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Communication Breakdown

Not only one of rock’s coolest hooks (thank you Led Zeppelin), it’s also a familiar theme that hits close to home for all of us eventually. Communicating our complicated perspectives, beliefs, and feelings accurately isn’t always easy. It gets even more diffused as the separation between us increases. Our messaging has become more filtered and sterilized by technology and our abbreviated language style, OMG. When it all comes together in a frenetic scrum of misunderstanding, we find ourselves in a bonafide Communication Breakdown.

There has been some compelling research in the area of effective communication. The work I will refer to is that of Dr. Albert Mehrabian and a study he conducted as the Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA. It might totally screw up some of your theories with facts. It did mine. We oversimplify the complexity of communicating effectively and can benefit from a more informed, purposeful approach.

The Words We Choose

When it comes to expressing our feelings, beliefs, and attitudes our words measure up to a mere 7% of the total effectiveness of our messaging. We can be filling the room with words, and not be saying a thing. Now extrapolate that to an email. Words on a screen or a piece of paper. Not that effective and it gets better. It's not that your message isn’t being understood— it’s being misunderstood. This, my friends, is how some wars start. Little ones and big ones.

Our natural tendency might be to script the dialogue. Make sure we say everything we want to communicate. Many times we don’t stop to think “what is the best medium of communication given the individual and situation” we just start throwing words at the problem in whatever expedient method available, typically our thumbs do the talking.

Some words communicate feelings of frustration with great expedience, unfortunately, they tend to end the conversation just as fast. I don’t want to give the impression your words don’t matter, because they do. My point is that being heard is more complicated than simply pushing well-crafted words.

Volume - Tone - Attack

These are musical terms used to describe some of the attributes of sound, but they apply here perfectly. The way you deliver your carefully scrutinized message makes up 38% of the effectiveness of your communication. You can be totally right in principle and detail and completely wrong in your tone and volume. Depending on the Personality Design (we will address in future blogs) of the individual you are communicating with, your tone may shut them down before you finish your first sentence.

If you use your voice for inflection like I do, you need to be aware of how many Watt’s you are generating when you get fired-up. If your goal is communicating clearly and being understood, you may need to come in a little cooler. If your communication style is organically more assertive and you cycle at a faster frequency, you may need to slow it down and turn it down. This is purposeful versatility and greatly increases your overall effectiveness.

Facial Expressions

The eyes have it…55%. Over half of the effectiveness of our communication around beliefs, feelings, and attitudes are expressed through our eyes and non-verbal behaviors. Think about it, when B.B. King makes that face, you know the one I’m talking about—the face that animates the wailing, emotive cries of Lucille—The face that convinces you he means exactly what he played, the face expressing total transparency and conviction. You don’t need to hear one measure of music to understand what he means, his expressions tell the story.

In the same way, our smiles can defuse tension and create comfort. Our active listening and physical acknowledgments will foster trust and confidence. Arms crossed in a defensive posture tells others we are not open to their messaging. Rolling eyes of disbelief, awkward fidgeting, and a host of other nonverbal queues need to be taken into consideration. We want to understand what we are transmitting, and what we are receiving. Take the initiative to learn more about nonverbal gestures—because:

Before we have said a word, we have spoken volumes.

Switching To Manual Mode

Our default communication process is pretty simple and very automated. We are engaged in countless conversations across a variety of topics and mediums every day. From simple issues to complex matters of the heart. Most of these intersections are navigated on auto-comm. Our default automated system works something like this, if I dare to oversimplify.

Witness - We take in stimuli, observe others' behaviors/messaging.

Conclude - Based on our experiences, this means that.

Reaction - Fight or Flight and everything in between.

Without overthinking this, on occasion we need to go manual, make a few quick assessments and customize our approach. Slow down and apply Active Listening Skills. Active listening is simply putting it all together. The words, the tone, the non-verbal expressions, the environment, and the situational context.

Don't make any conclusions based on your emotional record-keeping. Elevated communication requires Mindfulness. You have to be in the moment, engaged, and seeking to understand the needs and preferences of others—first. Our manual process looks something like this:

Witness - We take in stimuli, observe others' behaviors/messaging.

Assessment - Engage Active Listening.

Customize - Non-verbal gestures, tone, and words.

Engage - Step outside our default comfort zone and meet the need.

Sustaining Communication Relevance

Our world continues to fragment. Unique problems require unique solutions. It’s a customized, personalized, your-name-embroidered-here world. How we engage isn’t immune to evolution. How we communicate is often dictated by the technology we prefer to use. Some of us communicate across a variety of channels. The paradigm hasn’t shifted, it’s imploded.

The problem for many people is keeping up. Everyone has a different threshold for how many apps they want to absorb. Boomers, GenX, and Millennial span the continuum of adoption. There are grandparents in future-shock and kids that appear bio-mechanical they are so fluid and adept with technology.

The bottom line is this: We need to make an effort to keep up, ask for help. None of it’s difficult, it’s just new. We have to be comfortable communicating effectively across multiple channels today. We want to match the message to the medium to optimize understanding.

On the “B” side of the disc—Help your boss, mom, and dad or aunt Jean download the app, FaceTime with your grandmother in Milwaukee, help them bridge the tech gap. Teach them the abbreviated language of texting like they’re your BFF K? TTYL.

In closing

Great communication and the ability to unwind bad communication takes desire, tools, and a purposeful approach. It requires us to have an understanding and appreciation for Emotional Intelligence. It requires us to step forward and flex some Interpersonal muscle. Become a student! Elevate, learn and grow. Start right here by subscribing to the mailing list and get your FREE Objective Self Assessment worksheets. You’ll get the inspiration, perspectives, and tools you need to GO Forth And Rock!

If you have questions or comments please connect with me directly at I would love to hear from you.


Rich McDonald

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