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Closing the Gaps

The first step in closing communication gaps is to heed the warning given over the loudspeakers in the London Underground: Mind the gap. Communication gaps and platform gaps are similar in some ways—for example, both can get you into serious trouble if you’re unaware of them. However, they differ in how you deal with them once you know they’re there. When you’re on the train platform and you spot a gap between platform and train, you can avoid the gap simply by stepping over it as you enter the train. Stepping over a gap won’t eliminate it, however; the next time you return to that station, the gap between train and platform will still be there.

With communication gaps, by contrast, you can do much more than just bridge them: You can reduce their prevalence, size, and impact. You can accomplish this result by becoming attentive to gaps, appreciating their impact, noticing how they affect you and your organization, taking responsibility for the part you played in creating or maintaining them (or in falling victim to them), and by making changes that will minimize them. Certainly, you won’t get rid of every communication gap you encounter; no one can. But you can go a long way toward minimizing the harmful effects. And if we each do what we can, together we can shrink a lot of gaps.

To help you close the gaps, this book

  • describes the many ways that communication goes awry and the potentially damaging consequences
  • helps you become aware of the communication problems you contribute to or fall victim to
  • teaches you ways to become a better observer of the communication problems in your organization
  • provides you with models and tools for resolving or preventing communication problems and gives recommendations on how and when to use them
  • provides you with terminology, concepts, and information that will help you communicate these ideas to others

Four Contexts

Although gaps come in many sizes, shapes, and forms, there are four contexts in which communication gaps most commonly occur. Each section of this book corresponds to one particular context and recommends methods you can use to minimize or prevent communication gaps. The four sections are outlined below:

Section 1: Gaps in Everyday Interactions. The miracle isn’t how poorly we communicate, but how well, given the prevalence of misunderstandings and misinterpretations in our interactions. Still, we could do much better. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 focus on three ways miscommunications occur in everyday interactions. You have experienced all three—I guarantee it!

  • As the section’s opening chapter, Chapter 2 describes communication flaws that lead the intended recipients of a message to react in ways that the senders then describe as “They didn’t listen.” This chapter describes senders’ responsibilities for ensuring that their messages get through.
  • Chapter 3 addresses the way both senders and recipients mislead and are misled by familiar terminology. A comic strip I came across years ago aptly portrays this problem:

    John: Do you have four-volt, two-watt bulbs?

    Ron: For what?

    John: No, two.

    Ron: Two what?

    John: Yes!

    Ron: No.

  • Chapter 4 presents a model for analyzing a message recipient’s experience upon receiving a message. This chapter explains why a person, on hearing a comment or question, sometimes responds in puzzling ways; the chapter also describes ways to avoid or debug such situations.

Section 2: Gaps in Building Relationships. This section’s four chapters discuss the steps individuals and groups can take to work together effectively and to minimize conflict.

  • Chapter 5 presents communication strategies for building the foundation for a strong relationship with those with whom you’ll be working. The recommendations in this chapter will help you avoid excessive, prolonged, or unresolved conflict.
  • Chapter 6 describes differences in communication styles and preferences that can drive you crazy if you don’t understand, appreciate, and respect them. The chapter provides practical suggestions on how to accommodate variety—for the good of all concerned.
  • Chapter 7 offers ideas for dealing with people whose behavior you find troublesome or stressful. Along with a variety of techniques, this chapter describes the use of a Perspectoscope, a tool I’ve invented for gaining insight into other people’s perspective.
  • Chapter 8 focuses on communication techniques to maintain and strengthen relationships throughout a project or work effort. A relationship, like a person, must be cared for if you want it to survive and thrive. This chapter suggests ways of doing that.

Section 3: Service Gaps. Directed at vendors, suppliers, and providers who would rather have deliriously happy customers than ones who are grumpy and irritable, this section contains three highly practical chapters.

  • Chapter 9 focuses on the view from the customers’ perspective, detailing the role of communication in creating customer satisfaction. When, what, and how you communicate can make all the difference.
  • Chapter 10 addresses flaws and failures commonly found when assessing customer satisfaction. The chapter provides essential guidelines for successfully gathering and using customer feedback.
  • Chapter 11 describes service level agreements (SLAs), which help providers and customers communicate more effectively. Beginning with a description of the most common flaws in establishing SLAs, the chapter includes guidelines for creating effective SLAs.

Section 4: Change Gaps. This final section is for you if you’ve faced change in the past and anticipate that you will again in the future—and want to become better at it.

  • Chapter 12 describes the experience of change and presents a model for understanding when and how to communicate during times of change.
  • Chapter 13 provides recommendations for managers, team leaders, and others who want to excel at introducing and managing change.

The concluding chapter, “On Becoming a Gapologist,” offers a special challenge to the readers of this book, by way of a real-life gap that I faced.

Strengthen Your Personal and Organizational Effectiveness

In all four sections, the book focuses on helping you improve your awareness of communication gaps at both the individual and organizational levels so as to enhance your personal effectiveness and your organizational effectiveness.

Personal effectiveness refers to changes you can make on a personal level, in your own actions, attitude, or behavior, for your own self-improvement, or to help your organization. You can make these changes whether or not your organization backs or supports you. For example, if you were to discover that you sometimes speak in a blaming tone, and you modified that tone, you’d be using your personal effectiveness. You don’t need anyone’s permission to change your tone of voice; it’s your choice. The same is true if you decide to return calls to customers sooner than is customary, or to ask clarifying questions to avoid misinterpreting your teammates’ comments. The choice is yours.

To strengthen your personal effectiveness, ask the following questions as you examine the communication gaps discussed in this book:

  • What am I currently doing well?
  • What communication problems have I noticed?
  • How am I part of the problem?
  • What can I do better or differently?
  • What can I change immediately, and what will take time?
  • What commitments am I willing to make?

Notice that these questions focus not just on identifying what you can do differently, but also on recognizing your strengths so that you can use them as tools and catalysts.

Organizational effectiveness refers to changes that require attention and effort at an organizational level, whether that level is your entire organization or a specific subset of it, such as your team or department. These changes to policies and practices may require input, support, or approval by others. For example, instituting new processes for assessing customer satisfaction would be an example of improved policies and practices. So would building strong relationships with other departments after a reorganization and kicking off a project by establishing group norms.

To strengthen your organizational effectiveness, ask the following variation on the previous set of questions as you examine the communication gaps in this book:

  • What are we currently doing well?
  • What communication problems have we noticed?
  • How are we part of the problem?
  • What can we do better or differently?
  • What can we start doing immediately, and what will take time?
  • What commitments are we willing to make?

These questions, too, focus not just on identifying what your organization can do differently, but also on recognizing your strengths so that you can use them as tools. As you read this book, I encourage you to appreciate what you’re already doing well, and to be honest about what you can do to improve your personal and organizational effectiveness.

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