Communication Gaps: Road-Tripping Without a Map

Have you ever been ¾ of the way into a project, only for it to unexpectedly halt because others have different ideas or are not on the same page? We have all been there, and while this scenario can be very frustrating, must times, it simply suggests a one-time misunderstanding.

But what if this happens regularly? Then that one-time misunderstanding turns into a communication gap, and that gap requires more than just a simple “do better next time” approach. Instead, it requires everyone involved to assess the problem, identify solutions, and take deliberate efforts to change the way you communicate.

All relationships require intentional communication, whether you're communicating with your life partner, professional colleague, or even your mother.

In communication, much like many other issues, our failures are often our best teachers. When we find ourselves in undesirable situations, we often wish we had a re-do button. But when you cannot hit re-do, how do you identify the problem, so that next time your outcome will be different?

Here are three common (mis)communication trends I’ve noticed:

1. Problem: Making assumptions.

Some of the biggest misunderstandings are created simply because we make assumptions. The first thing to acknowledge is that we make assumptions ALL THE TIME. Any time we have a pre-conceived notion about how we think things should be, we are making an assumption. Sometimes the assumptions we make are relatively harmless (say, when we assume a friend is merely busy when she does not return a phone call). But what if you assume a friend is mad at you and intentionally avoiding you? That assumption can result in very different reactions and expectations.

Solution: Challenge and ask questions. One of the easiest ways to park your assumptions at the door is to ask questions. The next time you talk to your friend, ask if she received your message -- and why she didn’t call back. You might get a very reasonable answer.

“Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in while, or the light won't come in.” - Alan Alda

2. Problem: Applying filters.

Applying filters is akin to making assumptions. Assumption-making is our cognitive process of making mental notes on the situation at hand. When we act out our assumptions, we are applying filters to how we perceive, sort, and share that information. Take, for example, a presentation at your staff meeting that reflects your latest activities: you pre-select what you think is important to share. Afterwards, you are surprised that no one really knows what you are working on.

Solution: Share details. Now, let’s take the previous example and remove the assumptions and filters. Instead of only reporting your activities, you also share context about the projects, why the information is important, and how it will help fulfill the bigger picture. In this discussion, you share your insights and engage other staff members to share their insights as well. This helps give context to information you share with others, so they can fully understand you and your work.

3. Problem: Protecting information with pride.

Intellectual property, or specialized knowledge and skills, sets us apart from others. But have you ever heard the saying, “If you are hit by a bus, we need to know how to do X, Y, and Z”? As much as we like to think we can’t be replaced, we actually can be. At any given moment, we may no longer be able to perform our jobs. And while that sounds terrible, wouldn’t it be even worse if we walked away and no one knew how to finish what we started?

Solution: Include others. In many small nonprofit offices, there is only one person in a department or program -- which means that we, as nonprofit professionals, are often the only person who knows how to do XYZ. Thankfully, many workplaces are starting to cross-train their employees. This helps eliminate the communication barriers that exist when you work solo. Even if your workplace isn’t cross-training, by challenging assumptions, sharing information, and including others in your-day-to-day activities, you will start to see your relationships positively transform with more honest and open communication.

Are there other common problems that result in poor or unclear communication? What have been some of your communication gaps, and how have you resolved them?

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