One of the best ways to learn about a topic is through examples; ineffective communication is no different. Unfortunately, many people struggle to identify ineffective communication because the examples they have been given are either too obvious, unhelpful, or so specific to a situation that they are not replicable in the real world. Because of this, effective communication remains challenging to understand, unclear, and unaccomplished.
Understanding how to identify ineffective communication will help individuals avoid misunderstandings and barriers and accomplish their goals through communication techniques. This article will explore ineffective communication and the factors that can lead to it. And provide a valuable, fictional example to help readers understand when communication is ineffective and how to avoid it in the future. It will apply to a workplace and even a business environment.
Ineffective communication is speech, written language, body language, or other forms of communication that fail to accomplish the intended purpose. Effective communication techniques will ensure that the recipient understands the point that the speaker or writer intends to convey. It is the exchange of information so that both the sender and recipient understand that information in the same way.
Ineffective communication means that this message is lost at some point in the process and that the parties cannot understand the information conveyed in the same way. This can occur in the way the sender conveys the message or in the way the recipient interprets the message.
Effective communication is one of the most significant factors when it comes to the workplace environment, productivity and longevity at a job, the ability for people to stay in a relationship, and happiness across many areas in life. The more effective communication in the workplace, the better employee, partner, and person can be. However, communication is multifaceted and requires at least two, if not many more, parties.
Creating effective communication from any side can be difficult (especially communication in the workplace), and many people are unable to do so in every area. Because of this, ineffective communication finds its way into the world and creates barriers to productivity, happiness, and longevity. Therefore, understanding how to spot and correct ineffective communication is critical to ensure that a conversation accomplishes its given purpose and that everyone leaves with the correct information and next steps.
Factors that Make Communication Ineffective:
There are many factors at play when two people are communicating with each other. Each person sends and receives messages through speech and body language in person or word choice through written communication. Each way a person sends or receives a message can impact the effectiveness of the communication. Some factors that can create or exacerbate ineffective communication include:
- Emotions: When a conversation that involves heightened emotions is happening, there is often a risk of miscommunication. Emotions can cause people to misstate an issue or overemphasize another when they are trying to communicate. When ineffective communication arises in such a manner, it can be helpful to pause and try to cool down before sharing anything further.
- Distance: One of the most commonly cited factors for poor communication is distance. When the parties are not near each other, it can be difficult to read body language and see facial expressions that may influence how a statement is interpreted or understood. This factor may not always be easy to influence. Still, it is crucial to understand that if the parties are separated by distance, effective communication may need to be more precise or direct. Emotions may need to be communicated rather than implied.
- Digital Communication: Often, alongside distance, will be the reliance on digital communication like video conferencing. While digital communication is a great tool to help people who are separated by distance communicate, it can cause issues due to the lack of in-person cues that many rely on to gather accurate information. Similar to distance, the best way to overcome this factor is to include video or audio when possible to at least convey tone or to ensure that feelings are adequately communicated digitally.
- Power: When there are real or perceived inequities in power dynamics, this can cause ineffective communication. This can be because of the other structures at play that influence how either party speaks or listens; however, it can be common for the person in a higher position not to listen effectively and cause the parties to misunderstand each other. When this is the case, it is best to establish a space where the parties can feel more equal or give clear guidelines on channels of communication. Space will ensure that a person with a lower status in the hierarchy created by the relationship feels comfortable sharing their information.
- Cultural Experience: Diversity and inclusion are essential steps for workplaces and communities to take, but they can come with a need for a better understanding of the differences in effective communication across cultures. Some cultures are more direct in their communication style, while others prefer a more indirect approach. If someone has not experienced communication with someone from a different culture, it can cause ineffective communication. This can be addressed by encouraging cultural competencies, active listening, and patience as the parties figure out how to communicate.
- Ignorance: Similar to cultural experience, ignorance and bias can influence how parties communicate and lead to ineffective understanding. Bias is a conscious or unconscious dislike or mistrust of another person based on a person’s characteristics. Ignorance is inexperience with a different person or communication style, but this inexperience is often intentional. When there are issues with ignorance or bias, it is often on the part of the recipient, and encouraging active listening can sometimes help overcome this issue.
- Relational Culture: This is most commonly experienced in the workplace but can also happen within interpersonal relationships. If the parties communicating have a status quo that only allows for poor communication and cannot encourage effective communication, it will often result in misunderstandings and other issues. Fixing this will often involve reshaping how the parties view each other and healing their communication style.
