Barriers to Effective Communication

By Steve Laube


It has been said that ninety percent of all problems in the universe are failures in communication. And the other ten percent are failures to understand the failure in communication. In the publishing business, or any business for that matter, this is so true. There are a couple common barriers to effective communication, assumption and expectation.

But I Assumed

Often one party assumes knowledge that the other person does not know. Or someone without knowledge fails to admit their lack and try to fake their way through the situation for fear of being found ignorant. Simple to fix. Just ask if you don’t know and alternatively make sure the other person knows what you are talking about. I learn something new nearly every single day and hope to continue that streak for the rest of my life.

But even  worse, and more common, is assuming the other party is mad at you for some reason. The fear of that “assumed anger” prevents an open dialogue or at least delays it.

Much of our business comes down to relationships and fear or anger prevent them from being healthy.

Why Don’t You Answer?

I once had a client terminate their relationship with our agency because I did not answer their e-mails fast enough or had ignored them entirely. I was bewildered by this and tracked down the problem. My records showed a consistent pattern of answering everything the same day or shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, the author’s e-mail server was intercepting 40% of my e-mails, declaring them spam, and not delivering them (they weren’t even sent to the client’s spam folder!). Unfortunately the author’s trust in me had been broken (due to technological error) and we went our separate ways.

This taught me a good lesson about expectations when it comes to e-mail in particular. Make sure you have an early conversation with your agent or editor or publicist to set out reasonable times for replies. And if that timing goes too long find out if the e-mail was ever received.

It is ironic that we used to make jokes about the Postal Service losing mail. Now it is more likely that a server doesn’t deliver or receive an email. A couple weeks ago a client told me they found an email in their “draft” folder that they thought they had sent to me and had been wondering why I had not yet replied.

Silence is Molten

When someone doesn’t reply and days roll by without an answer the tendency is to start thinking the worst. “They have bad news.” “They hate me.” “My career is over.” “Steve thinks I’m annoying.” “My publisher is going to cancel my contract.” “They have discovered that I really don’t know how to write.” None of which are true. But you feel the need to fill in the silence with some answer. And eventually the answer turns volcanic, at least in our minds. Out of that comes discontent, rage, and the rants begin.

Your Style

Every person has their own preference in communicating. I have one client who does not use e-mail, prefers a fax or a phone call. Another does not ever want to talk on the phone, e-mail only. Another says, “E-mail me before you call so I can drive close enough to the local cell tower so my phone can get a signal, I don’t have any bars in my house.” We try our best to accommodate each client’s unique communication styles. But we aren’t always perfect.

Grace is the Solution

Give each other the benefit of the doubt. E-mail can sound stern and unyielding, even angry, in tone. So before assuming (see #1 above) grant a measure of grace. The ease of e-mail makes it simple to fire off something without adding a couple filters.

It may be that your editor or agent were called into a meeting for the day. Your agent may be traveling. The editor may have twenty fires to put out before they go home for the day, none of which they had anticipated when the got to work that morning. Give that editor or agent another day before lighting the fuse.

Oh, and if you want to rant to your agent about your editor, make sure you double, no triple, check the “To” line before you click SEND. The auto-complete function in your email system can be trouble if you are not careful…trust me.

What other barriers to communication have you found?

And look for Karen and Tamela’s blogs this week as each are on the theme of communication.

19 Responses to Barriers to Effective Communication

  1. Avatar
    Jennifer Major March 19, 2012 at 4:52 am #

    And make sure the language with which you choose to communicate is understood by both parties. Here’s a random tip: American Sign Language is not grammatically identical to North American English. Trust me. If you need to spell the word, do it, don’t hope that the sign you’re using is correct.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube March 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

      I did not know that Jennifer. I thought sign language was universal. Fascinating!

  2. Avatar
    Nancy Mehl March 19, 2012 at 6:28 am #

    You mean I’m NOT annoying???? (S)

  3. Avatar
    Kathryn March 19, 2012 at 6:53 am #

    Great advice Steve. Works in personal relationships too. Thanks for the reminders.

  4. Avatar
    Kim Taylor March 19, 2012 at 7:03 am #

    Loved this, Steve. Thanks. I will step up my game.

  5. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel March 19, 2012 at 7:29 am #

    Great post, Steve. I love the one about not assuming. It’s so easy to let your mind go crazy with all the possibilities, but it’s best if you’re in doubt to just give the person the benefit of the doubt. This works in other aspects of life as well.

  6. Avatar
    Ruth Douthitt March 19, 2012 at 7:54 am #

    Yes, patience is key. I find it helps to always have another project to work on while waiting to hear about another project.

    It keeps your mind busy and provides you with something to tell your agent/publisher about when they do get back to you!

  7. Avatar
    Heather Day Gilbert March 19, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    Ha! Yes, double-check and make sure you’re not forwarding your rant back to the person you’re ranting about! Very helpful post. Communication is the key to any great relationship–work, marriage, family, you name it. Tweeting this one!

