I didn’t start out my consultant business with a focus on communication. This focus grew as a result of a steady stream of communication breakdowns over the years: conflicts with people being targeted and blamed, people complaining that they weren’t being heard, concerns about lack of transparency, people avoiding difficult conversations, tensions resulting from different communication styles…and so on. I saw that these breakdowns could have a devastating impact on the people, their morale and their work. I also saw that when communication works, it can transform an individual, a team and an entire organization!
Over the past several years, communication has become a cornerstone of my work. In this month’s “Lessons from the Field,” I share my top 5 lessons on communication breakdowns and breakthroughs. I am deeply grateful to, and inspired by, the many people I have worked with and learned from. Special thanks go to my colleagues Loretta Hobbs of O-Neal Hobbs Associates and Françoise Spaulding-Keller for their valuable input. If you find this information useful and want to share it with others for purposes of learning (not for profit), please feel free to do so. Please acknowledge Mayeno Consulting and include my web address (www.mayenoconsulting.com) if you pass it on to others.
LESSON 1: Communication breakdowns happen. A breakdown is when something doesn’t work. If we start by accepting and expecting that breakdowns will happen, we will be less likely to react with dismay. Breakdowns may happen for a number of reasons. For example, when an organization expands, communication processes that once worked may not work anymore. If people have very different ways of looking at the world or different styles of communication, misunderstandings are bound to occur. The rapid changes in technology add different methods of communicating to the mix. In short, don’t be surprised if something isn’t working in communication.
LESSON 2: Problem-solving doesn’t transform communication. When I started out with a problem-solving approach, I noticed that people (myself included) were defensive and seemed to suffer through the process. Focusing attention on fixing a problem did not inspire people. People often felt bad about themselves and each other. Shifting away from problem-solving doesn’t mean ignoring challenges. We can acknowledge the challenges AND frame them as opportunities. For example, conflicts about tone of voice, office noise levels or how people respond to requests may impede productivity and teambuilding and decrease job satisfaction. They may also provide rich opportunities to learn about different communication styles, enhance working relationships and develop strategies that meet everyone’s needs.
LESSON 3: Where there’s a breakdown, a breakthrough is possible. When communication gets challenging, people are often driven by anger and fear; their outlook about the future tends towards gloom and doom. An alternative way of looking at breakdowns is to see them as “pre-breakthrough moments” or moments of creative tension. For an organization with confusion about expectations, there may be an opportunity to break through the confusion to clarify roles and model transparency. For the organization an employee makes an offensive remark, the organization may be ready to break through a pattern of tolerating intolerance and become a model of respect and appreciation. When we see the opportunity for a breakthrough in the breakdown, we can generate energy and open up space for exploration.
LESSON 4: Where you stand (figuratively speaking) makes all the difference. Our stance towards the situation and the people is pivotal in how we move through a communication breakdown. In a competitive communication model, there are winners and losers, who are either “right” or “wrong” and we are more interested in surviving than in truly understanding one another. Our stance may be to fight, avoid discomfort, or give in (surrender). In this model, you can’t win unless someone else loses. In a collaborative communication model the goal is to come together and strengthen mutual understanding, based on commitment to the relationship. This model only works if we take a stance of generosity with ourselves and towards others. We can choose to assume positive intent and understand the experiences and needs of everyone, without judgment. New agreements can be reached that work for everyone.
LESSON 5: Breakthroughs start with the willingness to try on new communication practices. It doesn’t work to sit back and wonder why everyone else isn’t communicating. The more we are willing to open up and communicate authentically, the more we make it okay for others to do so. The most transformative moments I have seen in organizations are when individuals takes that risk, speak authentically from their own experience, without shaming or blaming and are truly heard by others. In these moments, trust becomes possible where trust was broken. People step up and take responsibility for the impact their actions have had. People are able to hear each other’s needs and requests without defending or judging. People discover deep compassion and connection to one another and value, rather than survive, their working relationships.
This article has touched briefly on a few lessons from my practice. If you are interested in learning more, please consider participating in the August 11 workshop on “Authentic Communication for Empowered Teams,” offered by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services or attending the August 31 workshop on “Courageous Conversations Around Culture, Power and Difference” offered in partnership with Featherston & Associates as part of CompassPoint’s Nonprofit Day.
Thanks for reading!
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