Communication Breakdowns in the Workplace: How Do You Prevent Them?

One of my values when I first began working was “effective communication.” Something I’ve learned over the years, and this may be one of those “duh” moments for many of you, is that everyone communicates differently. While our communication styles are based on numerous aspects of our background, most sociolinguists believe that there are some universal ways that we convey what we mean.

For instance, 90% of communication is not even verbal--it’s through body language. Observing another person’s non-verbal expressions and gestures helps us subconsciously understand what they are attempting to express. However, misreading or failing to read non-verbal cues can lead to both misinterpretation and miscommunication.

Neuroscientists tell us that our brains very quickly make assumptions in every situation we are in and that our conclusions about what we see and hear are not always correct. In one of our newest courses, “Applied EQ,” we talk about an important rule of thumb related to this: “inquire before inferring.”

Asking clarifying questions before jumping to conclusions can prevent a breakdown in communication. Our brains are riddled with biases based upon our past experiences that we may subconsciously project onto others, which affects how we interpret another person’s statements or stories. And, if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes we are overly confident about our ability to recognize others’ perspectives, emotions, and intentions and the “why” behind them.

When we act on incorrect assumptions, those awkward encounters can cause confusion, offend others, and even blemish our credibility. Then, we are left wondering what happened. For example, you might say, “You’re clearly upset with me right now, so let’s take a break,” because you notice another person’s frowning expression, but the other person responds, “No, I am not upset with YOU at all. My internet crashed 7 times in 30 minutes, and I am a bit irritated.”  Instead, you can include an observation in your initial question: “You seem upset right now. Is there something bothering you?” 

So, let me share how to improve and be more conscious of how we communicate in the workplace.  

Great communication starts with active listening. 

Active listening enables you to accurately recognize and understand others’ communication cues by becoming more mindful of contexts, social cues, and both verbal and non-verbal communications. Doing so will enhance your ability to listen with an open mind and respect how others choose to express themselves. 

Here are 3 key practices to follow when actively listening: 

  1. Demonstrate that you are present. An “active listener "attempts to demonstrate unconditional acceptance” by minimizing their biases. Unconditional acceptance means keeping an open mind throughout your interactions with another person. 

  2. Validate the speaker's perspective. To counteract our tendency to judge and assess what others are saying (you know that voice in your head!) work on immediately validating the other person’s perspective and feelings. Listen for what matters most to that person and ask yourself questions like: What do they value? What are their pain points?

  3. Observe your own thoughts, but don’t let them override you. If your thoughts are conflicting with your ability to focus, don't engage them in the moment. You can minimize the effect of your biases by practicing mindful, intentional patience. Focus on holding space for another person to share their truth, because if the person speaking notices a disconnect between the context, what they’re communicating, and your body language or tone, they’re likely to shut down. So, deferring your opposing thoughts in the moment makes them feel heard and psychologically safe to continue sharing.