5 steps for solving a communication breakdown

Emily Rodgers, Content Writer · 07 Dec

Communication is one of the first things we’re ever taught to do. As we grow into adults and enter the world of work, it’s one of the first skills we put on our CV, because it’s in-built in all of us. So why do so many offices suffer from a communication breakdown?

A mixture of personalities combined with different skill sets and job roles create a muddle of communication styles. Therein lie the problems if not nipped in the bud to avoid broken communication becoming the norm.

Here we find out why breakdowns in communication are so common and what we can do to resolve them.

What is good communication? 

Before we dive straight into how communication can go so fantastically wrong, let’s briefly summarise what communication is.

Communication is a two-way street. It is an exchange of information between two or more people. If either party doesn't hold up their end, this leads to miscommunication. Involve more people and you’ve got yourself a bit of a melting pot, especially if they don’t know how to communicate effectively.

The importance of communication in the workplace

Communication is considered a soft skill. Soft skills include such notions as social learning and emotional intelligence. They account for 85% of a person’s success over hard skills, which are things like IQ, training and academic level.

Not only may this stat surprise you, but it should prove how crucial the value of communication is, not only to a person’s success but ultimately to a business as a whole.

In our digital world, there is more emphasis than ever on being able to showcase the critical skill of communication. It is becoming increasingly difficult for new-age workers to know how to reach out to others, connect with them, work as a team and eventually become leaders.

woman talking on the phone holding a laptop in an office

The 5 different types of communication

There are many levels and combinations of communication, especially in the workplace with a myriad of hierarchies that seem to differ office-by-office and team-by-team. This being said, when broken down to its most basic form, there are 5 modes of communication. Here they are with examples of how you would see them in the workplace:

1. Listening

This is known as the aural mode. Listening is not just hearing. It focuses on the level of engagement and the amount of attention you’re paying to the speaker.

If you don’t listen properly and show a genuine interest in what the talker is saying, they can feel unheard and this can be disheartening. Not least, it can encourage them to never want to engage with you again.

It’s surprisingly easy to not listening properly. If no eye contact is made, the speaker is interrupted and no follow up questions are asked, this will indicate that you’ve not given them your full attention.

2. Verbal

This is also known as the linguistic mode. It is not as simple as just talking, but rather the choice of words used and their delivery. This means that how a thought, opinion, or action is verbalised is important. If words are mumbled, garbled and complicated, or don’t carry the proper tone, this could result in a lack of communication.

3. Nonverbal

This is all the parts of communication that are not spoken, or gestural communication. Nonverbal communication is vital. It encompasses first impressions. Before a person has even spoken, they’ve already communicated something to you through their body language, posture, and facial expressions. A person’s nonverbal communication has to match up with the context and tone of what they’re saying, or the interpreter may become confused and read the social cues wrongly, thus resulting in a communication breakdown.

communication breakdown people working in a meeting

4. Emotional awareness

This type of communication is one that is rarely taught. It is the ability to be mindful of the recipient’s emotions and respond in the appropriate way. Reading the room and recognizing when there are conflicts will stand you in good stead. As will empathy, consideration, and building trust.

5. Written

Due to our reliance on email, Slack, and other messaging services, this form of communication will be the one you use the most.

If you didn’t pay attention in English class, this may be your communicative downfall in this category, as grammar and punctuation are expected to be correct when communicating in writing.

It’s hard to show emotion in writing unless the excessive use of smiley faces, exclamation marks, and emojis is acceptable in your workplace. Clarity in the message and interpretation by the reader are both key here.

What is a communication breakdown?

A communication breakdown is defined as a failure to exchange information, resulting in a lack of communication.

How would a communication breakdown occur?

The above definition is quite ambiguous. How does it lack? What information wasn’t exchanged?

Here are some common examples of how a communication breakdown in the workplace can occur to make it clearer:

  • A member of staff making a mistake due to miscommunication or not enough information given in training
  • Two members of staff doing the same task and not realising
  • A colleague not treating a client correctly
  • Certain vital tasks not being completed either on time or to the highest standard because no one in the team is giving updates to each other
  • An overworked manager sending an email missing vital information to their team because they’ve got a client on their case about completing work
  • A junior spreading Chinese whispers about the current state of a project’s completion because they misheard what their manager was saying

Not communicating properly doesn't only affect every single area of the business, but if you expect your teams to work together, the cross-communication between them will take its toll. This means your business goes from well-oiled machine to individual parts that simply cannot function without each other.

communication breakdown man in a shirt on the phone with laptop

Let’s break it down... what are the causes of a communication breakdown?

