One or two bad communication habits is all it takes to cause a lifetime of trouble. And with today’s quick and easy methods of communication, it’s all too easy for bad habits to work their way in. You overreact to an e-mail—not for the first time—and send off a furious and damaging reply. Your spouse accuses you of not listening (again) and you have to sheepishly admit (again) that she’s right. You offend your “friends” or followers on a social media platform with yet another ill-advised attempt at humor. Or you can’t resist a snarky comeback to a difficult customer’s provocation, even though you immediately regret your words. When bad communication habits take over, the reputation you worked so hard to cultivate takes a beating.
“Even if you suffer from only one bad habit, it can recur in dozens of conversations and cause damage each time. But the good news is that by eliminating a single bad habit you can prevent many future problems. In fact, nothing else you can do gives you as much bang for your buck as resolving to eliminate a bad communication habit. And there’s no better time to add a bad communication habit to your quit list than the new year,” said communication expert Geoffrey Tumlin.
“This is the best time in human history to be a competent communicator,” Tumlin asserts. “It’s true that it can be incredibly difficult to break free of the bad habits associated with the distraction, expediency, self-expression, and excess that characterize so much of our digital-age communication. Yet if we are willing to cast off some of our bad communication habits, we can optimize opportunities to connect productively and meaningfully with other people.”
“Bad communication habits are the punishment that keeps on giving,” said, the author of the new book Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life.
Here, Tumlin shares seven of the most common bad communication habits. If any of the habits hit dangerously close to home, resolve to improve or eliminate them in 2014:
Bad Habit #1: Letting the Neanderthal pick your words. When we’re agitated, irritated, or frustrated, a battle plays out between our primitive, impulse-driven Neanderthal brain and our more modern, thoughtful, and deliberative brain. And while the Neanderthal parts of our brain are indispensable when we’re in physical danger, our Neanderthal brain is terrible at picking our words. Word selection is better left to our more analytical modern brain, because the Neanderthal prefers to club first and ask questions later.
The problem is that although words can build relationships only slowly, they can cause damage with lightning speed. A blurted retort, a thoughtless tweet, or a hasty remark can—and does—land people in hot water all the time. When the Neanderthal chooses our words, it never ends well.
“A simple but powerful way to improve your communication in 2014 is to stop talking and think for a minute whenever you’re frustrated or upset,” Tumlin asserts. “You don’t need to take a vow of silence, but you do need to pause long enough to keep your more thoughtful and deliberative brain in charge of selecting the words you’re going to express. Even a few seconds can help you to steer clear of the Neanderthal’s exhortations to club someone, can allow you to get in front of ill-advised words, and can provide you with the space you need to self-correct when you’re angry or upset.”
Bad Habit #2: Using authenticity as an excuse for bad behavior. “‘I was just being myself’ sounds harmless, but it’s often an excuse to indulge in destructive behavior,” points out Tumlin. “Smart communicators realize that by focusing on what they want to accomplish instead of what they want to say, they keep their conversational goals in their rightful place—above their feelings in terms of priority.
“Authenticity sounds good in theory, but in practice it often torpedoes our goals,” says Tumlin. “I’m not suggesting that you become a fake, just that you don’t cloak momentarily gratifying, but counterproductive, communication in the fabric of ‘being yourself.’ Poor communication—when your words hijack your goals—isn’t a trait; it’s a choice.”
Bad Habit #3: Multitasking when we should be listening. The digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression, but, ironically, made it harder for anyone to listen. There’s just too much communication junk getting in the way. (Just consider the frenetic activity happening on Twitter at any given moment!) Our thoughts are scattered, our minds wander, and ever-present distractions make it difficult for us to focus on the person right in front of us. In 2014, most of us need to make a concerted effort to reinvigorate our listening skills.
“Intentional listening will make you more present in conversations and will decisively improve your communication,” promises Tumlin. “The funny thing is that people are telling us all the time about what they want, what they fear, and what’s important to them, but we’re often too busy thinking about what’s in our inbox or who just texted us to absorb much of what they’re saying. The ‘old school’ behavior of listening will help you become a much better communicator and will enable you to become far more knowledgeable about the people in your life.”
