Houston, We Have a Communication Problem

If you saw Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 then no doubt you remember the phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.” Tom Hanks uttered those words when he realized there was a major problem that could cost the astronauts their lives. Whenever that phrase is used you should take note because something serious is happening. This applies to communication as well as space travel.

Where I work we are going through major changes in just about every aspect of our business. One big area that’s changing is how we communicate with one another. We’re trying to be more open, honest and collaborative in our communication. In a word, we’re striving to be more candid with one another so we can accomplish more. But Houston, we have a problem.

What is candor? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary its “unreserved, honest, or sincere expression.” When we’re candid we’re being sincere in expressing our thoughts and feelings about someone or something.

What holds people back from being candid? In a large corporation perhaps the biggest issue is fear of reprisal if someone up the food chain doesn’t like what they hear. Another hindrance is fear of looking foolish for expressing something others might disagree with. And certainly personal baggage can get in the way. For example, if you were raised in a home where you were constantly shut down, ridiculed or ignored you probably decided long ago that it wasn’t worth voicing your opinions.

A company also has to agree on exactly what candid means. Is it okay to say whatever is on your mind in the spirit of being candid? Someone might think, “What a f#&%ing stupid idea!” but is saying that the type of candid communication a company really wants? If a company is only looking at honesty and sincerity then perhaps it is candid.

But the bigger question is this – will that “candid” approach create a more open environment that encourages conversation or will is shut down dialogue? Based on my 30 years in business I think it would crush any attempt at creating more open, honest and collaborative communication.

Whatever the reasons for a lack of candor, just because its announced that management wants candid conversations doesn’t mean they’ll happen any time soon. Personal change is hard and cultural change is even harder. People usually take a wait and see approach hoping someone will break the ice. Employees want to know, “Is it really safe to speak up and voice an opinion when it differs from those in charge?”

Whenever communication takes place there’s a dynamic between the speaker and the listener. There’s what the speaker thinks he said and what he actually said. On the part of the listener there’s what she thinks she heard and what she actually heard.

A speaker might think he simply asked, “Why were you late?” when he actually came across accusatory because of heavy emphasis on the word “why.” Even if is was an innocent question the listener might have placed more emphasis on “why” than was intended and become defensive. As you might imagine, miscommunication happens easily and often.

When it comes to effectively communicating you can’t change the other person but you can make personal choices that will change you and that could open up the lines of communication. To build a culture where candor is the norm the bulk of the responsibility rests with each person. Here are three simple things you can do to help create a culture of candor:

  1. Preface your words. If you think your message could be misinterpreted consider the point of view of the audience and what they might need to hear first.
  2. Don’t get defensive. Even if what you hear provokes you candid conversation means hearing the other person out. Reciprocity means emotions will be matched unless you make a conscious choice to respond in kind to fear, anxiety or anger.
  3. Discover the real meaning. Ask questions to draw out the real meaning behind the words. It’s often the case that what you hear first is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Houston, we have a problem,” was a distress signal, a call for help. The NASA scientists came through and saved the Apollo 13 crew. When it comes to communications issues we can do the same if we take time to incorporate the three ideas outlined above. Do so and you’ll become a building block in a culture of candor.

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Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer at influencePEOPLE
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is a sales trainer, coach and consultant whose specialty is applying persuasion and influence in sales and customer service situations. He is one of 20 individuals in the world who currently hold the CMCT designation. Brian’s blog, Influence PEOPLE, is followed by people in 200 countries and made the Online Psychology Degree Guide Top 30 Psychology Blogs in 2012.
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