11 Questions to Uncover Communication Problems

All you have to do is turn on the news to see how a lack of honest communication is affecting the workplace as well as everyday relationships we have with one another. In fact, it seems these problems are very common. Therefore, honest, effective communication is even more critical to teamwork, productivity, and profitability and an organization’s lifelong success than ever before.

People at all levels of an organization must be willing to honestly share the information, ideas, and opportunities that come up on a daily basis. This honest communication must also be done in a time-sensitive manner, because things change so quickly in today’s world. If an organization does not receive critical information in time, it can cost them millions or even billions of dollars. Why? Because problems need to be caught and resolved when they are small, and no organization can afford to miss key opportunities.

People make better decisions when they get an accurate, truthful view of problems and situations. They are more focused, proactive, and creative with their solutions, because they know what the problems are as they occur. And they have all the information they need to respond quickly and effectively.

In addition, honest communication allows organizations to attract and retain talented people, because those people feel as if they can succeed in such an honest and healthy environment. In this environment, people listen to and trust each other. They exchange valuable feedback so that goals are achieved and organizations are properly positioned to seize opportunities.

How are you and your organization advancing in the area of honest communication? Do you think there may be some areas that need improvement? Is a storm brewing? To see if you might have some hidden problems with honesty, please answer these Eleven Key Questions to Detect an Honest Communication Problem. (Although this focuses on work issues, you can easily translate it to personal or home issues as well.) If you answer no to any of these questions, an honest communication problem that could threaten you and your organization may be looming.

1. Do you always react positively when someone shares difficult information or unpopular opinions with you?

Many times we say we want honest communication, but when someone gives it to us, we become upset or defensive. We may respond with a nasty look, a raised voice, or by ignoring what has been said. These types of responses speak volumes to the messenger and discourage this person from sharing difficult information or unpopular opinions in the future. In essence, a negative response trains and conditions people not to be forthcoming. If this continues, we might one day say, “Why am I the last one to know? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” The key is to own up to the situation and create a safe environment. Then people can say what needs to be said.

2. Are you the first to hear and find out about things?

People who are afraid to say things directly to you often tell others in the organization what they truly think and feel. Unfortunately, when you finally hear this information indirectly, it is often severely distorted. Remember the game of telephone? Do you remember how distorted the message became after it had passed through several players? Distorted information thwarts our actions, because it is inaccurate. I have watched many projects and contracts become problematic, because they were built and executed based on hearsay information. Being the first to hear and directly find out facts is the key to handling things efficiently and effectively. That is why some of the best executives and managers develop ways to receive direct communication from their customers, potential customers, and all levels of their staff.

3. Do people tell you everything you need to know?

How many times have you finished a project or made a decision only to find out that people did not share key information and ideas that would have altered or changed what you did? You may have thought, If they had just said something, I might have taken care of this issue more effectively and in a fraction of the time. Key information is often there — we just need to receive it. Honest and open communication is crucial to getting a quality job done on time, within budget.

4. Do people argue, debate, and share opposing opinions in your presence?

President Lyndon Johnson said, “If nobody is arguing, only one person is thinking.” I would add, “or only one person is being honest.” It is normal and healthy to have differing opinions; the key is whether people have the freedom to share those differing opinions, tough news, and other information. If people around you never oppose your ideas and plans, they may not be saying what they are really thinking. If everyone always agrees with you, they probably do not. One reason for this dynamic is that people often suffer from The Authority Pleasing Principle — telling their leaders what they think they want to hear. Many people have been conditioned that the way to make people happy and advance in life is to do just that. Think about how our schooling may have conditioned us in that way. If we gave the teacher what he or she wanted, we were rewarded. In addition to the desire to please, employees often fear potential backlash if they share unpopular points of view. When we try to move forward and make a decision, we find that others are dragging their feet and not doing what we need them to do. In other words, they have not bought into the idea. We need to create a safe environment so people can say what they are really thinking — because receiving difficult information and feedback is essential to taking care of problems before they become huge issues.

5. Do people keep their promises to you?

People who blatantly break their promises may be breaking other promises we are unaware of. As the saying goes, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” Watch out for those who say they may not keep their word on small stuff but will keep their word on the big stuff. This is usually not the case. People who do not keep their promises or who constantly adjust their promises and still don’t deliver are probably not being upfront about something. Sometimes they know inside that they can’t deliver, but they are afraid of our reaction or they don’t want to let us down. Others feel weak or defeated when they admit they can’t accomplish something. So, they are not truthful and upfront about what is really going on. Of course, the failure to come clean only compounds the problem, and in the end everyone pays a severe price. So an undelivered promise is often a symptom of a problem that needs to be discussed and resolved.

