Furious boss scolding young frustrated interns with bad work results.
ATD Blog

Why Communication Breaks Down

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Imagine your boss sent you an email that read: “Stu’s bill is two months overdue. It’s time to get tough and get prompt payment.”

What did your boss mean by “get tough?” Should you call Stu to request payment? Should you send Stu a letter via U.S. mail appealing to his credit reputation? Should you threaten legal action?

Communication is more than dictating a task. When you have good communication skills, there are fewer chances of misunderstandings that lead to failure and distrust (a breakdown that is sometimes difficult to repair).

My client, Ed, shared his technique for preventing a breakdown: “I have spent most of my career working with technical people—engineers, technicians, and skilled trades. My employees take direction best with a detailed explanation and the opportunity to ask why.”

Another client, Keith, described “holding short team meetings once a week with each of his three areas.” He gives production numbers, any other information needed, and last but not least, a pat on the back.


One client said he needed to be more disciplined in analyzing situations before reacting in the wrong way because he tended to respond with relentlessness.

There are three principles that help to prevent communication breakdown:

  • Selection—being intentional about what we attend to.
  • Organization—being intentional about how we arrange meaning to what we attend to.
  • Interpretation—being intentional about factors we use to draw conclusions about what we attend to and how we arrange meaning.

Here is an example: When I sat in my church pew, there were about 15 people around me. Some said hi, and others looked away from me.

  • Interpretation A: Those who looked away from me are rude and inconsiderate.
  • Interpretation B: Those who looked away from me had other conversations going on.

Our past experiences, assumptions about human beings, expectations, knowledge, and even personal mood can interpret a situation in different ways. Be aware of yourself and of how you form interpretations. The wrong interpretation can cause communication breakdown.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, but it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

These three principles help managers shape the character of their communication, which is the ultimate goal for helping co-workers better understand each other. It is important to know and understand your character of communication; for example, do you try to control the conversation? Does your body language line up with what you are saying? When you have a better understanding of your own character of communication, you will be better able to understand that of others.

About the Author

Carrie Van Daele is president and CEO of Van Daele & Associates (, which features her Train the Trainer System for trainers and subject matter experts. Her company was founded in 1996 as a training and development firm in the areas of train the trainer, continuous process improvements, and leadership. It is a Certified Woman-Owned Business. Carrie is the author of  50 One-Minute Tips for Trainers. She is also a public speaker and a featured writer for several publications and organizations, such as the Association for Talent Development,  Women of Achievement magazine,  Quality Digest magazine, and  FM & T magazine. Her degrees include an AA from Evangel Bible College, a BS from Indiana University, and an MSM from Indiana Wesleyan University. 

About the Author

Ronee Franklin is a training associate at VanDaele & Associates. 

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