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BILL HOWATT: The anatomy of miscommunication

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A leader’s success is dependent on their ability to facilitate effective verbal and written communications. The stakes are high when leaders and employees miscommunicate, as well as when employees communicate with their peers and customers.

Now, this is where it can be frustrating. It’s much easier to miscommunicate than to communicate effectively. It doesn’t take much effort to end up in a situation where there’s a miscommunication due to emotions.

Any business professional who wants to improve their communications will benefit from understanding the anatomy of miscommunication.

Strong communication skills are not innate; we must develop them. Many of us haven’t a clue how our childhood upbringing has shaped how effectively and confidently we interact with others. The modern business term is personality. But to be clear, personality is shaped by our experiences.

An accomplished professional who has had traumatic experiences doesn’t come with a sign on their forehead. Many develop self-protection strategies that can affect how they interact with and respond to others and shape how they are perceived. They may appear confident but are looking unconsciously for every mistake, and when they find one they quickly draw a conclusion.

We all are being a bit silly if we think humans don’t bring their past and true self to work and that good communications are easy.

Many communication courses lack impact because they don’t get to the core of why there is so much miscommunication. Before we teach people how to communicate better, it may make sense to understand why many miscommunicate.

A vast percentage of miscommunication begins with the unconscious brain, resulting in flawed thinking. Effective communication requires seven pieces: facts, context, problem, options, risks, scope and emotional control.

BE INTENTIONAL

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, states that System 1, fast and intuitive thinking, is flawed because of what he refers to as the illusory principle: “What you see is all there is.”

He suggests that thinking is something that happens to humans. To reduce miscommunication, it’s important to be intentional and self-aware and leverage what he calls System 2 thinking, when a person doesn’t go with their first thought, knowing it could be or likely is wrong. Instead, they pause, slow down and get all seven pieces in place before responding, especially when the stakes are high.

Automatic, unconscious negative thoughts that are accepted as facts are key to creating negative emotion. Most business professionals have the command of their domain knowledge and skills. The challenge is when they feel rushed, pressured, fatigued, distracted or mentally strained.

Most miscommunications are not due to spelling errors. They occur because of the sender’s and receiver’s emotional state at the time of the communication.

The solution sounds easy but is hard when a person lacks emotional intelligence, or emotional regulation. It’s the ability to be aware that emotions are taking over and to allow space for the intensity to lower so that it doesn’t blind perspective.

Avoiding the urge to communicate when experiencing negative emotions can help avoid knee-jerk, emotional decisions and comments that can be hard to take back or fix.

SLOW DOWN

U.S. Navy SEALS training is shown as being intense. Why? It’s not to be mean; it’s to save their lives. The training is meant to get them ready for the real deal, so they can stay alive in battle.

Most of us know how to communicate when the stakes are low and we’re calm. One reason there’s so much miscommunication is many avoid conflict and over- or under-react in tough emotional moments. When our brain shuts down because we can’t think and we’re left to rely on whatever silliness our unconscious brain fires off, the risk of communication breaking down is high.

If we haven’t practised, prepared or trained to handle emotionally challenging moments when the stakes are high and in the presence of anger and judgement, we risk reacting versus being intentional. Without skills to intentionally slow down and get to System 2 thinking, we are at greater risk of defaulting to old programming instilled in childhood. System 1 thinking (making assumptions with faulty information) is being blinded by powerful, negative emotions that influence our thinking and behaviour.

Master these factors and you will be on your way to becoming a better communicator. These skills will not be developed in a three-hour course; they can take months to learn and years to master.

Bill Howatt is president of Howatt HR Consulting.

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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