The single biggest communication problem – and how to fix it

You talked. They listened. Soon enough it becomes clear that you talked, and they did not hear you. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Project and proposal teams are melting pots. With the globalization of business, we face physical distances, clashing time zones, and a variety of cultural differences. Teams are comprised of individuals of different genders, generations, and native languages.

Studies have shown that people gravitate towards like-minded teammates, especially those with the same cultural background. The result is often that we fail to understand the words of those who we perceive as different.

Today, teams have the ability to communicate in so many ways—in-person, phone, text, email, chat, social media, and Web meetings—yet somehow the message is still garbled. With both verbal and non-verbal cues lost in translation, what can we do to truly connect? Here are 5 ideas.

  1. Create a communication plan. The plan should address how you will communicate with teammates separated from you by distance, culture, gender, generational gaps, and the like. You don’t necessarily need to publish this plan, but it is a good checklist to ensure you acknowledge and address differences.
  2. Learn cultural rules of behavior. Understanding your customer or teammate’s cultural values and norms is especially important if you are dealing with interactions across the globe. Do some research on how business people from that country handle business interactions and communications to avoid inadvertently offending your colleagues.
  3. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Often we fall into the habit of using idioms, acronyms, and/or complex terminology. Try speaking in plain English for greater clarity of intent.
  4. Embrace differences. We learn and grow only by considering different viewpoints and continuously evolving our perspective. Exclusion of others through body language or overt action leads to poor organizational performance. Try to mix up your teams by pairing people of different backgrounds.
  5. Repeat, repeat, repeat. When others talk, repeat what you think they said to gain confirmation. When you talk, ask each person to offer their perspective on what you just said. Or, at the end of a meeting or call, ask each attendee to summarize in writing the decisions and action items to ensure everyone is on the same page. By making everyone re-frame their understanding, you will gain greater precision.

Next time you meet, avoid the single greatest communication problem. Make sure communication has actually taken place.

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Lohfeld Consulting