Top Five Communication Mistakes to Avoid

All business involves people – human beings.  The way these human beings interact to get things done is through speech, through communication.  Unlike communication with a computer, where you simply put a message “in” and assuming you’ve used the correct formula, you receive the corresponding output… humans are messy.  When you speak to them, you may think you’re putting one thing “in” and therefore can expect a certain output.  But it turns out, what you think you put “in” and what they thought you did, are totally different.  Or the formula you thought they had was different than what they actually have.  The result is that you get an output completely unintended or undesired.

Unintended outputs include:

  • A project not completed on time
  • A colleague who is offended and defensive
  • A lengthy conversation that doesn’t produce a decision on the course of action
  • Confusion
  • Frustration
  • Less than cohesive teams

While communication is complex and not easily addressed in one brief approach on paper, at Arden Coaching we have found that there are main categories of communication errors in the workplace that when addressed rigorously and over time, can significantly impact the effectiveness and productivity of an office and well as the general goodwill experienced, which in turn promotes employee engagement, creativity and effective teamwork.

The Five Communication Mistakes to Avoid are:

 1.       Making It All About You, the Speaker

Everyone listens through their own filter.

This means that in order for you to communicate with others, you need to get through their filter.  In order to do that, you need to figure out what that filter is.  The mistake people often make is that they are not looking at the conversation through the other person’s eyes.  Is this a good time for the person to have the conversation?  Did they just get bad news and cannot productively hear that their numbers are down for the quarter?  Are they concerned about how they might appear to their colleagues and so are better spoken with in private rather than in a meeting or in their cubicle?

Often leaders feel it is an inconvenience for them to have to alter the timing or delivery of their message to “work around” their employee’s ability to hear them.  However, if you want your message to be heard and effective, being aware of the other person’s filter and ability to hear you is imperative.

In order to work around your employee’s filter, develop your own Emotional Intelligence.  By becoming more familiar with your own reactions to things, you can start to develop a sense of awareness in others.  Before you speak, think about where your colleague is coming from, what’s going on in their life/work/project.  For instance, rather than simply stating the directive of “we need to get your division’s numbers up 30% this quarter” you might say “I know you and your team were really surprised by the market’s impact last quarter.  We know you’ve been working hard to make up for it.  Let’s make sure we have a plan in place so that we can see the needed 30% increase this quarter.”  By acknowledging the experience they had and making it clear you know where they’re coming from, they are more likely to be able to hear your input as being a contribution to them rather than an attack.

A key to this technique is validating.  Validating is making it clear to those working for/with you that their contribution is noticed, that they are a valuable member of the team.  This can be explicit in ways like “good job” or “I appreciate all the work you’ve done on this”, but it can also be subtler: simply wandering by their desk to say hello if you are a couple levels above them can let someone know that you notice them and that they are a valued member of the team.

People often confuse validation with agreement.  You do not have to agree with someone in order to validate their contribution.  Simply acknowledging their idea in a brainstorming session with “Great,” can have someone feel they are heard and valued.  You don’t have to choose their idea, but acknowledging that every idea is a part of building to the final solution has people feel part of a team.

It’s not about you, the speaker, when you’re delivering information or asking for ideas.  In order for people to contribute their best, they need to feel you understand their side.  The best way to do that is to heighten your awareness of what it’s like for them, then speak to them with that in mind.  Put yourself in their shoes.  From there, would you want to hear what you’re about to say?

2. Speaking to Everyone in the Same Way

Have you ever noticed that some people are story-tellers and some people just like to get directly to the point?  They either like the reasoning first, or the bottom-line first.  Aristotle noted this thousands of years ago and we are the same today.  If you speak to everyone the same way, (i.e. your way, whichever way that is) then half the people will be frustrated with you.

Some people need to hear the reasoning behind the bottom line first.  They like to hear “Three years ago, we started this company on a shoes string.  Our first five employees worked long hours and barely saw their families in the first two years.  As you know, we’ve built up quite a reputation over the past seven years, increasing our market share and expanding to 75 employees in three cities.  We’re proud to announce that next month, we’ll be opening our fourth office in yet another city!”

For others, it is reversed: they like the bottom-line, followed by the reasoning, as in “Next month we’re opening in our fourth city!  This is a natural progression from when we started nine years ago….”

If you are Deductive (you like the bottom-line first), listening to the story in the first example is like nails on a chalkboard.  If you’re Inductive (you like the reasoning first) you couldn’t really hear or appreciate the second example until the story was completed.

A common mistake leaders make is thinking that everyone can hear the same way.  They can’t.  If you want your message to be heard easily, you are best to alter your own way of speaking to fit that of the listeners.  Of course, that requires first figuring out which type you are yourself, then listening to your colleagues to determine how they speak: that’s the indication of which type they are.  Once you’ve determined whether others are Inductive or Deductive, you want to alter your speaking to the audience so they can hear you best.  By speaking to different people in different ways, you increase your communication’s effectiveness and efficiency.

 3.       Not Framing the Way People Listen to You

The third common communication error among leaders is not setting up how people listen to the conversation you’re having.  If you walked into a board meeting and the person at the head of the table said, “Today we’re going to discuss your marriages,” you would be taken aback.  The conversation you were expecting was one of projections for the next quarter and possibly some senior staffing issues, but what you got was a personal conversation that you may not be prepared for or interested in having.

