Coach’s Corner Blog

Avoiding Communication Breakdowns

June 5, 2014 by Leave a Comment

Phone Off Hook

The legendary rock band Led Zeppelin, had a classic hit named “Communication Breakdown”, about a fellow’s interest in a woman. Here’s the chorus:

Communication breakdown, it’s always the same, I’m having a nervous breakdown, drive me insane!

When you think about some of challenges in your business communications, which are hopefully less highly charged than what Robert Plant wailed about, do you experience frustration and angst? It usually happens to everyone from time to time (but rarely causes insanity) and can make you ask yourself:

Was the message that was received what I intended?

There can be technical or cultural reasons for this. People can be too busy or messages get lost in the avalanche of information coming their way. People may disagree and not know how to handle disagreements well. The options are too numerous.

In this post I will:

1.  Identify a possible cause of these breakdowns;
2.  Show you possible solutions that can be taken to create more productive dialogue.

A large part of any miscommunication will always center on the communication vehicle you choose. The 3 basic choices are:

1. Email
2. Telephone
3. Face-to-Face Conversations

Each of these has its various pros and cons but I believe there are two variables that matter the most: Efficiency and Effectiveness.

Here’s a graphical depiction of the overall communication process which illustrates very well where some of the key differences are in communicating our messages to others:



Regarding efficiency, email, texts, Twitter, etc. will win hands down over snail mail or phone calls, much less face-to-face meetings. The latter take more time to organize or it’s just difficult to catch people because of busy schedules and geographical separation, whether it’s different floors, cities, states or even continents.

It is really amazing how much information can be transmitted electronically and the cold reality of being overwhelmed by the email beast is a result. Perhaps there can be too much of a good thing.


Today it seems that smart phones are fairly ubiquitous. They can do so much more than just allow phone calls to happen. I am frequently dismayed to see couples at a nice restaurant who have their noses to their iPhone rather than speaking to each other.

But phone conversations can be very useful in creating real-time dialogue that allows a good back and forth to go on as opposed to the static responding to the words in an email and then waiting for a response.

Face-to-Face Conversations

Face-to-face conversations have an immediacy and impact that allows really effective communications to occur, but in the global environment we operate in, these get harder and harder to make happen. Even companies with worldwide operations see the value in bringing the key leaders together in person at least once a year.

So in summary, the efficiency of information exchange ranges from face-to-face (LOWER), to the telephone (MEDIUM), to email (HIGHER). You just can’t beat email with various document attachments for the sheer amount of data that can be transmitted instantaneously.

The challenge we have is that the effectiveness of the communication exchange is the opposite. The difference in the communication exchange has to do with the clarity of the meaning that is intended and that which is received.

If we were all fantastic writers, this would be less of an issue, but we are not. You can send lots of information but that can overwhelm whatever meaning or message that was intended. And that’s due to the fact that there are 3 elements to any communication exchange:

1. Verbal
2. Vocal
3. Visual (or Non-Verbal)

1. Verbal

This refers to the words we choose to convey the message. When I initially spoke of the intention of your message it’s often impacted by the words you choose.

English is a difficult enough language to learn because of the multiple meanings of various words. Just think about how many meanings there are for the word “fast”. I can think of at least six.

The real issue is that the words themselves are only 7% of the communication “vibration”, which I describe as the “net” message the receiver gets from the sender of the message.

You may scoff at this figure but there have been many extensive studies that bear this out. (Mehrabian, A. (1972), Nonverbal Communication, p.108, New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.)

2. Vocal

This can be the pace, volume or intensity with which we speak. When we are excited we usually speed up. We get louder when we are insistent. We may speak more softly or slower to emphasize a point. This accounts for a whopping 38% of the communication vibration.

3. Visual

This is often referred to as nonverbal communication or body language and it accounts for an incredible 55% of any communication exchange.

When you say you are really excited about an idea but you sit back with your arms across your chest and a brow that is furrowed in confusion, your body language will trump the words you use every time.

When we say we think that’s a great idea while we roll our eyes, we know the message that we convey.

Some recent studies have even put the impact of body language as high as 93%!

Here’s what we are faced with in terms of the various communications choices:


Your very best chance for the clearest and most complete communication is going to be with face-to-face conversations, or in meeting situations where you can experience the verbal, vocal and visual aspects of the communication vibration.

Unfortunately, that isn’t very practical in this increasingly global and distributed world we work in.

So here are a few tips to consider to improve the effectiveness of your communication:

  • Email is efficient but not always effective. If you’ve gone back and forth more than three or four times in an email string, pick up the phone and chat with your email recipient. You may even have to set up a phone call but you’ll pick up so much more in the communication that will it will probably be very much worth it.
  • Although I realize there is a generational trend that sees smart phones as more for email and text messages, versus phone calls, consider leaving a voicemail to convey your message better or to ask to schedule that call or a meeting. I realize that in some organizations voicemail is not a preferred method of communicating, but you can leave an email to give a receiver of your messages a heads up that something important could be on that voicemail that you can’t, or would rather not, convey in an email.
  • Where practical, make sure you maintain your preference for meeting in person and connecting where you can get 100% of the communication vibration. Skype, Face Time messaging and video conferencing are increasingly available and are the next best thing to meeting in person. It can also be done fairly cost-effectively. It often requires a little more planning, but I assure you that it is usually worth it.
  • Lastly, when you are developing an ongoing relationship with an important client or coworker, ask them their preferred method of getting messages, whether that’s texts, email, phone mail or Pony Express. It never hurts to ask.

In summary, breakdowns in the communication “vibration”, the net message between the sender and receiver, can occur for many reasons. If you are going to improve the effectiveness of the communication, ask yourself:

  1. What can I do to maximize the opportunity to get the Verbal, Vocal and Visual aspects in my communications exchange?
  2. Since the Visual or Body Language aspects of the communication vibration are so important, what can I do to learn more about this to enhance my effectiveness as leader?

I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Photo Credit: Philippe Put / CC BY-ND


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