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Why Communication Gaps Are Prevalent

Fortunately, most organizations now recognize that the ability to communicate means more than just knowing the difference between nouns and verbs. Indeed, solid communication skills are obligatory for people in positions that entail any type of customer contact as well as for those with managerial responsibilities. So why is it, then, that problems traceable to flawed communication remain prevalent in organizations? Four reasons come immediately to mind.

The first reason is that communication is so fundamental to our very existence that most people don’t see the role it has played when matters go awry. For example, as one technical-support specialist put it: “I sent them an e-mail. If they didn’t read it, it’s not my problem.”

Yet a message sent is not necessarily a message received. In fact, the message received may be far removed from the one that was sent. What’s sent, how it’s sent, whether it’s received, how it’s received—and for that matter, whether it’s actually sent in the first place—all have a bearing on whether communication has taken place. If any of these factors are off, the parties involved will be separated by a communication gap.

The second reason that problems caused by flawed communications are so prevalent is that most people, believing themselves to be capable communicators, deny responsibility for the problems. Therefore, when they create a communication gap or slip into one created by others, they are quick to brush it off as an isolated occurrence: “Just one of those things. Could have happened to anyone.” Or they decide that others are at fault: “They should have known. . . .” “They should have understood. . . .” “They should have asked. . . .” It’s the They Syndrome in action.

The third reason for the prevalence of problems is the direct opposite of the second: Many people who aren’t skilled in the art of communication do know they are not, but they have neither the opportunity nor the motivation to improve, most probably because they don’t see the connection between their communication weaknesses and their inability to truly succeed in their careers. As they see it, they are managing to make do, and that’s good enough.

A fourth explanation for the prevalence of communication gaps is that some human endeavors are so prone to communication glitches that we all fall victim at one time or another. As Donald Norman points out, “. . . if people often seem to be at fault, especially different people over long periods of time, then the first place to look for the explanation is in the situation itself.”1 Take the common act of two people talking to each other, for example. What could be simpler? Yet the opportunities for misinterpretation are endless. The problem is not that people are necessarily poor communicators; rather, we just don’t make the effort—or even realize we need to make the effort—to ensure that we understand each other.

Donald A. Norman, Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1992), pp. 170–71.

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