Chapter Corner

Exploring Communication Breakdowns

Posted in: Features, September/October 2016

The diagram above is a simple communication model yet we often forget it when in the middle of trying to get a point across. I’ve taught this to many associations and it is a core competency of the Business Communication class I teach at the University of Houston, Bauer College of Business. This article addresses the model and breaks it down for busy readers who desire to apply the ideas and principles in their business, professional, and personal lives.
There is a cliché that says, “professionals do not want to be told anything, yet they don’t mind being reminded.” I’ll make the leap that each of you reading this article is a professional, so allow me to remind you of some of the foundations in the communication model.
Here are the five steps: Message, Encode, Send, Decode, and Meaning.
breakdowns.gifIn this model, someone is trying to communicate while someone – or a group – is trying to receive. In between is the challenge, as the message is distorted by encoding and decoding meaning, innuendo, and confusion. In addition, the sending medium can create all kinds of challenges. In this article, I’ll breakout each of the modules and hopefully “remind” the professionals of how to increase effective communication:
Message – This is what needs to be communicated. Be it education, warning, humor, instruction, romance, or a variety of different things we desire to say.

Encoding – We tend to package our words inside various filters and possible Trojan horse models, such as our world view, politics, religion, agendas (public and hidden), implications, imprecisions, and all kinds of emotions.

Sending – We send our messages using vehicles like the written word, the spoken word, email, sign language, gestures, text messages, pictures, emojis, code, voice mail, non-verbal signals, etc. The list is long and the more we add to the message and the encoding, the more difficult/different the meaning will be to decode and attach the correct meaning.
Decoding – If the sender has wrapped their message in encoded meaning, like paper around a fish in an open market, the receiver then proceeds to decode the message using their filters, such as worldview, politics, religion, life experience, innuendo, age, culture, fatigue, and a host of other challenges.

Meaning – The meaning is attached to the message, which might be what the sender intended but often is not close to what the sender intended.

When the message is received in order and correct, great. When there are communication breakdowns, shutdowns, disconnects, failures, and misinterpretations, then the process of repair begins.

Now that you have seen the five step model of communication, I’ll isolate where it breaks down and who is responsible for repairing the communication. 

A communication breakdown typically occurs in the encoding and decoding of a message. Due to the limitless variables the sender is sending and the receiver is unbundling, confusion can occur and often does. When that happens, and it will to you this week or even today, it is the sender’s responsibility to fix it. You see, the way people communicate is often not wrong, just different. Since people are different in many ways, so are the communication styles. People can change, evolve their messaging, and learn to be more effective communicators. Yet when it all breaks down, it is the sender’s responsibility to resend the message in a way in which the receiver can obtain the proper meaning.
Let me break this down into some practical office scenarios and perhaps venture into the deeper waters of relational communication. My caveat is that I am still in the process of getting it right myself! People with the titles of Engineer, Accountant, Insurance Agent, Actuarial, and Doctor often use exact language due to the nature of their business. Math and science for example have clear meanings that can reduce the encoding and decoding of messages and make for efficient communication. Two engineers or two scientists/doctors communicate in a business language that is predefined and they send these communications verbally or using a defined written medium that is then decoded with limited to no misunderstanding. Examples in air traffic control, medical procedures, and military operations are held in high communication with reduced encoding and decoding. Hence they are effective and efficient.
Other areas, such as emails, text messages, and voice messaging can have a great deal of encoding and decoding, which can lead to miscommunication; frustration; and the classic, “Well, I thought you said ______” when clearly that was not what the sender “sent.”
Here is an example:

Allen is a 27-year old college graduate who studied business accounting and engineering. Alice is the 61-year old office manager used to running the office for 30+ years. Allen is more introverted, uses only a few words, and measures his commitments with precision. Alice is an extrovert who needs to warm up with lots of announcement about what she’s about to do, when she’s about to do it, and desires that you engage with her through face-to-face conversation and pleasantries throughout the day. Besides the 34-year age gap, there are lots of things that can create communication challenges between Allen and Alice. Allen uses text and email while Alice does not have a smartphone. Allen encodes his messages with no emotion, just logic, facts, and a few words. When he sends his messages to Alice, she might interpret his shortness with rudeness and disrespect for his elders and authority figures. Meanwhile, Allen received Alice’s message with impatience and frustration because Alice uses LOTS of words; tells stories; and lives in a historical world of previous jobs, client relationships, and community spirit. 
What about the new models of sending, like texting? If email is faster than telephone, then texting is faster than email and “implies” immediacy in sending and receiving. When attaching abbreviations and emojis, the encoding and decoding can take on a whole new world of meaning and interpretation.
Example: Peter sends this text to Lisa: “Hey Lisa, you said lunch this week, WTF?”

Lisa decodes this with shock as Peter has just broken professional protocol with "What The _____?”
Tragically, Peter was trying to say, “Lisa, you said you wanted to go to lunch this week; Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday?” Lisa has hurt feelings, or at least confused feelings, while Peter cannot understand why Lisa is acting so cold to him.
As we rush headlong into new modes of communication using technology, shorthand, texting, emojis, and new tools on the horizon, we are reminded that communication is challenging for some, easy for others, and requires some preventative maintenance to ensure the intended message is received with clarity and lack of confusion based on encoding and decoding. 
Remember that people communicate in many ways based on many variables. It’s not wrong, just different. When communication breaks down, it is the sender’s responsibility to resend the message. The resending might be with less encoding, using a different sending medium, or something creative that allows the receiver to attach the proper meaning to the sent message without decoding.
Curt Tueffert is a regular speaker for associations of contractors who run small business and desire real world applications for their daily challenges. Curt is the VP of Sales Development for DXP, an Industrial Distributor of goods and services which contractors use. This provides Curt with real world, current experience in working with small business professionals, tight budgets, fluctuating markets, and the top challenges faced and overcome by business owners and management level employees.