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Communication Breakdowns That Will Destroy You

By Dr. Alan Zimmerman

Few things in life are more important than your communication ability. In fact, your success at work and your happiness at home are largely determined by your communication ability.

Unfortunately, the message we try to “send” and the message the other person "receives" are often quite different. And that can be disturbing, if not downright disastrous.

Communication breakdowns are not a laughing matter. They can destroy your relationships on and off the job. Here are some key ways that communication breaks down and brings about nasty consequences. You may know some people who fall into some of those holes, and you may also be guilty of doing some of those things. if so, for heaven’s sake, think twice!

► 1. Talking about yourself ... too much

I'm sure you know people like that. They ruin every staff meeting or every party by always bringing the discussion back to themselves. In essence, they're sending the message, “I’m so important and I’m so interesting that you simply must know this about me.”

Or to put it more bluntly, whether they know it or not, they’re inadvertently saying, “I don’t care about you. I care about ME!” And let me tell you, that’s usually the beginning of the end of their relationship.

That's why Les Giblin, in his book Skill With People writes, “When you talk to people about yourself, you are rubbing people the wrong way and working against human nature. Take these four words out of your vocabulary -- I, me, my, mine. Substitute for those four words, one word, the most powerful word spoken by the human tongue -- you.”

► 2. Talking too much ... period

Whereas point #1 refers to “talking about yourself ... too much,” point #2 says that just plain “talking too much” can cause a communication breakdown.

It was the main reason I stopped the relationship with one of my girlfriends during my teenage years. Even though she was intelligent and attractive, she never stopped talking. I don’t think she was consciously aware of the impact it made on me and the other people in her life, but her nonstop talking seemed to send the message that “I don’t care about you or your life.”

► 3. Failing to acknowledge others

It happens all too often. You're in a store, waiting to be waited on, while the clerk keeps on talking to another clerk nearby or talking to a friend on the phone. And even though he or she sees you, they refuse to stop their conversation or even nod in your direction. It's another major communication breakdown. Whether they mean it or not, they are communicating “I don’t respect you enough to even acknowledge your existence.”

The same thing happens at work. I'm sure you've seen managers and VPs chatting amongst themselves, while underlings wait to be acknowledged or included. It's not cool.

So make sure you acknowledge people when they come into sight, whether it's nodding in their direction, saying “Hi" to a coworker who passes by in the hallway, or asking a question. It always communicates some caring and some respect.

► 4. Interrupting

Most people know that interrupting people is not a good way to communicate. It sends three disastrously negative messages: 1) “I'm much more interested in what I'm going to say next than in what you're saying to me right now.” 2) “I don't care about you.” and 3) “I don’t understand you because I'm not even bothering to listen to you.”

Of course, most people aren't trying to send those three negative messages; they're just terribly unskilled in the art of communication. As an acquaintance of mine told me, “I was a tough kid. My mother would say, 'Don't make me repeat myself.' And I would say, 'What?'”

Or as Kelly Cool told me, she was so poor at singing that she would only sing in the shower or in the car when nobody else was around. But one night, she softly sang a lullaby to her nine-month old baby. After the first verse, he sweetly looked into her eyes, removed the pacifier from his mouth, and placed it in hers.

So for heaven's sake, watch yourself; catch yourself, and STOP interrupting people.

► 5. Blaming

You probably have some people in your life that do some nasty things and deserve some blame. But if you stay stuck in blame, chances are you won't do anything to fix the situation. And then who's to blame? YOU. That's why I tell my audiences, “To blame is to be lame.” It’s a major communication breakdown.

Bernard Gimbel, the Co-Founder of the retail chain Gimbel Brothers, knew better. He said, “Two things are bad for the heart -- running up hill and running down people.”

And I’ll never forget sitting in the audience when the great author, speaker, and philosopher Og Mandino declared, “My days of whining and complaining about others have come to an end. Nothing is easier than fault-finding. All it will do is discolor my personality so that no one will want to associate with me. That was my old life. No more.”

► 6. Right-Wrong Thinking

It's an easy trap to fall into. The minute you believe your way is the right way, all other ways become wrong. You start putting your energy into defending your rightness and attacking the other person's wrongness. And that's bound to hurt the communication process, your relationships, and any progress you hope to achieve.

In fact, it’s the very thing that is paralyzing the President and our Congress. No matter what a Democrat says, no matter how right it might be … the Republicans are bound to say it’s wrong. And no matter how right and necessary a Republican program might be, the Democrats will invariably say it’s wrong.