Bad Habit #4: Asking faulty questions. Questions aren’t always neutral. They make some of your conversations better, but as you’ve probably noticed, many questions make a surprisingly large number of your conversations worse. Even “simple” inquiries can go awry. “Is your mother coming over for dinner again?” or “Did you call Jim in accounting about this?” can cause trouble if the other person thinks there’s a criticism behind the query.
“Some of your relationship problems probably reflect your underdeveloped questioning skills,” says Tumlin. “Faulty questions contribute to many conversational failures and can add anxiety, defensiveness, and ill will to interactions. In general, the more you query simply to indulge your personal cravings to get an answer, to hammer home a point, or to satisfy a narrow personal interest, the more your questions are likely to stifle dialogue. It’s better to focus on what you can learn from or about another person and to ask questions that reflect a broad curiosity about the person or topic you’re discussing.”
Bad Habit #5: Meddling. Our quick, cheap, and easy digital devices allow us to have far too many unnecessary conversations, engage in way too much unnecessary collaboration, and get our hands (and thumbs) on too many irrelevant issues. That’s why smart communicators, like smart doctors, have a good triage system—its categories are Now, Delay, and Avoid—to focus on the most pressing issues, while delaying or ignoring less important matters.
“Problems in the Now category require an immediate, solution-based conversation,” explains Tumlin. “Don’t automatically assign too many issues to this category—this is the fundamental miscalculation your triage system is trying to correct. Delay is your default category. Many issues may disappear completely or resolve themselves without your intervention. Finally, avoid issues that reflect highly emotional, incredibly complicated, and other volatile feelings that reside deep inside another person unless they are impairing the accomplishment of critical work.
“A New Year’s resolution well worth keeping is to have fewer conversations, but to try to make each one count,” he adds. “Most of us are guilty of inserting ourselves into far too many unnecessary conversations.”
Bad Habit #6: Fighting with difficult people. Jane talks too much. Jim is incredibly stubborn. Uncle Billy loves to argue. Your client is moody. Whether they’re controlling, critical, or cranky, the behaviors that make someone a difficult person tend to spark frequent confrontations—even though we’re unlikely to influence these people. For example, we wrestle with Jane to get a word in edgewise. We struggle to change Jim’s mind. We fire a barrage of points and counterpoints into Uncle Billy’s arguments. We try to offset our client’s mood swings. It’s time to quit trying, insists Tumlin.
“At the end of a conversation, the difficult person remains the same, but often you are in a weaker position,” Tumlin points out. “But giving up your desire to ‘win’ by imposing your will on the other person can realistically and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. When you find yourself with no choice but to interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents, and stay focused on your end goal. It’s really all you can do.”
Bad Habit #7: Overreacting. In 2013, we often used more force than needed to accomplish our objectives. We yelled when a measured response would have worked better, sent a blistering e-mail when a more restrained reply would have sufficed, and issued an ultimatum when a firm but gentle statement of convictions would have done the trick. But excessive force frequently causes a destructive cycle—attack, retaliation, escalated attack, and escalated retaliation, etc. No matter how justified you may feel, the bottom line is that using excessive force isn’t usually a winning strategy.
“Exercising restraint during a contentious interaction is challenging, but try to apply the least amount of interpersonal force and intensity necessary to accomplish your objective,” asserts Tumlin. “In other words, bring a stick to a knife fight in order to prevent a conversation from escalating dangerously. Try to stay serious and focused, don’t add any new emotional material, and keep the conversation as brief as possible. Be the calm, controlled, and stabilizing influence on a conversation that’s become heated so you can minimize the chance of permanent relational damage.”
“In 2014, let’s focus on shedding the bad communication habits that are coming between us and the most important people in our lives, because those bad habits prevent us from having the kinds of productive and meaningful interactions we desire,” concludes Tumlin. “Eliminating just one or two bad communication habits will dramatically improve your communication and strengthen your relationships in the new year.”
That’s where his book, Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life, comes in. Full of counterintuitive yet concrete advice, it draws on Tumlin’s experience as a communication consultant to show readers how to unload bad habits, improve conversations, and use today’s powerful digital devices, not to fragment attention and dilute relationships, but to achieve more of their most important goals and aspirations.
Geoffrey Tumlin is the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, a communication consulting company; president of On-Demand Leadership, a leadership development company; and founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations. Tumlin holds a PhD and an MA in communication from the University of Texas at Austin and a BS from West Point. For more information, go to www.tumlin.com.