Many other factors can play a role in the way that communication is sent and received. Still, this list helps illustrate just how many areas there are where communication can be thrown off course. However, it may not be possible to influence the conversation that manages any or all of these factors. Therefore, one must also learn to spot communication that has gone awry as it is happening.
An Example of Ineffective Communication:
One of the easiest ways to begin to spot ineffective communication is to move through an example and identify how the conversation or communication has become ineffective. The following example will be based on common factors and results of communication that can influence how effective it is.
A young couple is in a grocery store gathering ingredients to make a pie for the first Thanksgiving dinner that they are hosting in their new home. Sam wrote out a list of ingredients and had them organized by the sections in the store so that her girlfriend, often overstimulated by shopping, could move through the store with her as quickly as possible. They are in the canned food section looking for a pumpkin, which is hard to find with the holiday shopping rush.
Sam’s girlfriend Annika starts to get overwhelmed by the number of people in the store and asks Sam to skip the pumpkin for now and return to it once they have everything else. Sam, annoyed that Annika does not appreciate her planning and that she can’t find a pumpkin, the main ingredient, snaps at her to go grab the other things. Annika takes the list without saying anything further and sets off. Sam eventually finds the pumpkin and moves on to the next few stops on the list, but she cannot find Annika anywhere. Eventually, she finds her near the front of the store with the wrong kind of pie crust and whipped cream. Sam sends Annika to the car and finishes the shopping herself.
There are several instances of ineffective communication in this example, so let’s move through each of them based on the reasons they were ineffective:
- Assumptions: There are several assumptions made throughout the example. Sam knows that Annika is overwhelmed, that she will catch on to the gesture, and that she knows what ingredients she wants. These assumptions serve as an example of ineffective communication based on the lack of communication. For example, suppose Sam communicated to Annika that she had set the list up to minimize the time in the store. In that case, both Annika and Sam may have acted differently throughout the situation. Additionally, Sam did not tell Annika that she had specific types of pie crust or whipped cream. Direct communication about a situation is often better than assumptions.
- Emotional Responses: Annika and Sam attempted to communicate with each other when emotions were at play. Annika, rather than telling Sam she was overwhelmed by the number of people, asked Sam to deviate from her path based on the list. Sam attempted to communicate back to Annika while she was frustrated about the situation with the list and the elusiveness of the pumpkin. Both of the partners acted out of emotion, and it created further distance between their intended messages. Additionally, the added pressure of trying to make a “first” something special likely influences everyone’s emotions.
- Tone: In this example, Sam snapped at Annika in the store twice, telling her to go get the other ingredients and to go out to the car. Even if Sam is frustrated with other things like Annika’s overstimulation and misunderstanding of the list, the tone communicates that Sam is annoyed with Annika, and Annika interprets this as her failure. It creates a conflict between the women that would not be there if there was a gentler expression of the situation.
- Lack of Clear Expectations: There are multiple times within the example that Sam and Annika do not set clear expectations of the other. When Sam sends Annika on with the list, she does not communicate that she has a specific type of pie crust or whipped cream in mind. This lets Annika choose for herself, and she ends up failing to meet Sam’s expectations. Annika leaves with the list without setting up a place or time to meet and expects Sam to know where to find her. This could have been avoided by communicating where to find each other. Not setting clear expectations likely deepened the misunderstanding, frustration, and conflict.
There are likely more instances within this example where the parties could have communicated better. Still, another critical aspect of understating communication is to identify how to fix this issue. The result below is how the situation could have gone differently had the parties communicated more clearly with each other.
Before leaving for the store, Sam tells Annika she worries about impressing everyone with her pie. However, Annika reminds her that the people coming for a holiday love them and will be excited regardless of how the pie turns out.
This makes Sam feel better. She also tells Annika that because she expects the store to be busy, she tries to make a list to minimize the time spent in the store to help Annika feel less overwhelmed. Annika thanks her for the gesture, and they head to the store with the plan in mind. Once they make it to the canned food aisle, Sam has a difficult time finding the pumpkin, and people are everywhere, making Annika feel overwhelmed.
Annika tells Sam that this aisle, in particular, is overwhelming her. However, she can move forward with the other ingredients if she doesn’t mind handing her the list. Sam says that would be a great idea, reminds her of the order, and tells her that she wants a package of frozen pie crusts and nondairy whipped cream because her mom is lactose intolerant. Annika nods and agrees to meet Sam at the front of the store in ten minutes or less.
Sam finds the pumpkin, and Annika finds the crust and the whipped cream. They make their purchase and head home excited about the holiday.
Because they intentionally communicated well and avoided ineffective communication, the pair worked as a team and completed their task well. In its best form, communication techniques create a team ready to tackle anything that comes their way.