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10 Signs of Dysfunctional Communication

Every day I see examples of bad communication. Lately I’ve been thinking about some of the things they have in common and what you can do about them. Here’s a “top 10” list, though I’m sure you can add more to it. Please do, and share.



#1 – Groupthink



With all the disasters that have resulted from bad group decisions, you’d think we would have learned that free speech is worth more than conflict avoidance. However, it is the rare organization where most people can truly speak freely.



To deal with this you have to use a good deal of emotional radar to scope out when to speak and when to shut up. My personality tends toward bluntness so I lean that way, but I also recognize that not everyone appreciates that or can deal with it. I also get scared like everyone else. So I usually give myself a pep talk in my own head before I open my mouth to speak (yes, all of these things go through my head pretty much at once):



* It can be scary to be honest but it’s more important to do things right

* The customer will be better served if I’m honest, even if it’s uncomfortable to disagree with other people

* It’s OK to think different, even if my opinion is unpopular

* Other people are not automatically “wrong” because they don’t see things my way

* Stay logical as much as possible…things tend to get heated when people disagree and if the focus is on rationality it’s easier to get to a sensible consensus

* It’s OK to try a pilot test, fail, and then try something else

* Try to appreciate the perspectives of the other people in the room

* Set the expectation before I talk that I will be direct (e.g., “Forgive me, I’m from New York” usually does it)



#2 – Invincibility mindset



I think it must be a survival mechanism to say that “nothing can touch us,” because if we really thought about how many bad things could happen at any one time, we probably wouldn’t have the strength to go on!



Nevertheless, this kind of thinking is actually toxic to communication excellence. What you want to be saying to yourself is, we are completely and totally vulnerable all the time, any time and so must always be playing both offense and defense on the playing field.



Especially today with social media, a vulnerability mindset is critical.



There actually is no way, to my mind, that you can make people feel vulnerable when they want to think they are invincible. Generally there has to be the experience of falling on one’s face in order to wake up. It hurts, but that’s the reality.



#3 – Resistance to learning



I have this failing myself, but it’s bad. There are so many books, articles, magazines, Internet resources, classes, etc. out there that it’s simply a time-waster to reinvent the wheel by trying to figure things out for yourself every time. Yet that is what some organizations do—they want to think that their situation is so unique and demands such a specialized solution that they can’t go with something that’s tried, tested and off the shelf. But 90 times out of 100, you really can.



The answer to this one is to pursue learning yourself, and share it in very little bits with others, at just the right time, without doing it in a way that makes the recipient feel overwhelmed or antagonistic (i.e. that you’re a know-it-all).



Resistance to learning takes many different forms and has many different reasons behind it (fear of change, fear of being stupid, fear of being unable to compete against someone else who already knows what you’re trying to learn), but in a tough economy, organizations soon won’t have a choice but to get smarter about how they communicate.



The best example I can think of right now has to do with social media. It’s truly a strange situation that we have this communication tool that’s absolutely free and yet organizations totally underuse it. But most of that is due to a complicated mix of fear and inability to see the business case. Soon we’ll hit a tipping point where the business case will be obvious, the fear factors will be resolved, and everybody will start using it routinely.



#4 – Fear of feedback



This isn’t the communicators’ fear of feedback, although that is a factor—sometimes we can’t admit to ourselves that we haven’t done our best work (though most of the time, I think communicators are overcritical of themselves and others). This is the customer’s fear of feedback, and our resulting tendency to give them what they think they want, meaning stuff that makes them feel comfortable but that ultimately doesn’t serve their cause.



I don’t know how to get around this one. Either they want your counsel or they don’t; either they respond to the metrics or they refuse to. It’s sort of like the invincibility factor—often we don’t wake up until disaster hits. But as a communicator you really have a responsibility to give the customer your best counsel. You can have the discerning mind to know when they will listen and when they won’t, and bide your time till you have an opportunity to gain their trust and confidence. But you can’t just go on forever holding their hand.



#5 – Narcissism



In a nutshell, the goal of communicating is to influence somebody else’s behavior. You already know what you think and what you what to do—the point is to get them to think and do the same thing. In order to do that, you have to be very tuned in to how they perceive things, process information, look at the world, what media they use and trust, and so on. In other words, it’s about them, not just about you. Yet a lot of communicators are very focused on themselves more than the audience. Their primary filter is, “What do I want to say and how do I want to say it?” not “What does my audience want to hear and how do they want to hear it?” (And thus was born many a bad website.)



Of course I’m a total hypocrite because I basically focus on what I want to say and how I want to say it, but then again I’m not selling anything and this is a blog. If you’re in any kind of business, you really have to be thinking about the customer first when you communicate with them.



