10 Signs of Dysfunctional Communication

Every day I see examples of bad communication. Lately I’ve been
thinking about some of the things they have in common and what you can
do about them. Here’s a “top 10” list, though I’m sure you can add
more to it. Please do, and share.

#1 – Groupthink

With all the disasters that have resulted from bad group decisions,
you’d think we would have learned that free speech is worth more than
conflict avoidance. However, it is the rare organization where most
people can truly speak freely.

To deal with this you have to use a good deal of emotional radar to
scope out when to speak and when to shut up. My personality tends
toward bluntness so I lean that way, but I also recognize that not
everyone appreciates that or can deal with it. I also get scared like
everyone else. So I usually give myself a pep talk in my own head
before I open my mouth to speak (yes, all of these things go through
my head pretty much at once):

• It can be scary to be honest but it’s more important to do things right
• The customer will be better served if I’m honest, even if it’s
uncomfortable to disagree with other people
• It’s OK to think different, even if my opinion is unpopular
• Other people are not automatically “wrong” because they don’t see
things my way
• Stay logical as much as possible…things tend to get heated when
people disagree and if the focus is on rationality it’s easier to get
to a sensible consensus
• It’s OK to try a pilot test, fail, and then try something else
• Try to appreciate the perspectives of the other people in the room
• Set the expectation before I talk that I will be direct (e.g.,
“Forgive me, I’m from New York” usually does it)

#2 – Invincibility mindset

I think it must be a survival mechanism to say that “nothing can touch
us,” because if we really thought about how many bad things could
happen at any one time, we probably wouldn’t have the strength to go

Nevertheless, this kind of thinking is actually toxic to communication
excellence. What you want to be saying to yourself is, we are
completely and totally vulnerable all the time, any time and so must
always be playing both offense and defense on the playing field.

Especially today with social media, a vulnerability mindset is critical.

There actually is no way, to my mind, that you can make people feel
vulnerable when they want to think they are invincible. Generally
there has to be the experience of falling on one’s face in order to
wake up. It hurts, but that’s the reality.

#3 – Resistance to learning

I have this failing myself, but it’s bad. There are so many books,
articles, magazines, Internet resources, classes, etc. out there that
it’s simply a time-waster to reinvent the wheel by trying to figure
things out for yourself every time. Yet that is what some
organizations do—they want to think that their situation is so unique
and demands such a specialized solution that they can’t go with
something that’s tried, tested and off the shelf. But 90 times out of
100, you really can.

The answer to this one is to pursue learning yourself, and share it in
very little bits with others, at just the right time, without doing it
in a way that makes the recipient feel overwhelmed or antagonistic
(i.e. that you’re a know-it-all).

Resistance to learning takes many different forms and has many
different reasons behind it (fear of change, fear of being stupid,
fear of being unable to compete against someone else who already knows
what you’re trying to learn), but in a tough economy, organizations
soon won’t have a choice but to get smarter about how they

The best example I can think of right now has to do with social media.
It’s truly a strange situation that we have this communication tool
that’s absolutely free and yet organizations totally underuse it. But
most of that is due to a complicated mix of fear and inability to see
the business case. Soon we’ll hit a tipping point where the business
case will be obvious, the fear factors will be resolved, and everybody
will start using it routinely.

#4 – Fear of feedback

This isn’t the communicators’ fear of feedback, although that is a
factor—sometimes we can’t admit to ourselves that we haven’t done our
best work (though most of the time, I think communicators are
overcritical of themselves and others). This is the customer’s fear of
feedback, and our resulting tendency to give them what they think they
want, meaning stuff that makes them feel comfortable but that
ultimately doesn’t serve their cause.

I don’t know how to get around this one. Either they want your counsel
or they don’t; either they respond to the metrics or they refuse to.
It’s sort of like the invincibility factor—often we don’t wake up
until disaster hits. But as a communicator you really have a
responsibility to give the customer your best counsel. You can have
the discerning mind to know when they will listen and when they won’t,
and bide your time till you have an opportunity to gain their trust
and confidence. But you can’t just go on forever holding their hand.

#5 – Narcissism

In a nutshell, the goal of communicating is to influence somebody
else’s behavior. You already know what you think and what you what to
do—the point is to get them to think and do the same thing. In order
to do that, you have to be very tuned in to how they perceive things,
process information, look at the world, what media they use and trust,
and so on. In other words, it’s about them, not just about you. Yet a
lot of communicators are very focused on themselves more than the
audience. Their primary filter is, “What do I want to say and how do I
want to say it?” not “What does my audience want to hear and how do
they want to hear it?” (And thus was born many a bad website.)

Of course I’m a total hypocrite because I basically focus on what I
want to say and how I want to say it, but then again I’m not selling
anything and this is a blog. If you’re in any kind of business, you
really have to be thinking about the customer first when you
communicate with them.

#6 – Fear of subject matter experts

I am the first one to admit that I don’t know most things. I don’t
know how the human body works. I don’t know how to change a flat tire.
I don’t know how airplanes stay in the air. And I don’t know how to
cook at all. But one thing I do know is how to help other people
communicate. And it is extremely difficult, at times, when these
people are subject matter experts who resist all attempts to help them
with the defense that “I’m the expert and I know what my audience
wants to hear.”

The truth of the matter is, you do have to find a middle ground
between pure communication and pure subject matter communication. Not
only because the subject matter expert will fire you if you don’t
listen, but also because they really do know the audience well. At the
same time, dysfunctionality can creep in if they’re really just scared
or bad at communicating, and they don’t want you to force them to
change, and you are tempted to let them intimidate you into softening
your stance about what good communication is. (Because then they can
say that “my PR expert said this was OK to release” and mentally get
themselves off the hook should the communication fail.)

All I can say on this one is, you’re never going to stop being afraid
of the subject matter expert, because there is this idea flying around
that technical stuff is important and communication is unimportant and
easy and that communicators are stupid. Fight on nevertheless. Stand
your ground unless speaking up will really have no impact.

#7 – Lying to the customer

I have never actually seen a communicator do this. What I have seen is
the communicator tell the truth, and then get punished for being
honest. But since the customer pays the bills, I’m just saying…don’t
be swayed for any reason. Tell the customer what you honestly think,
what you honestly see. You don’t have any guarantee of being rewarded
for this no matter how diplomatic you are. But at least you’ll be able
to look yourself in the mirror.

#8 – Metrics madness

Oh please, stop measuring quantity of press releases!!! The only thing
that matters is a business result. If you can’t show anything
resembling a result, then show something that gets close. If you don’t
figure out a way to do this, and set aside some time to do it,
somebody in management will force your hand eventually, and the
metrics system will not be to your liking.

#9 – Stovepiping

It’s true that everybody’s got their own headaches to think about, but
in this day and age you can’t afford to keep your head in the sand
like an ostrich. (OK, I don’t know if ostriches really do that…do
they?) If you see a problem speak up. Nicely.

#10 – Defeatism

I. Hate. Negativity. How can you succeed if you predict that you will
fail? Shoot for the stars and you may hit Mount Everest. That isn’t so
bad, is it?

Great example: The 16-year-old girl who decided to sail around the
world. Is she crazy? Maybe. Are her parents nuts for letting her go?
Possibly. Did she get lost in the middle of her trip because of
storms? Of course. But is she a dreamer who’s also a doer, who if she
survives will learn a valuable lesson about how to aim for something
really big in life? You bet. And she will probably run a very
profitable company of her own one day, and maybe even become

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