Poor Communication Skills: An Economic Action Plan

My mother taught me the importance of good communication early on. One of her most-used phrases during my childhood was, “talking to you and your sister is like talking to a brick wall!”

I’ve worked with a few lawyers, always in and amoung a larger group of non-lawyers. And I found out that there’s nothing non-lawyers like more than the opportunity to tell a good (or not-so-good) lawyer joke. (Usually to the lawyer. No wonder they bill so high.)


What do you get when you put 2 lawyers in a room?


3 opinions.


The joke is funny (is it funny?) because it’s true.


Lawyers carry the heavy burden (heavy like sacks of money with dollar signs on them) of being the poster children for the trouble with communication—there can be multiple interpretations of it, and multiple arguments for those interpretations.


Communication—written, spoken, or otherwise, is cumbersome.


We are—to some extent, doomed from the get-go.


We all work really hard at being good communicators. We are taught standard guidelines and black-and-white rules for grammar usage and language in grade school.


We take advanced seminars on the intricacies of communication as grad students (Advanced Interpersonal Communications and Narrative Analysis 820 [for the low, low price of $1100]).


And we’re mandated to attend FULL DAY workshops like “Building Rapport Using the Top 10 Power Words” as staff.


(When that fails (and it will) we get to attend “Conflict Management: How to Communicate and Work with Difficult People”.)


The subtleties of the English language and all of its oddities add character and confusion:


We’ll begin with box; the plural is boxes,

But the plural of ox is oxen, not oxes.

One fowl is a goose, and two are called geese,

Yet the plural of moose is never called meese.


You may find a lone mouse or a house full of mice;

But the plural of house is houses, not hice.

The plural of man is always men,

But the plural of pan is never pen.[1]


Add to that our personal interpretations and regional variations (Go on b’y—dat’s some good! What r ye at?), and we have a lot of opportunities for misinterpretation[2].


Which is why we’ve all heard the saying, “There’s 3 sides to every story.”


(And because there’s 3 sides to every story, we have contract law. But I digress.)


So what’s the secret to great communication skills (besides of knowing the top 10 power words)?


I have no idea.


No one really does—if there was one perfect method I’m sure we’d all just do it. And then every single seminar leader would be out of a job. JOBLESS. EVERY ONE OF THEM. And then the government would have to reshoot all those “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” commercials and put seminar leaders in them instead of tradespeople. And the people who sell all the seminar leaders their smart looking pant suits would also go out of business, and they would need a commercial. The whole thing would be an economic disaster for tax payers because reshooting commercials is very, very expensive.


National economic disasters aside, all is not lost. I had a professor who said that if you want to understand what’s being said, just listen instead of talk.


This takes way more practice than the “just” in that statement suggest though—and even when done well it can still lead to a lot of misinterpretation.


But it’s a good first step—no other techniques really matter if you don’t pay attention.


When the communication is written or recorded it’s a cake-walk. You can put everything else aside, and just listen. And then you can listen again—rewind it, read it over, google anything you don’t understand (like “why do cats purr” or “is it insane to have 4 kids”[3]), whatever helps you understand.


But it’s so much harder to give an audience when you have an audience.


We feel a responsibility to do so many other things:


       ok, look alert and attentive but friendly and open;

       respond vocally (mmhmm, yes, absolutely, no—of course not! How ghoulish of her!);

 and visually (smile here, tilt head slightly, furrow brow intelligently, shit—what do I do with my hands… pockets? Don’t cross your arms, that will seem aggressive…).


Those of us who aren’t natural cut-throat negotiators (who bill in correlation to the level of excruciating discomfort they create in a meeting) are bogged down by the concern that if we don’t respond in the expected fashion we’ll seem rude and if we don’t respond quickly we’ll seem stupid.


We’re so busy making others feel comfortable or trying to become comfortable ourselves that we miss the entire point of the communication.


And do you know what happens next?


So many bad things.


After 15 mind-boggling minutes of trying to appear empathetic so newly single Sally doesn’t cry at your best-friend’s wedding shower, you inadvertently agree to take a couple’s kickboxing class so she doesn’t feel like she’s “in this alone” and so she can “get her power back”. That’s what responding before listening gets you.


Or, three weeks after a two hour strategy meeting you realize no one did anything because everyone was so busy nodding at each other no one realized they’d been assigned work. That was not the strategy. (Tip: This problem can be minimized by identifying your workplace “meeting buddy” – this is the person you can go see in private after the meeting to try and figure out what happened at the meeting you were both just in. If done right, it should be a secret, judgement-free zone and one of the most important workplace relationships you’ll ever have aside from The Nut Man[4] .)


It takes some time to get comfortable just listening and being listened to. Have you ever sat with a really good listener? It can be unnerving.


But, according to legend, if you slow down to listen it creates a different pace to the communication which can impact what (and how much) you go away with. (Though it will never totally eliminate the need for a meeting buddy.[5])


It won’t put the seminar leaders out of work any time soon, but it’s something to consider.


What are your successful communication techniques? Have you had any miserable failures? What memorable phrases did your mother use to describe how frustrating you were as a child?






[1] Check out YUNiversity for more clever rhymes and answers to the embarrassing grammar questions that keep you up at night http://www.theyuniversity.net/post/9568083568

[2] Not convinced? Call a drunk Newfoundlander from a cell phone and ask for directions.

[4] Where I’m from, The Nut Man is a man who brings bags of candy and chocolate and mixed nuts to the office once and week to give you hope. If you don’t have such a thing where you’re from, I strongly suggest you find one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYihDAhVPko

[5] Or the need for subtitles on Cold Water Cowboys http://www.discovery.ca/article.aspx?aid=57366

Write a comment

Comments: 2
  • #1

    Anonymus (Thursday, 17 April 2014 09:58)

    I think it is unfair to target your mother in this way, since at the time she made those statements you were likely a teenager and we all know that a teenagers brain may turn off from time to time, thus making it difficult for mothers to communicate effectively with them.

  • #2

    eleventhhourconsulting (Thursday, 17 April 2014 10:16)

    I like to think of my teenage brain as resorting to "power save mode" to retain its awesomeness rather than turning off completely. Though looking back it was under-utilized.