What is the #1 Reason for Communication Failure?
written by Michael Haggstrom, Doctor in Counselling, Calgary
Answer: Failing to Listen
Most people believe they communicate as effectively as their colleagues or even above average (study of 8000 subjects by Haney, W.V), but according to the studies of Husman, the average person only listens at a 25% efficiency rate.
Now that we have cell phones and social media, listening has drastically decreased even more since that study was released!
I see this in my office. Early on in the process of relationship counselling, I invite couples to discuss a recurring conflict together so I can observe what happens. Inevitably, neither listens. Each tries to convince the other person that they are right, that things should be done their way.
It’s like turning on two radio stations in the same room where they are both transmitters, but neither serve as a receiver for the messages being sent; or like two lawyers arguing their case where both have compelling arguments, but fail to notice that the jury stand is empty of any listener.
Unless at least on partner begins listening, they as a couple will fail. The same holds true in any relationship we have – at work, with friends or at home.
Keeping your ego in check
When we fail to listen correctly we make false assumptions and react prematurely and even defensively, often due to a misunderstanding. This is particularly true when we are already stressed and lacking patience where further communication breaks down, until we find ourselves arguing about something totally different than what was initially discussed. Ego takes over and sanity flies out the window.
Listen to someone fully without interrupting and before giving a reply. This can go a long way to making sure you actually heard what was said.
Listening makes relationships succeed
Reacting prematurely puts the other person on edge where they will eventually shut down and withdraw from connection. When you reach that point, it’s only a matter of time before the relationship ends.
I see this often in couples and also in parent-child relationships, especially when children grow up and start formulating opinions of their own. If parents don’t know how to work with their child’s individuality, they can inadvertently push their child away so that when they become an adult they risk losing that child altogether. Tens of thousands of adult children today are abandoning their families and this is one of the reasons why.
Also, work tasks at our jobs suffer when we don’t communicate well with one another. How often has a project failed or struggled because of misunderstandings around who was responsible for what? Tensions get high and blame gets thrown around, causing hard feelings and resentment which make for a toxic work environment.
In all of our relationships, it is much better to learn how to consistently listen well, than to go through the messiness of relational failure due to misunderstandings that could have been prevented.
You can be great at communication in the work place, yet suck at it in your personal life.
4 Tips to Improving Your Listening Skills
1. Look at the person talking
Give your undivided attention to the person talking to you. Put your cell phone away and turn it on silent. Remind yourself of what you appreciate about this person as you listen, even when they are complaining.
Listen not only to the content of what is being said, but also to the emotional experience of the person. Are they upset, happy, excited, angry or sad? People with good emotional intelligence do this all the time and have higher chances of success in their relationships.
2. Slow down your breathing when you hear a complaint
Taking several deep breathes can help reduce your heart rate from accelerating and from entering the frustration zone. Resist taking what someone says personally. Let them own their words.
You don’t need to agree in order to still listen to someone fully. It’s okay to listen and not agree. Listening says, “I’m here and you matter.” When someone feels fully heard they are more open to then listen to you too.
“When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.”
– Stephen Covey
3. Resist offering advice – instead offer bids
This is especially true if someone is talking about a personal problem. Sometimes a person may just want to share an experience in order to have an empathetic ear. Instead of offering solutions, offer up something like “it sounds like you’ve had a tough day”, “you’re really annoyed at me right now, huh”, or “you wish you didn’t have to deal with that person at work, right”.
Dr. John Gottman calls this a turning-toward bid that shows empathy and it’s been scientifically proven to improve emotional connection. In fact, according to his studies, couples who were still together after six years had turning-toward bids 87% of the time.
So remember that unless the person is specifically coming to you for advice, refrain from offering your opinion too quickly. No one likes a “smarty-pants”.
4. Show interest with sincere questions
Inquire more into the person’s story. Ask reflective questions. This tells the person speaking that you are interested in what they have to say. Seek clarification when you aren’t sure you understand, even when it involves a direct complaint about you. Say something like, “So, if I understand correctly, you really don’t like it when I promise to take out the garbage but then fail to do so immediately. Is that right?”
And, leave the sarcasm for the nighttime talkshow comedians. Sarcasm used in times of conflict is a prime predictor of divorce and relationship failure.
“Effective questioning brings insight, which fuels curiosity, which cultivates wisdom.”
— Chip Bell
Far too often we are impatient and don’t listen fully. If someone isn’t asking for advice then don’t give it, just listen and show empathy for what they are going through. Empathy is a key skill in listening correctly that enhances relationship and deepens connection.
Listen first, clarify and ask questions. We increase our influence and chances of success in communication only when we listen fully. And finally, remember that putting your cell phone away when someone is talking to you about something important is the very least you can do to show that you care and respect them.
Written by: Michael Haggstrom, RSW, RPC, Doctor in Counselling, Calgary, Alberta
Relationship/Marriage Expert & Depression/Anxiety/Stress/Trauma Specialist
♦ Over 25 YEARS Counselling Experience
♦ 5 Post-Secondary DEGREES, including 2 Doctorates
Skilled clinical therapist helping individuals and couples, using evidence-based therapy models
Haney, W. V. (1979). Communication and interpersonal relations. Homewood, IL: Irwin
John Gottman, Ph.D. (2002). The Relationship Cure. 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Marriage, Family and Friendships
Husman, R. C., Lahiff, J. M., & Penrose, J. M. (1988). Business communication: Strategies and skills. Chicago: Dryden Press
Victor Dulewicz, Malcolm Higgs, (2003). Leadership at the Top: The Need for Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol. 11 Issue: 3, pp.193-210, doi: 10.1108/eb028971
Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. (2008). William Morrow. When Parents Hurt. When adult children abandon their parents