We’ve touched upon a few examples of the ramifications of a communication breakdown in an office, but how do communication breakdowns occur to get to that point? There are a few key communication barriers that are the main causes of communication breakdowns. Let’s go through them:

1. Lost in translation

This doesn’t necessarily mean a language barrier, but rather how the listener interprets certain words, phrases or sentence structures. This especially occurs across email, where lack of tone can result in the receiver perceiving the message in a different way to what was intended, or a certain word with dual meanings being interpreted incorrectly.

2. The attention span of a gnat

The average human attention span has decreased from 12 to 8 seconds, meaning we have less time to remain engaged before we switch off or start thinking of other things. As mentioned before, there’s a difference between listening and hearing, and, apparently, we can only listen for 8 seconds before our eyes glaze over, thus missing vital information.

This lack of attention means that information constantly has to be repeated, which is not only arduous, but is also frustrating for the speaker.

communication breakdown two women laughing holding coffee on an office sofa

3. Too much information

As you can imagine, there is a plethora of information running through a business. This is especially prominent in organisations with over 200 employees.

Managers are not only trying to control the information they’re receiving from superiors, but are also trying to manage information floating up from juniors and distributing this to all the correct parties. Without a streamlined flow, this level of information, plus the overload of information that can occur if too much is being shared to the wrong people, can descend into chaos.

4. Under pressure

High-stress jobs mean there’s often no time to communicate properly. If you’re on a tight deadline or you’re behind on your target, you’re not going to waste precious minutes formulating the perfect email. Continuing this pattern always leads to greater consequences.

Similarly, if people see you’re constantly busy, they may be put off attempting to communicate for fear of interrupting and being scolded. This means you become the spanner in the works.

What effects can a communication breakdown have on your business?

The above causes can create many difficulties for your company and its people. These can be things such as:

  • Loss of morale
  • Demotivation
  • Embarrassment
  • Anger
  • Tension amongst the team
  • Stress caused to individuals
  • Loss of clients, business and sales
  • Disorganisation
  • Gossip
  • Higher employee turnover/ lack of retention

You’ve likely seen a mixture of each of these in every work capacity you’ve been in. They’re all too common and occur simply because communication wasn’t addressed in the right way.

communication breakdown business huddle meeting with a team in an office

5 ways to resolve a communication breakdown

Putting procedures in place to put an end to breakdowns of communication may seem like a large task, but there are some really simple things you can do to ensure communication is never a problem in your business.

1. Observe

How your business communicates may be engrained in your ethos. You may have one overarching way that you expect every team to give and feedback information. This only works to a certain extent. I’m sure you can see the obvious reasons why.

It’s useless to try and pin down a communication strategy before you’ve even got a team together because you don’t know the personalities of that team or how they’re going to work together.

Take the time to observe how each member of your team works, talk to them in regular one-to-ones and discuss how best they like to receive information, relating to their job role and then how they feel they can best use this information for others.

2. Options

As discussed earlier, we rely heavily on email. Giving your entire team only this tool to communicate with will take you straight to a communication breakdown every time.

Whether giving your team another computer-based tool, introducing more huddles and meetings, encouraging them to pick up the phone more or urging them to physically walk round to a person’s desk, giving them communicative options will help them feel less trapped in the restrictive vices of the email world.

communication breakdown man holding business card

3. Sharing is caring

Updates, updates, updates. If the marketing team has just created a new campaign for the company, let everyone know. If the business analysts have just compiled a really interesting consumer report, share it out.

Site-wide updates are vital for keeping everyone in the know. This is within reason. Your company doesn’t need to know that the new starter worked out how to do a V-lookup in Excel. Save these little vignettes for team-wide updates and share the big wins with everybody.

Don’t rely on email for this. Have large meetings headed up by the CEO once or twice a month. Your team members deserve transparency.

4. Practice makes perfect

Providing consistent training sessions on how and why we communicate as a business, the best way to write an email, communicating across every level of the company and how to give feedback in the most effective way will lift communication breakdowns the more you do them.

These training sessions are also a great way to bring together members of staff who may not already be in direct contact with each other, building morale through one shared goal.

5. One team, one dream

If you resolve a communication breakdown and teach your team the value of communication, the benefits abound. Good communication builds a strong team that people want to engage in, it streamlines work processes, it equips your workers with the tools to take on anything that’s thrown at them and ultimately makes your business sing.


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