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Common Communication Breakdowns

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Get caught up with all episodes in the Developing a New Focus series.

This is part 3 in my series on communication.
Part 1 – Learning to Communicate: 12 Tips
Part 2 – Communication Basics

Communication is a process. It is circular, both verbal and non-verbal, and it is continuous. You cannot not communicate.

Breakdowns in communication usually occur because:

  • We haven’t developed the skill of communication because we believe we already know how .
  • We are too busy to take time to listen.
  • We avoid what is difficult or we get bored, lazy, anxious, or distracted.
  • We don’t know what we really want, and we don’t know how to ask for it.
  • We haven’t set goals for what we want to accomplish.
  • We don’t know how to organize our thoughts into understandable messages.
  • We don’t feel confident with our communication skills, so we don’t share.
  • We think we may not be understood and fear retaliation or rejection.
  • We don’t want to be responsible for hurting anyone or saying the wrong thing or for owning our feelings.
  • We want to avoid conflicts.
  • We form opinions and resist changing those opinions or deeply held beliefs.

If you are experiencing communication breakdowns, take a week and pay close attention to your conversations.

  • When do they break down?
  • What is happening at that time?
  • What triggers a defensive reaction from you or from the other person?

We grow up talking and responding but are rarely taught communication skills. It is a skill that can be developed when we understand what is involved. Taking time to learn that skill will have enormous benefits.

Communication begins to break down when we stop listening and/or stop checking whether we heard accurately. It isn’t just the words spoken but what was meant by them. Unless we know the intent and what the content meant to the one saying them, we will have problems.

Until we can properly convey what we think and feel without blaming or becoming defensive, we will have difficulties. We end up playing games with one another rather than being honest about how we feel and our commitment to our relationship.

Problems occur when we don’t know how to express what we are feeling and thinking without being accusatory or diminishing our needs.

7 Typical Communication Problems

1. Self-Summarizing Syndrome

Each person continues repeating his/her point of view. Both feel hurt, not heard and neither understands what the other is experiencing nor hears their point of view. Neither stays on the subject long enough to resolve the problem.

If you find yourself in this scenario, ask for a quick timeout to check on feelings, intents and impacts. Ask for feedback. Listen to the feedback. Paraphrase and validate.

When you validate or authenticate the other, you are letting them know you understand their perspective. It is not just saying, “I agree with you,” or “You’re right and I’m wrong.”

2. Off-beaming

The conversation breaks down into rambling. Those involved stray or drift away from what is being discussed in the moment. Either one might start talking about plans for the future or commenting on other things instead of remaining on the subject. This leads to frustration and blaming.

3. Mind Reading

Here we make the assumption that we know what the other is feeling and thinking without checking.

4. Kitchen Sinking

Old history is brought up along with the main issue of every conversation.


“You’re always watching football. Every Saturday you are watching TV instead of helping around the house. You’re just like your father – never spending time with your kids. Your feet are on the table and when your friends were over they left a big mess. You don’t care about us, or your home and you promised to fix the kitchen sink.”

5. Yes-but. . .

The husband has just given a detailed explanation of why his wife should do something a particular way. He has logically thought it through, and it seems like the best possible solution.

However, the wife had thought of another idea and says, “Yes, but…”

The husband assumes she hasn’t heard him and re-states.

The wife also wants to be heard and responds and thinks to herself, “Nothing I say is really important or accepted.”

One accuses and the other defends with “Yes, but…”

6. Cross-Complaining

Each person states a complaint in response to a complaint. Neither person is responding to the other person.

She: “I saw this cute dress on sale.”

He: “Our budget is way overdrawn. We can’t keep spending money frivolously.”

She: “If we hadn’t bought all that hunting gear last month, we’d have more money to spend.”

7. Standoffs

The same thing is repeated over and over. It usually involves catastrophic expectations with fears about “backing down.”

“If I give in to him, I’ll always be in second place.”

Each person desperately wants approval, acceptance, and validation of feelings.

Each person assumes their same position in every communication scenario, usually thinking, “If he/she would just see my point of view…” “If he/she would just be nice to me…”

Giving in is out of the question. Both people assume they are right and the other wrong.

How to end a standoff:

Genuinely try to see things from your partner’s perspective. Summarize how you think your partner feels.

Communicate that you understand your partner’s perspective – that  what is said makes sense and is valid, even if you don’t agree. You can respect and accept the other’s point of view.

Be aware of the catastrophic expectations you may be attaching to things. Tell yourself you won’t let this happen.

Ask: What can we do to make things better?

State clearly, succinctly, and specifically what you are willing to do to make things better. Present your ideas in positive ways.

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