6. Can you ask the questions that need to be asked?

People who have something to hide often don’t react well when questions are asked. By getting defensive and having a strong reaction, a person can create an environment in which others back off because they are afraid to ask questions. This enables the hiding to continue. On the flip side, we have to recognize our contribution to the problem and our history of asking questions. For example, have you asked the person questions and then used the information later to punish them — even inadvertently? If so, this may explain why the person is defensive or guarded. So if you are uneasy about asking questions, this might be an indication to further examine the situation.

7. When you ask a question, do people answer it directly?

People who are hiding things often skirt the issue, change the subject, or answer questions in global, ambiguous, or vague ways. Often they gloss over the present situation and jump to the future. In fact, some people not only don’t answer the question, they turn it around and ask you a question that distracts you. This tactic often works. For example, if you ask someone about the status of a report, they may say, “Fine. Just working hard. So, what do you have going on for the rest of the week?” How often have you walked away from discussions thinking, I don’t think they ever answered my question. Further and persistent questioning is often the key to discovering and eventually resolving the problem.

8. Do people tell you consistent things?

If you listen closely to what someone says and they are not being upfront, you will often notice inconsistencies. Not being upfront takes energy, a great memory, and lots of creative stories. Most people are unable to maintain this over time. Their inconsistencies should spur you to probe further.

9. Do the people around you display a range of emotions?

People who only show one emotion are often not telling us everything. Displaying a range of emotions is natural and normal. Have you ever had someone, like a co-worker, client, or a friend, always tell you how great things are or how wonderful you are? Although this might be nice to hear and believe, the reality is that no one is always happy and, in particular, always happy with us. We have all heard stories about someone who thought others were happy only to later discover the real truth — their co-worker was not pleased with their work, the contract was not renewed, their spouse filed for separation, or their child was having major problems in school. So seeing and hearing only one emotion from someone can be a sign of a problem that should be further explored.

10. Do people associate with others who you know to be upfront and honest?

By looking at who people surround themselves with, we can get an indication of the kind of person they truly are. The old saying, “Birds of a feather flock together,” is true. People tend to surround themselves with those who are similar. If someone who claims to be trustworthy is constantly in the company of those who are not, it begs the question: why would they choose to be around people who do not share the same values? There may be a good explanation — the associates may be relatives or long-time friends who have been there during tough times. At the very least, however, someone’s odd or questionable associates should cause you to be extremely cautious until you can fully understand the situation.

11. Are people sharing innovative and even crazy ideas and opportunities with you?

In today’s incredibly competitive work world, we must tap into the resources, ideas, and knowledge of the people around us. Research indicates that many of the greatest ideas do not come from headquarters but the front lines. Staff on the front lines are the closest to the problems, issues, and challenges. They know the way things really work. Without front-line information, feedback, and perspective, an organization can become stale, lose its competitive edge, and ultimately become extinct. This is why we need to constantly ask people for their ideas. Honest communication is not only essential to resolving issues but also in exploring new ideas and opportunities.

If these questions have exposed some problems in your organization or your personal relationships, you are now aware of the situation and can do something about it. Many individuals and organizations don’t ask the hard questions quickly enough to uncover problems before the damage is done. Many people believe it is better not to rock the boat. They just hope things will get better. Maybe it is time to rock the boat and find out what may be lurking below so that you don’t pay an even heavier price later.

Here are three suggestions that can have an immediate impact.

1. Organizations, no matter the size, must take specific and tangible actions to create a safe environment for employees to openly and honestly communicate.

2. Leaders must set the tone and the example by consistently demonstrating honest communication and being open to receive honest communication. They must show that it can be done, it is appreciated, and will be rewarded.

3. Employees need to have or need to be taught the skills and techniques to communicate honestly and effectively. People talk about being honest, but few are actually shown how to do it and produce the desired results. These skills will enable employees to effectively express concerns about thorny or complicated issues without fear of a strong reaction from the receiver.

By approaching this on several levels and from different angles, an honest communication environment can flourish and thrive. This way, people can say what they need to say and find out what they need to find out. Ideas can be freely and safely exchanged, and everyone benefits. One easy, first step is to share the Eleven Key Questions to Detect an Honest Communication Problem as a point of conversation.

If you detect honest communication problems, then iron out a plan to make a significant difference in the level of honest communication. Take action before it is too late!

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