Overcoming Communication Breakdowns

Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman lays out how to get around one of the biggest obstacles to effective leadership.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now.

A common cold of leadership is the breakdown of dialogue. Why can’t we connect? Why is there so much conflict? How will this project ever move forward?

I spoke with my colleague George Kohlrieser, the professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, I asked him what gets in the way of healthy, worthwhile dialogue, the kind that ensures work gets done and measurable progress is made.

He points out that effective dialogue leads to the discovery of some greater truth. Unfortunately, getting in the way of finding that greater truth are so-called “blocking tactics.” They show up whether it’s two people talking or a group dialogue. These include.

Passivity. If someone in the dialogue isn’t engaged, then a real dialogue just won’t be possible. Prepare yourself to be fully present for a dialogue: Remind yourself to put your phone away, make eye contact, and sit still. Focus on what the person is saying, not what you’re about to say.

Discounting. When putdowns or disrespect of any sort floats into a conversation, they discount, or lessen the importance, of the participants. Respect is an essential part of dialogue. Plan your words. Think about how you sound.  For example, “Well, I just don’t get it,” can be taken as a discounting putdown. It’s wiser to say, “Can you explain this idea a bit more?”

Notice Your Tone. How many meetings are filled with people who don’t answer questions? Such people may be reacting to how a question is asked, not the question itself. If asked with a gruff tone, people may shut down, tune out, become defensive, or change the subject. Notice your mindset. If you’re angry or frustrated, take a moment to get into a neutral state before starting a difficult conversation.

Over-detailing. This means giving more details than are necessary. Know when to cut your answers short. If a colleague asks how a call went with a particular client and you feel yourself ready to vent, take a breath and remember it’s not the time. Otherwise you’re giving too much information and not getting to the point.

And finally, consider George’s Four Sentence Rule. He assumes that on average, people can only maintain maximum attention for four sentences. Whenever you’ve gone beyond four sentences, be aware that the listener’s brain may not be taking it all in. If you want to be heard, keep your statements concise. When people have to expend a lot of energy listening, they tend to just shut down. Your potential for a great dialogue is immediately lost.

Then there’s what George calls “secondary blocks”—generalization, rationalization, exaggeration, and lack of honesty. These also get in the way, but to a lesser degree. Watch out for them.

But when you are mindful of how you are communicating and eliminate the primary blocks—over-detailing, redefinition, discounting, and passivity—you just might start having much better dialogues. Try it.


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