Five Communication Killers and their Antidotes

Ever feel like you talk all day and nothing gets done? Like you’ve discussed a problem and come up with solutions, but nothing changes? Well, rest assured: so does EVERYONE else. The truth is that there are five common communication killers that happen in every single conversation we have, both at home and at work. Learn about these five communication killers, their antidote, and a bonus trick that can prevent most of your squabbles when you get home from work.

While all of us know how to talk, few people truly know how to communicate, leading to a lot of confusion, misunderstanding and friction. But don’t be too hard on yourself. We are one of the few species that’s mastered verbal communications, and we deal with a lot more than our friends the dolphins.

Luckily, our ability to create complex notions in words also allows us to create new verbal constructs that can help us overcome any barriers and get our meaning across.

Here are five of the biggest communication killers, and their antidotes:

You’re Not Anticipating the Other Person’s Needs and Filters

By far, the most communications fires I put out with my 100 colleagues are caused by people not recognizing, considering or respecting the other persons filters. If the person you happen to be talking to is stressed or has bad self-esteem, a perfectly neutral message may be perceived as a passive-aggressive threat. If a person is full of themselves or living in a self-serving fantasy world, even a criticism that is phrased too kindly may be received as a compliment.

Now, before I tell you how to fix this, memorize this rule: communications are NEVER about you. (Unless you’re talking to yourself… and then it’s still about the other person) Communications are always about the other person and getting something from them, so you had better phrase your message in a way that they can receive.

The antidote? Get clear on your message, and then spend some time thinking about how you need to say it so that they will hear it. If you’re dealing with someone who is very stressed and you have to add more work to their plate or ask them to rework something, start by thanking them for their hard work, and make a suggestion for how it could be improved, rather than informing them what’s wrong with it. If your boss is insanely busy but you need an answer, don’t give him the full report, but offer up a one paragraph summary with a link to where he can read the full report.

You’re Sending Mixed Messages with your Body

The sole side effect of being a species with highly developed verbal communication skills is that we often forget that much of our communication takes place with our bodies. When we are sick, stressed or anxious, we not only change our body language, but our chemical makeup, sending big, flashing warning signals to those around us. This in turn makes us less popular, especially with women whose senses are more honed in to these kinds of warning signals.

The perception of strength, health and control can add an added oomph and validity to whatever it is that you’re talking about, so before your next meeting, find a private spot and practice the Wonder Woman and Victory poses described by Amy Cuddy in her Ted Talk, and try to reduce your stress in general. It’s not only good for your body, but good for your career.

You’re Being too Vague, or too Specific

If you consider yourself an intelligent person, you may be tempted to show off just how much you know, but beware of overpresenting your notions. Some bosses love it, some bosses don’t have time for it, and if you show them anything longer than a simple summary and some fancy graphs their eyes will glaze over and your brilliant paper will end up at the bottom of their “to do” (not!) pile.

Learn the communications styles of those you’re working with, and cater to them. Yes, it’s added work, but when your ideas and words resonate with them they will have a far greater impact, saving you a ton of effort in the long-run. I’m personally a big fan of bullet points on emails, and for super-busy superiors, I’ll often make a yes-no checklist that they can plow through and follow-up with if they have questions. And they never do!

You’re too “Busy”

Back in the cocaine-infused 80’s we got this notion that working 9 to midnight should be the status quo, and that you can only prove your chops if you’re continually outstaying your colleagues. While some bosses appreciate you running yourself ragged for their companies, the truth is that being “busy” and working late can easily be interpreted as being inefficient, and as a highly stressful situation by your body. The result? People avoid you because you’re already too stressed and busy to give them any real attention, and your office relationships wilt.

The antidote? First, keep your stress in check. Second, when people come to talk to you, but down what you’re doing, turn away from the screen, and devote your entire attention to them. If you’re really smart, you’ll also preface it with a “You know, I’m really busy, but I’d love to have this talk with you.” which will immediately boost their ego, and with it, their opinion of you!

 BONUS! You or the Other Person are Hungry (or “Hangry”)

As much as we can’t ignore the other person’s psychological filters, biological influences can be just as powerful, and often times, even more so. A recent study by Ohio State University psychology researcher Brad Bushman found that couples with low blood sugar tended to have much less self-control, which in turn caused them to lash out at their partners more frequently. It’s no secret that sleep deprivation can have the same effects. 

So if you find yourself getting into fights with your significant other when you get home from work, or with your colleagues in 4pm meetings, recognize that it’s natural to feel that way when you’ve burned through your energy for the day, cut yourself some slack, and go have a snack.

I didn’t realize that I was subconsciously using this trick at a magazine I used to work at. We often worked long days, and no one ever had time to eat. I kept a box of dark chocolates in my desk–initially, because my dad sent them and I am not a big chocolate fan; then, because people would just be a lot more relaxed after swiping a square from me late in the afternoon–and before long it became an institution. People would swing by my desk with their problems, indulge, and leave feeling a lot better. I’d always assumed it was the dopamine released in response to the chocolate, but looking back all of my starved and sleep-deprived colleagues were clearly in need of a caloric boost.

Do you have any special remedies to overcome communication killers? If so, share them below!

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