Communication Failures

Gerwig 2016-09-02

How many times this week have you communicated? Whether with family, friends, neighbors, teammates, co-workers or strangers, I bet you communicated with hundreds of people. Stop and think about it. You communicate via text, email, face-to-face, social media with a LOT of people. You communicate verbally and non-verbally, by things you’ve said and by things you left UNsaid. You may not be a public speaker, entertainer or news anchor, but you communicate with hundreds of people on a weekly basis.

I could list hundreds of examples, but here are a few communication failures that come to mind (perhaps slightly tweaked to protect the innocent):

  1. I’ll be in Charlotte the rest of the week but you can catch me there. … Charlotte? I thought you were going to Chicago. … Oh yeah. I mean Chicago. … Note: those who know me well know I do this on a regular basis. My mind is on overload or in another zone and I don’t say what I mean. I know I’m going to Chicago, but Charlotte is what comes out of my mouth.
  2. He didn’t write “Dear Karen,” he just started his email, “Karen.” … What do you think he means? Is he mad at me? Does he want to break up? What is he trying to tell me by starting his email, “Karen?”
  3. Did you notice? He wouldn’t look us in the eyes. He’s lying. Otherwise, he’d look us in the eyes.
  4. She’s being sarcastic. … How do you know? … I could just tell.
  5. My boss didn’t “sign” his email. He just asked, “where are we going to finish the month?” … No “sincerely.” No “cheers.” No “best.” No “thanks.” No “regards.” Nothing. … What’s he trying to tell me?
  6. The self-evaluation says “usually.” What does THAT mean? How often is “usually?” … I’m asked to score myself on whether I “usually” come prepared to meetings. Is that 50% of the time? 75%? What does “usually” mean?
  7. She told me to invite the key stakeholders. Who are they? … I know 4 key people who should be invited. Are there others? Does my boss expect me to know? Is it ok to ask her?
  8. Did you see the way she looked at me? Like I didn’t even matter. … No. … Well, you missed it. It was definitely “the look.”
  9. Why was I cc’d on the email and not included with the other “To” recipients?
  10. You never told me that? … Yes, I did. Twice. … No you didn’t. I would have remembered.
  11. They never texted. I’m worried. How do I know they got there ok?
  12. I wish he’d just come out and say it. I know where this conversation is going. Why is wasting my time sugar-coating it. Just say it already.
  13. Blah blah blah. Are you even listening? … What? … Nevermind!
  14. We just achieved the best sales quarter ever and we didn’t even receive a “nice job.” No call. No email. No text. No nothing.
  15. Don’t ask questions. They’ll say, “Anyone have any questions.” But they don’t really mean it. It’s a sign of weakness and incompetence. Don’t do it. …
  16. But what if I really have a question? … Figure it out offline. But don’t ask it on the call.

Can you relate to any of these? Undoubtedly you have your own examples. If you have good self-awareness, you’ll recognize many examples every day where there was a communication failure. You failed to say something. You said the wrong thing. You gave the wrong look. Someone didn’t call you. Three people, part of the same conversation, went in three different directions based on what you said. You left someone off an email. Someone asks you about a presentation you never received, because they forget to add you to the distribution. You’re talking with your oldest son and accidently call him the name of your youngest. You remembered to include 16 people on the distribution, but you got the wrong Bill Smith (and there are multiple Bill Smiths in your organization).

Great communication is hard. It requires constant attention. We need to check for understanding. Slow down. Communicate via a variety of channels. We need to understand our audience (did you know many people NEVER check their voicemail or automatically delete them?). We need to recognize that communication is hard and that the message we intend isn’t always the message our audience receives. If you assume that all voicemail you leave are actually listened to, you might be dealing with more communication failures than necessary. And to complicate things, we change and so does our audience. My wife and I recently celebrated our 30th anniversary. Neither of us communicates the same way we did 30 years ago. It takes constant work, diligence and a commitment to get it right (or at least close to right).

Think about it the rest of the week or even the rest of the day. How’s your communication going? How do you know? Are you exaggerating? Leaving out relevant facts? How are others communicating with you? What problems are you solving and dealing with that were caused my imperfect communication? Whether corporate, family, national, military or personal, the degree to which we achieve communication excellence dictates our success to a large extent. Great leaders are great communicators. Poor communicators are poor leaders. Want to free up more time? Communicate better. More clearly. More frequently. More self-awareness.

What about you? How is your communication going today? What adjustments will you make to improve your communication effectiveness and minimize communication failures?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]


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