Thanks for sharing your examples Jade and your view on communicating effectively. I agree that we should all take responsibility for being clear. With that said, different people will be at different skill levels and the experience you had with your university tutor will probably come up again with a different person. The question is what can you do to make your life easier – it sounds like the back and forth with your tutor was a frustrating experience.

  5. […] to Robert Chen, there are three key reasons folks miscommunicate. In his article, “3 Reasons Why Most People Are Bad Communicators,” Chen denotes that effective communication relies on an understanding. Before you can […]

  6. Annette says:

    My goodness, I’m not yet done reading through the article and yet everything seems so much more clear now. This has been a very helpful article, I am very bad at communicating and I can say that every point I have read actually makes perfect sense!

  7. Lara Klopp says:

    I found your article very helpful, but would appreciate advice.

    I’m very word/language-oriented, and what things mean is important to me. My husband quickly tires of analyzing words. So when I try to make sure I’m communicating something, he’ll get frustrated and not answer me, or make fun of me, so then not only did we have poor communication, but then I feel as if I have no power to make it better.

    For instance, I was giving info to a doctor for insurance purposes, which I told him I was doing, and I gave my husband’s birthday, and then said to him “that’s right, yes? *insert birthday here*?” and he said “Thank you.” I asked what he meant, and said again that I was trying to verify his birthday. He said that he thought I was making an appointment for him. I said, no, it was for me, and again tried to verify his birthday. This went on and I got frustrated because he was almost intentionally not answering my question. I explained why I was frustrated (it’s like when someone repeats back everything you say; you feel this helpless lack of communication). He said “Yes that’s my birthday.” But by then I was so frustrated, and I tried to explain why I wished he’d just told me yes or no at first, but he didn’t seem to care.

    It’s like we were just on a completely different page, and the more I tried to make sure we were on the same page, the more he had to prove that he wasn’t just going to respond to what I was saying.

    Add that to things like: interrupting me (say we’re driving or walking, and I’m talking about something – or even answering a question he asked – he’ll randomly interrupt me with anything that catches his attention); frequently not listening as I talk, and then, when I’m done, looking up at me and saying “Huh? Did you say something?”; or, as I try to explain what I meant by something, and why it was important to me, making sort of mocking sounds, trying to imitate me, and saying in a false-aggrieved tone “I TOLD YOU …” (basically making fun of my trying to get my point across) (btw, I don’t say “I TOLD YOU to him, he uses it to make fun of me though). That just frustrates me more, more of the kid who just repeats back your words and you feel that no communication is happening, and I don’t know what to do.

    So eventually I just end up being quiet and not communicating, just responding when he talks. I don’t know what else to do when someone doesn’t want to listen, and doesn’t want to understand where I’m coming from.

    Do you have advice for someone who tries very hard to make sure the meaning of everything is clear but who is talking with someone who isn’t willing to put that much effort into clarifying meaning?

    • Robert Chen says:

      Thank you for sharing your challenge Lara. It does sound very frustrating when the other person is disrupting you when you’re trying to get through to them. Are there times when this doesn’t happen? What do you think your husband gains from acting the way he does? Without knowing more about the situation, I would first recommend reading crucial conversations by Kerry Patterson and nonviolent communication by Marshall Rosenberg to see if that might be a path to take. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful and I hope things get better for you.

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