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Mind the Gap: Communication Gaps and How to Close Them

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In this introductory chapter from her book, Naomi Karten explains that communication gaps appear unpredictably and in any number of contexts. You can create communication gaps or fall victim to those created by other people. And you can eliminate them—or at least reduce the likelihood of their occurring.

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This chapter is from the book

Have you ever been in the London subway—or the Underground, as it’s called? If you have, you may have noticed that in some stations of the Underground, the tracks and platform curve slightly between the points where the train enters and leaves the station. Because of the curve, there are gaps at several places between the edge of the platform and a stopped train. A voice on a loudspeaker repeatedly warns passengers, “Mind the gap. . . . Mind the gap.”

Although you’d be unlikely to fall through this platform gap unless you’re thinner than a London telephone book, you could catch your foot or the wheel of a stroller in it, or your keys or wallet could slip through to the track below. Hence, the continuous warnings.

Unlike platform gaps, which result from the configuration of the station and don’t vary from one day to another, communication gaps appear unpredictably and in any number of contexts. You can neither create nor eliminate platform gaps, but you can create communication gaps or fall victim to those created by other people. And you can eliminate them—or at least reduce the likelihood of their occurring.

Consider the following examples, which I address in this book and which are evidence of communication gaps:

  • An organization embarked on a company-wide desktop upgrade. When technical staff arrived to install the new technology, employees asked, “Why are you shoving this down our throats?” The upgrade was a painful experience for both provider and customer personnel.
  • At the start of a software development project, the client asked the project manager for a weekly, written status report. The project manager willingly accommodated. After the project’s completion—on time, within budget, and to specification—the client filled out a satisfaction survey, in which he reported his dissatisfaction with the project.
  • A vendor organization had a four-hour standard for responding to reported malfunctions in its critical hardware components. Unfortunately, vendor and client personnel defined “response” differently, as clients discovered, to their dismay, the first time they called about a malfunction.
  • A network-management group undertook the upgrade of networking technology used by its internal customers, many of whom were highly dissatisfied with the group’s service delivery. Customers asked to be involved in the effort, so the network group complied. Nevertheless, customers remained unhappy.
  • A well-liked manager stopped by the cubicles of several employees on a high-pressure project to see how they were doing and to offer encouragement. She asked one top-notch employee, “How are you feeling?” She was surprised by the employee’s negative reaction.
  • IT personnel, eager to restore their once-positive reputation, implemented numerous service improvements. They were justifiably proud and expected a gigantic leap in customer satisfaction. However, judging from survey results, customers hardly noticed or cared.
  • After a team had wrestled with alternative approaches to solving a thorny problem, the project manager announced the strategy the team would follow. Team members responded quickly and angrily.

Clearly, situations like these can have a damaging or counterproductive impact on projects and relationships. I use the term “communication gap” to refer broadly to a situation in which miscommunication, or the complete lack of communication, adversely affects the work as well as the relationships among the people carrying out the work.

Communication gaps can occur between individuals and groups at all organizational levels, regardless of whether the message is communicated face-to-face, by phone, fax, letter, e-mail, or carrier pigeon. Gaps can occur whenever people offer ideas, present information, introduce change, propose policies, gain input, make recommendations, implement standards, give or receive feedback, or simply converse—whether with customers, suppliers, friends, relatives, coworkers, or teammates.

Communication gaps are pervasive. The vast majority of customer complaints revolve around communication glitches, omissions, and snafus. And few complaints detailed in employee-satisfaction surveys are as prominent as those that involve communication, particularly as it concerns information withheld and distorted. In one large company reeling both from financial difficulties and from the reorganization wrought by a new CEO, e-mail messages to the CEO were top-heavy with complaints, and a survey of more than 7,500 employees revealed widespread anger over poor communication. Such dissatisfaction is not limited to large companies; in fact, the business press regularly reports similar examples from companies of all sizes.

A common misconception is that communication gaps are caused by too little communication. Some are, certainly. Often, however, the problem is the reverse: too much communication. Often, too, the problem isn’t simply the quantity of communication but the kind: Gaps are frequently caused by misdirected, one-way, poorly timed, or badly worded communications. In addition, some gaps result from misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and miscommunications. And sometimes, even if you feel you’ve done everything just right, people will respond in unexpected or puzzling ways.

The Ability to Communicate

In information-technology circles, people are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of being communication-savvy. Many years ago, when I was an IT manager, job postings for technical positions in my company included a list of the technical prerequisites for each job. At the end of each list, the final item read, “An ability to communicate, verbally and in writing.” The ability to communicate was not at the top of the list, nor was it even in the middle; it was tacked on at the very bottom. Inclusion of this crucial skill on the list seemed almost an afterthought, as if serious contenders need meet only the other requirements. If they could also communicate, jolly good.

It has occurred to me in the years since leaving that company that the placement of this prerequisite at the end of the list was no accident; the company was anything but a role model for effective communication (although whether this was the cause or the effect of its limited emphasis on communication skills is hard to say). Memos and reports written by employees were full of run-on sentences, typos, and grammatical errors. Managers, too, often were punctuational illiterates.

But misspelled words and dangling participles were a minor matter compared to some of the issues this company faced. Communication between departments was strained, at best. People in positions of power routinely gave subordinates a hard time. Faultfinding was common when things went wrong—and much went wrong. Customers also suffered from the company’s blaming culture, feeling the impact in the form of service that was, at times, dismal.

It was true that people in the company communicated “verbally and in writing” if you take that phrase to mean hurling words to and fro. E-mail hadn’t yet emerged as a means of communication but that wasn’t a deterrent: Memos abounded, everyone carbon-copied everyone else, and meetings were finger-pointing events. But congruent communication, with all parties seeking to understand and to be understood, was in short supply. Awareness of how to create strong relationships, build trust, manage expectations, and take responsibility for one’s contribution to problems—all of which entail communication—was, at best, limited.

Although I understood that much was wrong in the company, I lacked the vocabulary to describe what I saw, the experience to understand it, and the clout to effect anything more than isolated change. In frustration, I eventually moved on. Since then, as the result of my personal studies, my exposure to wise and caring people, and my business experience as a consultant, speaker, and seminar leader, I’m able to help people—and their organizations—understand their communication difficulties and attain the skills they need to remedy or avoid such problems altogether. This book describes what I have learned about communication gaps.

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