  8. Avatar
    gina welborn March 19, 2012 at 9:13 am #

    Last night I received my edits on my Christmas novella. I *thought* I understood how my editor wanted me to respond to her edits, but then I doubted my understanding. So I read what the editor had written to hubby and and him if he thought she meant what I thought she meant or something else. After a lengthy pause in response, he finally said, “Umm, well, ummm.” So I said, “Maybe I should call Laurie Alice.” “Great idea!”

    While I’m glad I did call Laurie and she confirmed my understanding of the edit request, after reading your post, Steve, I realized that I should have just e-mailed back my editor and asked for clarification. Why didn’t I? Probably pride. I didn’t want to look stupid. After all, I had been feeling rather stupid for questioning how to tackle the edits.

    During the first years after I signed with Tamela, I rarely contacted her becuase I didn’t want to impose on her time. I thought me being “nice and considerate” was the polite thing. Only it added frustration because I presumed things. Usually presumed wrong, too.

    Finally I realized that if I needed answers or just a word of encouragment (okay, more often a word of sanity), I could call or e-mail Tamela. Awesome thing is she listens. But if I was one of those complainy, nagging, divaish clients who doesn’t respect an agent’s time, then I could see how my agent would groan every time I contacted her.

    I rather like it when Tamela occasionally attaches a thingy to an e-mail that sends her back confirmation that I received her note. I’ve thought about doing that when I send something important to her. Never have. Does anyone else use that as a confirmtion of reception?

  9. Avatar
    Carrie Turansky March 19, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    This is great advice, Steve. Giving grace and the benefit of the doubt goes a long way. I apprecite the wisdom you shared.

  10. Avatar
    Megan B. March 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    What you said about how our minds interpret silence really hit home for me. I recently did not hear from a member of my writers group for weeks. I knew she was recovering from minor surgery, but after a while I began to worry that she had lost interest in the group and was disappearing. When she did finally email me, I wound up feeling silly for worrying (and letting that worry show through in an email to her).

  11. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan March 19, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    I know of too many times when people have written off an otherwise good relationship over a lost email message.

    If an important email message is not responded to, I will wait a reasonable time and then resend it, along with the added text in the subject line of “Resending.”

    Of course there is always the telephone as an alternate means of communications.

    However, some people I attempt to interact with don’t reply to emails or return phone calls unless it suits them — and when it suits them.

  12. Avatar
    Renee Blare March 19, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

    In today’s age of technology, is it no wonder that the ease of the cellphone, computer or social network takes precedence over the phone call? With the hustle and bustle of the modern schedule, I’ve watched twittering fingers on cells at the doctor’s office, standing in line at a fast food restaurant, or sitting at a red light on the way home from work.
    The ability to communicate in symbols in order to relay the true intentions of your phrases (e.g. LOL, :), etc.) in order to keep from offending people has become an art form. Just like a cell call can be dropped, an email can be lost in cyberspace on the whim of gremlins with funny-looking ears, (At least that’s who I blame it on.)
    I say, if in doubt, pick up the phone!

  13. Avatar
    Amanda Dykes March 20, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    “The ease of e-mail makes it simple to fire off something without adding a couple filters.”

    So true, and something I need to remind myself of as someone who over-analyzes my to-be-sent written communication. Lots of people are just cut-and-dry communicators, and I have to remember — the fact that they got to the point quickly doesn’t mean they hate me. …And what’s more, I could probably take a lesson from their brevity and succinct communication styles.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube March 20, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

      Excellent point Amanda. I tend to be cut and dried. One time a client asked a yes or no question via e-mail. I answered with a “no.” Nothing else. An hour later the client called on the phone wondering why I was mad at them. That person read my one syllable answer as an angry brush off, but I felt all I did was answer the question. The answer didn’t need an explanation in that case.

      The client learned a little about me and rarely asks a yes or no question anymore unless they really want just a yes or a no!

      • Avatar
        Amanda Dykes March 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

        Great lesson in purposeful question-“designing” too– Always good to be intentional with every word.

        I can usually cut at least half of the content in my first-draft communications; otherwise I tend to bury the true message beneath a bevy of preemptive responses to every possible interpretation.

        Thanks for that illustration!

  14. Avatar
    Roberta Hegland March 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    I found out that different email servers (is that the correct term?)will occasionally add a new filter because of spam or problems with hacking. Consequently, I once had to take my laptop to my computer fix-it shop to figure out how to get two of my email accounts to work again – both Google and Comcast wouldn’t send any of my emails. A couple of folks made unkind accusations. Turns out one of my signature lines was blocking my emails on both accounts. It was fixed by eliminating a link on one site and spelling it out on another (as in, StandUp Parenting dot blogspot dot com). Very random and a big pain.

    Also, if you’re like me, you can overlook an email because of the daily volume in your inbox.

    And, Gina, some folks are offended by the confirmation request – I happen to appreciate it!


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