While this is an extreme example, it illustrates the impact of framing the conversation: letting people know what the conversation is about so they can prepare and participate effectively.  When the conversation is not framed effectively, the listener is at best left trying to adjust their listening and catch-up, and at worst completely not present to the conversation at hand, or contributing in an inappropriate way.

In a one-on-one conversation this can be as simple as “Joe, I’d like to brainstorm some ideas for the new branding initiative, do you have some time on Thursday?”  In a meeting, it becomes even more crucial to identify the intention of the session.  If one team member thinks this is the time for brainstorming she may be constantly piping up with new ideas.  If another member thinks this is the time for decision-making, he is likely to be continually shooting down the other member’s ideas to eliminate options rather than create them.  That leaves both team members feeling unheard, everyone having spent more time than intended, and perhaps no outcome at all.  A simple framing of “today’s meeting is to discuss the four branding proposals on the table.  We’re going to debate the merits of each for 20 minutes and use the last ten minutes to select which company to hire.”  Then everyone knows when to contribute with what type of input, and the leader of the meeting can remind everyone where they are during the course of the meeting without hard feelings, since the intention was clearly laid out initially.

Framing sets up expectation for the speaker and listener and makes communication far more productive.

 4.       Gossip

Gossip is insidious and creates a workplace where resentments can build and undermine good intentions.  Gossip doesn’t accomplish anything productive, so why do we do it?  And as leaders, why do we allow it to happen in our workplace?

Mostly people gossip because it feels good.  It gets it off our chest.  It allows us to express our opinion, which we believe to be right.  We feel heard.

The issue of course is that it doesn’t do any good, and in many cases actually does harm.

It is up to all of us in an office to create a culture in which gossip is not tolerated.  As an individual, that may mean not participating in it, either as a speaker, or a listener.  First of course is to stop gossiping yourself, including small side comments along the lines of “Ugh, it’s Carl’s meeting, so we know we’re in for a long afternoon.”  That is actually a form of gossip: it is communication not directed to the person that can make a difference about it.  We want to stop gossiping ourselves, even in small ways.  Second is to stop allowing people to gossip to you: you can remove yourself from the conversation, make it politely clear that you’re not interested in listening to it, or take the person with the complaint to the person they are complaining about so they can address the situation directly.

As leaders, it is our role to create the environment where gossip is not tolerated, or needed.  People gossip when they do not feel heard, or they feel helpless to impact a situation.  As leaders, we often say our doors are open, but are they?  Can people truly come with an opposing viewpoint and express it fully, feel heard and that their point has been considered?  Are employees fully behind the decisions that are made, even if they didn’t agree with it initially?  When people express complaints productively, do we have a system that considers their contribution?  Addressing these areas can make the difference between a productive workplace where contributions are welcome and a destructive workplace fraught with the subtle versions of “we’re not on the same team” that gossiping creates.

 5.       Being Defensive

Mostly when we think of communication, we think about speaking, about being the one with the message.  But communication has two sides of the street.  One of the most debilitating communication errors on a team is being defensive about one’s ideas.  When someone gives us feedback or makes a comment that does not align with our opinion, plan or thought process, we often find ourselves needing to defend our point of view.  Sometimes this is explicit, as in justifying or re-stating our position.  Sometimes it is displayed in an attitude toward what others say, by not allowing anything to make a difference.  Often, it is simply a mental shut-down where we are clear that we are right and that anything others say to disagree is simply because they didn’t really get our side or fully grasp that what we said was the right thing.

The problem with defensiveness is that it shuts down the conversation.  It is challenging (possible with the right tools, but challenging) to get a defensive teammate back into the fold.  But let’s look at when that defensive teammate is us.

To have a more productive response, we need to identify what we’re defensive about.  What hot button has been pushed that has us feel as though we are being attacked: Feeling unheard?  Stepped over?  Unappreciated?  Fearful of losing respect?  Once we identify what hot button got pushed, we need some productive ways to manage the fight-or-flight response our bodies and minds have when we feel attacked.  Most importantly, we have to get that we are not actually being attacked.  There is no lion headed our way, even if the CMO feels like a lion in the moment.  Then such basic things as counting to ten or taking a walk around the block, etc. can actually release some of the stress.  Remember that everyone gets tweaked now and again, masters at communication just have faster recovery time than the rest.

As leaders of a team or organization, we must recognize the consequences of a defensive workplace: lack of teamwork, creativity, productivity and employee engagement.  The cost is too high not to act.  Our role as a leader then is to foster an atmosphere where people do not feel a need to defend, but rather are open and excited to contribute as well as hear the contribution of others.  It’s an environment where feedback is welcomed as an opportunity for growth rather than a criticism and grounds for the next round of layoffs.  To do this, we must not only model openness ourselves, but build a true team, committed to each member’s greatness.

Identifying the communication mistakes to avoid is only the first step.  Plenty has been written about communication tools and interpersonal skills.  Simply knowing about them doesn’t make a difference; they must be practiced, with feedback provided, over time.  Implementing these ideas, creating a culture in which true communication flourishes and employees and engaged and contributing – that takes more than an article: it takes individual attention, feedback and coaching.  Our programs are designed to put these communication skills to practice in the workplace, where the rubber meets the road.  Awareness is simply not enough.  Awareness plus focused action creates results.


For exercises, tools and further training in communication and interpersonal skills programs,

please contact our Programs Office directly for your personal consultation.