To get away from a right-wrong thinking process, you need to realize that your way may be effective. It may be valid, but it may not be right. There's almost always another way and even a better way to do something. So find it ... by listening to the other person instead of trying to show him why he's wrong.

For example, the first telephones were a good way, a better way, even a great way to communicate. However, history has proven that the first telephones were certainly not the right way or even the best way to communicate. By comparison with today's telephones, they were terrible.

This basic concept holds true with everything you do, from manufacturing to customer service. If you get caught in the trap of doing your job the same way you've always done it ... because you believe it is the right way to do it ... you paralyze all future progress. Your creative juices stop flowing.

To get away from this right-wrong communication breakdown, if you fall into this trap much too often, try these two responses once in a while...

The next time you catch yourself saying, “That's right” or “I'm right,” tell yourself “There may be a better way and I will look into it.”

The next time you catch yourself trying to prove to someone else how wrong he or she is; respond by saying, “That is an interesting way of looking at things. I’ll have to give that some more thought.”

► 7. Partial listening

Author and friend David Levin calls it the “listen-and-read disconnect.”

You may be on the phone with your spouse. She's talking; you're listening. And suddenly she says, "You're reading something on your computer, aren't you?" You're busted.

As Levin asks, “How can she tell? The answer is, you’re not that good at it, but neither is anyone else. I’ve yet to meet the person who can truly pull off ‘listen and read.’ And based on my experience on how well it goes over, I’d say it’s not worth it. Probably best to just not try it at all.”

So true! Whenever you’re supposedly listening to somebody and trying to do something else at the same time, like checking your email or looking for something around the house, you’re sending a message that says “I don’t care that much about you or about what you have to say.”

As my Tuesday Tip friends, let me tell you that is one message you don’t ever want to send.

By contrast, one of my customers got it right. As Paul Snyderman of Merck pharmaceuticals told me, “Our Senior Marketing Manager spoke with great passion about the need to get closer to the customer and directed all of us to meet with our customers. In fact, he directed us to spend at least 15% of our time with our customers. We are to meet with our customers ... whether face to face, on field trips, or via phone ... to just listen."

If you want a team that works, a relationship that works, you must abandon the myth that you can get by with, that you can even be successful by doing, partial listening. The truth is you can’t.

► 8. Assumptions

Angelo Donghia, a prominent interior designer in the 1970's and 80's, had it right when he said, “Assumption is the mother of screw-up.” All too often we assume the other person will understand us rather than ensure his/her understanding.

For example, there was the assumption of understanding when Cathy Groves’ husband went to the lumber store and saw some lovely short pieces of wood in a bin behind the counter. So he asked the clerk, “Do you mind if I come around the counter and poke through your shorts?”

There was the assumption of understanding when a man came home and was greeted by his wife dressed in a very enticing outfit. “Tie me up,” she purred, “and you can do anything you want.” So he tied her up and went golfing.

When you simply assume the other person will understand you, you’re headed for trouble.

Consider these two scenarios that David Levin lays out in one of his books. The first one: Your buddy buys himself a new boat. Naturally he's excited about it and so one afternoon over a beer he talks your ear off about it.

The second one: Everyone is called together for a big meeting at work. When you get there, the BIG BOSS gets up and starts things off with a "funny" story about the trouble he's having finding storage for his new 50-foot yacht.

These are both scenarios of someone talking about their boat. But from the standpoint of connecting with others, they couldn't be more different. The first scenario ... at worst, is slightly annoying ... but could be fun, depending on how you feel about your friend and boats. The second scenario turns you totally off.

You feel like the BIG BOSS is rubbing his BIG YACHT in your face. In a sense, his “funny” store inadvertently communicated, “I don’t understand your world because I live in a completely different world than yours.”

In both cases, the speaker assumed you would get the intended message ... that he was excited about his new boat … even though he did very little thinking about how his message would be received.

The bad news is every one of these communication breakdowns will destroy you and your effectiveness in your job, in your relationships, and everywhere else. The good news is you have the power to stop doing them … right now. So please, please, please, think about what you're going to say ... before you say it. And think about how the other person will interpret your message ... before you send it.

As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan Zimmerman has taught more than one million people in 48 states and 22 countries how to keep a positive attitude on and off the job. In his book, "PIVOT: How One Turn In Attitude Can Lead To Success," Dr. Zimmerman outlines the exact steps you must take to get the results you want in any situation. Go to Alan's site for more information.

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