Communication breakdowns and misunderstandings are upsetting, frustrating, and unproductive. In organizational life, communication breakdowns undermine productivity, performance, the culture, and the opportunity to form loyal relationships between customers and the company. In other contexts, like families, communication breakdowns contribute to lower levels of relationship satisfaction and closeness between family members. Putting is mildly, and no matter what context it occurs in, there are always negative consequences when communication goes haywire.
These negative outcomes are the result of a primary rule of communication that states: The speaker’s “intended” communication must equal the “impact” on the listener. Simply put, “Intent equals Impact!” When this formula occurs in the communication between two people, effective communication is the result. When intent doesn’t equal impact, the result is a mixed message or ineffective communication that generally leads to the negative outcomes we have already mentioned.
Regardless of the context (at work, at home, among friends), healthy and productive relationships require clear and direct messages. On the other hand, mixed messages about any topic can become a barrier to successful and satisfying relationships. Over time, a continuous pattern of mixed messages can foster relationships that are strained, frustrating, confusing, and conflictual.
So, how do mixed, ineffective, and unproductive messages get produced? Every message has two parts. Part one includes the actual “content” of the message. Content refers to the actual words or literal meaning of the message. Part two includes the “emotion” of the message and reflects the state of the relationship. Emotions refer to the climate/temperature of the message. All messages have both content and emotion, with the emotion overlapping the content. Think of it this way….Ever seen an M&M? With messages, content is the M&M’s chocolate center and emotion is the colored shell of the M&M. Together, both the chocolate center and shell make a delicious–yummy M&M.
People learn how their intended message impacted another person through a process known as “Feedback.” Feedback is the response system or “communication mirror” that a listener has that enables the speaker to make the necessary adjustments in their message to help the listener understand their intended message. For example, when a manager shares a clear message that is understood by the employee, the feedback from the employee will relay positive and reaffirming feedback to the manager, and as a result, the manager will continue delivering their message. Usually, facial expressions, body gestures like nodding or winking, and non-verbal grunts and uh-huh’s reinforce our understanding and possibly our agreement with the intended message.
In contrast, when the message is unclear, the employee will begin sending messages back to the manager informing them that what they are trying to communicate doesn’t make sense. In this case, the employee will provide feedback messages that reflect their confusion, misunderstanding, disagreement, etc.
Remember, effective communication is a “shared responsibility” between two people. And because communication is a shared responsibility, both speaker and listener can work together to prevent the escalation of a misunderstanding that will eventually lead to a potential conflict—which is never productive to either person.