Daniel Goleman: How to Overcome Communication Breakdowns

A leader’s role can get a bit messy. We all know it’s not just about leading by example, living your values, and giving pep talks. A leader must also be able to identify her team’s weaknesses and find practical solutions. In my experience with organizations, a very common vulnerability is the frequent breakdown of dialogue. Why can’t we connect? Why is there so much conflict? How will this project ever move forward?

I spoke with my colleague George Kohlrieser—Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at one of the world’s leading business schools, the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland—about what gets in the way of healthy, worthwhile dialogue. The kind of dialogue that ensures work get done and measurable progress is made. I’ve summed up his responses below.

When dialogue is great, it allows participants to discover a greater truth. This can be done between two people, or among a whole group of individuals. But to arrive at that greater truth, both sides have to meet certain criteria and not engage in blocking behavior. There are various ways to impede useful dialogue, which I break into two categories, primary and secondary.

  • Passivity. This is simple. If one party is passive, that party is not engaged, and a real dialogue just won’t be possible.
    • For example: Prepare yourself to be fully present for a dialogue. Remind yourself to put your phone away, make eye contact, and sit still. Focus on what the person is saying, not what you’re about to say.
  • Discounting: Whenever there are putdowns or disrespect floating through a conversation, its participants are being discounted. Being respectful is an essential part of dialogue, as is not being taken hostage by a discount, which can happen in a second.
    • For example: Plan your words carefully. Think about how you sound. “Well I just don’t get it” can be taken as a discount. It would probably be wiser to say: “Can you explain this idea a bit more?”
  • Redefining: Not answering questions or blocking them is also called redefining a transaction. This never works for having a great dialogue. And how many meetings are filled with people who don’t answer questions?
    • For example: people may react to how a question is asked, not the question itself. If asked with a gruff tone, people may shut down, tune out, become defensive, or change the subject. Notice your mindset. If you’re angry or frustrated, take a moment to get into a neutral state before starting a difficult conversation.
  • Over-detailing: giving more details than actually are necessary. Now if you think about meetings… and you think about limiting the amount of details shared in them, it would be incredible the amount of time you could save!
    • For example: know when to cut your answers short. If a colleague asks how a call went with a particular client, and you feel yourself ready to vent, take a breath and remember it’s not the time.
  • And finally, The Four Sentence Rule. It’s become pretty clear that a person can really only maintain maximum full attention for only four sentences. Whenever you’ve gone beyond four sentences, be aware that the listener’s brain is on over-alert, and he or she is probably getting exhausted.
    • For example: If you want to be heard, keep your statements concise. When someone has to expend a lot of energy to listen, they tend to just shut down. Your potential for a great dialogue is immediately lost.

And then there’s what I call secondary blocks—generalization, rationalization, exaggeration, and lack of honesty. These also get in the way, but to a lesser degree. Watch out for them.

But when you work to eliminate these primary blocks—over-detailing, redefinition, discounting, and passivity—you will start having much better dialogues. Try it.

How do you overcome dialogue breakdown in your organization? Share your insights in the comments, or tweet them to @DanielGolemanEI.

Additional Resources

The Executive Edge: An Insider’s Guide to Outstanding Leadership

The HR and EI Collection

Leadership: A Master Class Training Guide

What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters