01 Communication is Broken

The way we communicate is broken. To fix it, we need to talk less and write more. We have to think more. 

That’s pretty much it. I’ll tell you upfront that whatever follows boils down to these twenty-two words. If there is one thing you should remember and hopefully apply, that is it.

Short, catchy messages are great. More people will read these twenty-two words than even the first page of this book. Even if you do read the entire book, you will not be able to remember thousands of words; applying dozens of insights and ideas will not be trivial. When someone asks you what this book is about, you will likely quote these twenty-two words. Such a short message perfectly fits how we typically communicate today. It is aligned with the fast-paced way we share ideas, how much capacity we have to process them, and how we respond to them. This message fits any popular medium, from email to instant messaging, Twitter to LinkedIn. It sounds like a powerful message (if I may say so) wrapped in a small package, and that is not something to be taken lightly. We will soon see just how crucial such a core message is. Yet, I am taking the time to write this book, and I sincerely hope you will find the time to read it further. No matter how well-phrased your core message is, it is practically impossible to lead, drive change, co-create, and deeply interact with people based on just twenty-two words.

Imagine sending an email to your colleagues or your team titled “Improving how we communicate.” The body of your email contains nothing more than these twenty-two words and maybe an invitation to share some thoughts. If email is not your first choice of communication at work, imagine sending this idea as a Slack message. What happens next?

Let’s start with what won’t happen. Nobody will read this email, have an epiphany, and radically change how they communicate the next day. Nobody can communicate better just by reading this sentence, even if everyone believes there is something to it. Regardless of how good this core message sounds (assuming you agree with its premise), you cannot do much with it. Not everything needs to be spelled out and detailed explicitly, but to create something new — to make a profound change — we need more than just a short, catchy message. Even if you find this message appealing, the next step is far from obvious.

What is much more likely to happen is that this short statement will trigger a series of follow-up messages that will soon become an avalanche of questions, opinions, and comments. “What’s wrong with how we communicate today?” “Should I cancel all upcoming meetings and write emails instead?” “Seriously? Aren’t we allowed to talk now?” “Writing takes time. Are you suggesting we should slow down?” “Sounds like bureaucracy to me.” “Are you implying we don’t think?”… You get the point.

Such responses are natural, but, more importantly, they introduce some excellent questions you wouldn’t want to ignore. If you are serious about promoting this idea, you must address them. Next, you (or someone else) will respond to every one of these questions and statements, and you will do so in the only way possible for such a heated discussion. You are going to ‘Reply All.’ This would be a perfect time for everyone to take cover. You included. Depending on the original distribution, what started with twenty-two words will quickly become an endless thread with dozens or more messages. The chances of such a thread reaching an actionable bottom line are not great. The odds of someone finding and understanding the bottom line are even lower. The probability that the team will act upon it and actively participate in this profound change — the one hinted at in the original message — is practically zero. Once the snowball is already rolling down the hill, your best bet is to set up a face-to-face meeting about the idea, its implications, and the backlash it has already created.

If you only had a time machine, this is where you would probably say to yourself, “I should have set up a meeting in the first place.” The problem is that many meetings we attend sound precisely like this textual thread. The phrasing might be different. For better or for worse, the tone might be different. And at least everybody is having the discussion together at the same time and place. However, by the time the typical meeting ends, there is rarely a bottom line; if there is, it is typically unclear or not actionable. Ineffective meetings result in a series of follow-up meetings (the physical equivalent of a textual thread) or a “decision” to take the issue offline. In modern communication jargon, this means back to email.

This chain of events is not all that hard to imagine. Chances are that your inbox is full of threads that started just like the one above, and your calendar is full of meetings you consider a waste of time. It is also likely that this unfortunate communication blunder is not limited to workplace communication; whenever we try to collaborate and achieve something with other people, we risk falling into such communication traps. Deep inside, we know there must be a better way to communicate, drive action, and promote our goals. 

The way we communicate is broken. It really is. People have good ideas and insights, challenging questions and dilemmas, and valuable information to share and discuss. But for the most part, the way we communicate buries all these gems under piles of emails, instant messages, and unstructured meetings. The way we communicate is anything but effective. The way we communicate creates the illusion that communication has taken place.

Numerous surveys are proving how widespread the problem of ineffective communication is. But what really matters is your experience. 

Based on your personal experience, do you agree or disagree with each of these statements:

  • Some communication holds me back, distracts me, or keeps me from achieving meaningful things.
  • Some of the communication I am part of can be described as noise.
  • The written or verbal discussion I am part of can create ambiguity and uncertainty: The bottom line is vague.
  • Some discussions I attend or lead are hard to follow.
  • I sometimes feel I am missing out on something important.
  • Discussions can become overly emotional or vocal without anyone realizing why.
  • I’m not always gaining fresh insights from my interactions.
  • I sometimes feel I am misunderstood when interacting with others.
  • If I miss some meetings, emails, or chats, I find jumping back into the discussions challenging.
  • I could skip quite a few meetings and emails without negatively affecting my work.

If you didn’t agree with any of the statements above, you and the people you communicate with have nailed it, or you are in deep denial. If you agree with at least some of these statements, you are not alone (if that’s any comfort).

Apart from the evident impact on productivity and effectiveness, poor communication can increase burnout and reduce engagement. When we fail to communicate, we get frustrated. When poor communication dominates our day, we feel we are not achieving meaningful goals. Ineffective communication negatively affects individuals, teams, and entire organizations; it affects relationships. In some domains, like workplace communication, the apparent solution seems to be to reduce communication mechanically. This is how policies and practices, such as limiting the number of people in meetings or the length of emails, were conceived. These are not necessarily bad ideas, but they try to relieve the symptoms of poor communication without addressing the root of the problem. If our communication is broken at its core, limiting the time we spend communicating won’t fix it. It might help us feel better because we will spend less time on these ineffective activities, but when we truly need to communicate and create things together, we won’t have the skills to do it well.

Anything we wish to create, achieve, overcome, or imagine collectively requires sharing information and knowledge, asking questions, exchanging ideas, challenging, and refining them. If we do poorly on the communication front, it doesn’t matter if we do more of the same or less of it. To create great things, we need to communicate better. Our problem is not that we have many things to discuss. The problem is that we don’t quite know how to make the most of each interaction. 

So, is talking less really the solution? If we write more, will we automatically improve our communication? What does it mean to think more in the context of communication? The twenty-two-word version of the idea at the core of this book can’t answer these questions. The way you communicate will not get any better just by following this overly simplified advice. These twenty-two words would make a perfect tweet, but no 280 characters can drive a real and profound change. To put this core idea into practice, we have to understand it better. I will need to communicate it more effectively, which, as you can guess, will likely require more than just twenty-two words.

We intuitively feel the way we communicate is broken. We experience it during numerous meetings and as we read and respond to endless emails and text messages. But what does that mean? What makes our communication broken? And most importantly, how can we fix it?

This is where we start our journey toward a better way to communicate and create great things. Together.

Reflection and Practice

Read the ten statements describing various experiences. As you read each statement, think of a concrete example based on your interactions (whether you agreed with the statement or not) and reflect on the following:

  • What in that example impacted the effectiveness of communication (for better or worse)?
  • What could you or someone else have done differently to improve the experience?

In the upcoming days, experiment with doing things differently to improve your communication experiences.

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