#6 – Fear of subject matter experts



I am the first one to admit that I don’t know most things. I don’t know how the human body works. I don’t know how to change a flat tire. I don’t know how airplanes stay in the air. And I don’t know how to cook at all. But one thing I do know is how to help other people communicate. And it is extremely difficult, at times, when these people are subject matter experts who resist all attempts to help them with the defense that “I’m the expert and I know what my audience wants to hear.”



The truth of the matter is, you do have to find a middle ground between pure communication and pure subject matter communication. Not only because the subject matter expert will fire you if you don’t listen, but also because they really do know the audience well. At the same time, dysfunctionality can creep in if they’re really just scared or bad at communicating, and they don’t want you to force them to change, and you are tempted to let them intimidate you into softening your stance about what good communication is. (Because then they can say that “my PR expert said this was OK to release” and mentally get themselves off the hook should the communication fail.)



All I can say on this one is, you’re never going to stop being afraid of the subject matter expert, because there is this idea flying around that technical stuff is important and communication is unimportant and easy and that communicators are stupid. Fight on nevertheless. Stand your ground unless speaking up will really have no impact.



#7 – Lying to the customer



I have never actually seen a communicator do this. What I have seen is the communicator tell the truth, and then get punished for being honest. But since the customer pays the bills, I’m just saying…don’t be swayed for any reason. Tell the customer what you honestly think, what you honestly see. You don’t have any guarantee of being rewarded for this no matter how diplomatic you are. But at least you’ll be able to look yourself in the mirror.



#8 – Metrics madness



Oh please, stop measuring quantity of press releases!!! The only thing that matters is a business result. If you can’t show anything resembling a result, then show something that gets close. If you don’t figure out a way to do this, and set aside some time to do it, somebody in management will force your hand eventually, and the metrics system will not be to your liking.



#9 – Stovepiping



It’s true that everybody’s got their own headaches to think about, but in this day and age you can’t afford to keep your head in the sand like an ostrich. (OK, I don’t know if ostriches really do that…do they?) If you see a problem speak up. Nicely.



#10 – Defeatism



I. Hate. Negativity. How can you succeed if you predict that you will fail? Shoot for the stars and you may hit Mount Everest. That isn’t so bad, is it?



Great example: The 16-year-old girl who decided to sail around the world. Is she crazy? Maybe. Are her parents nuts for letting her go? Possibly. Did she get lost in the middle of her trip because of storms? Of course. But is she a dreamer who’s also a doer, who if she survives will learn a valuable lesson about how to aim for something really big in life? You bet. And she will probably run a very profitable company of her own one day, and maybe even become President.

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Alycia Piazza

A great book along these lines is The five dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni…The 5 dysfuctions are: Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. This is a great read for any team….

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Profile Photo Linda E. Kane

Agree with your metric madness. I ascribe to one of Einstein’s favorite notions: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” So just throwing numbers up means nothing, the stats have to pass the “so what” test. My variation of group think is “dedication to the middle road.” This comes from the mistaken notion that compromise is always best and that either extreme on any issue is “bad.” But think about it, there has been a lot of innovation and progress in every arena based on intuition, imagination and yes, even radicalism.

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Dawn Lautwein

You got me curious about whether ostriches do stick their head in the sand. According to http://www.ostrich.com/general/quickfacts.html and http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/ostrich.html, they do not. The second link explains where the idea probably came from: “Contrary to popular belief, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand. The old saw probably originates with one of the bird’s defensive behaviors. At the approach of trouble, ostriches will lie low and press their long necks to the ground in an attempt to become less visible. Their plumage blends well with sandy soil and, from a distance, gives the appearance that they have buried their heads in the sand.” It’s still a pretty good analogy, since we lay low and try to hide from the problem.

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Dannielle Blumenthal

Linda – hi!

Dawn – that’s funny that you looked it up. How many things do we say without really knowing why or where it came from? Of course I can’t think of any good ones right now, because I’m trying!

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Michael McCarthy, APR

“Have your cake and eat it too.” is one. This gets picky, but think about it, you can have your cake – and then eat it. What the meaning is implying is “Eat your cake and have it to.” . .. but that’s what makes English so interesting.
Nice article.

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Profile Photo Linda E. Kane

When he was small I told my son he was ” the apple of my eye.” He looked puzzled and told me I was the “banana of his nose.” At first blush this makes no sense.But it in old English the eye’s pupil was called “the apple” because it was spherical and, they thought, solid. Since the pupil is a critical part of the eye, it serves as a symbol of something cherished. That is why English is such a challenging language to learn.

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