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  • Writer's pictureSusan & Renée

When Communication Reaches a Dead End

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

I tried to talk to him about it but he just shuts down.

She gets really defensive when I give her feedback.

I’ve told him over and over and nothing changes.

If you are having these kinds of thoughts about a coworker, you are probably feeling pretty frustrated. You know that you can’t expect changes without communicating what you need but when that communication fails to bring about the desired result you may be left wondering what else can be done.

You may try saying the same thing, using the same words over and over expecting it to eventually stick. Or you might phrase things differently to see if that will bridge the gap. When your frustration peaks, you may end up venting your irritation at a high volume. Surely, this will get their attention, you hope.

But there’s a lot that goes into communicating besides just speaking and listening. Understanding some of the underlying dynamics of communication may shed some light on what to do when communication seems to reach a dead end.

John Gottman, the guru of marriage counseling, knows a lot about how happily married couples communicate. While Gottman’s findings were developed after rigorous observation of marital interactions, what he learned can help us in working relationships as well.

Gottman says that successful communication happens when intent = impact.

Intent, in this case, refers to the message the speaker wants the listener to hear. It encompasses the motivation or purpose of the conversation.

Impact describes the actual result of the communication. It’s what the listener heard and how the communication was perceived.

Unfortunately, intent and impact often do not align in conversations because of personal filters that the message travels through. Both the speaker and the listener have filters that influence both how the message is delivered and how it is received.

Filters are the personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we bring into our interactions with others. They often lie below our level of awareness and we don’t realize they are present in our interactions. A filter can be anything: a rough commute, a sleepless night, a business deal that went south, anticipation of a meeting, a worry about an upcoming bill, or being hungry.

Let’s take this statement as an example: “You can’t put that in the microwave.”

If you said this to a colleague in the breakroom right after having an argument with your spouse or at the end of a grueling day, it could easily come across as harsh and critical. The exasperation felt from those other situations is likely to seep into what you say and how you say it. This then influences how the statement is received by the listener.

Now, let’s say you are the listener and you’re making yourself a cup of tea. You’re hoping the tea will help you calm down and recover from a demoralizing meeting with your boss who ruthlessly reprimanded you for a mistake you made. Your colleague sees you putting your mug in the microwave and says, “You can’t put that in the microwave.” Given your earlier experience, you might hear this statement as punitive and critical, even if it was delivered in a neutral, matter of fact way. It travels through your filter of frustration, embarrassment, or defensiveness and leaves you with negative feelings about the speaker.

When you consider how easily extraneous factors like these play into our interactions with each other, it’s not surprising that communication can so easily fall flat or go awry.

Next week, we will talk about things you can do to help the intent of your communication equal the impact it has on your audience.

In the meantime, try this exercise:

Reflect on a past interaction that did not feel successful. What filters were present for you at the time? How did those filters influence what you did, said and heard?

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