Barriers to Effective Communication

It has been said that 90% of problems are failures in communication. And the other 10% 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 tries 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 try to learn something new nearly every 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 emails 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 email server was intercepting 40% of my emails, 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 email 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 email 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. Once 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. Just last week, a client and I discovered that her two reply emails to me disappeared. I thought she might have been sick or otherwise out of commission. She called me on the phone, and all was well.

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 these thoughts 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 and despair, and depression or anger begins.

Your Style

Every person has their own preference in communicating. I have one client who does not use email and prefers a fax(?!) or phone call. Another does not ever want to talk on the phone; email only. Another said, “Email 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. Email can sound stern and unyielding, even angry, in tone. (I’ve been told I “sound” mean and angry!) So before assuming (see above), grant a measure of grace. The ease of email makes it simple to fire off something without adding a couple filters.

It may be that your editor or agent was called into a meeting for the day. Your agent may be traveling or immersed hip-deep in a complicated contract. The editor may have twenty fires to put out before they go home for the day, none of which they had anticipated when they 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 run into?


[An earlier version of this post ran in March 2012. Interesting how the principles still hold true, even when examples change.]

16 Responses to Barriers to Effective Communication

  1. 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!

    • 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!

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

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

  3. Shirlee Abbott June 8, 2020 at 4:02 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for the clarity of your logic and examples.

    For many years, I had a sign in my office: “If it can be misunderstood, it will be misunderstood.” At the same time, I worked with a very wise medical director who often reminded me, “Don’t jump to any conclusions until you’ve heard at least two sides to the story.”

  4. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. June 8, 2020 at 5:47 am #

    Well, Steve, at least you don’t get reported to the Dean! That’s happened to me a couple of times when I didn’t respond to a student who emailed me in the middle of the night, so I feel your pain. I haven’t even mentioned the student advocate’s office or Dr. Helper, who is a snitch …..but I digress.
    Yes, good communication is vital and sometimes we just need to give folks the benefit of the doubt.

    • Steve Laube June 8, 2020 at 7:16 pm #


      Ugh. There’s another issue in communication. Expectations.

      If they are not set properly from the beginning the other party creates their own!

  5. Bill Bethel June 8, 2020 at 6:33 am #

    Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him (NASB).

    • Steve Laube June 8, 2020 at 7:18 pm #


      That verse is one of the truest proverbs ever spoken.

      Take any theological issue as a beginner. Read one side of the argument and you are convinced.
      Then read the other side of the argument. And you are convinced again.
      The read the first side again.
      And you are hopelessly confused. 🙂

  6. Bryan Mitchell June 8, 2020 at 6:49 am #

    I’m dealing with a communication barrier now, so this blog post is very timely. My agent contacts me well enough, but I have two book offers. I found one; he found the other. When I ask him about the publisher who expressed interest to him, he tells things about the publisher but doesn’t give me the name. I’ve asked him more than three times as kindly as I could, but I still haven’t received a straight answer. We’re to discuss these offers on Thursday, and I will address this. It’s possible that there’s a misinterpretation through our emails, but it’s just as likely, if not more likely, that getting scammed at least through the lens of my understanding. Worst case scenario is that I’ll end the relationship I have with my agent and try to earn a better one through working hard with the publisher I found.

  7. Loretta Eidson June 8, 2020 at 8:01 am #

    Communication is vital and I only have accolades for you and your team at The Steve Laube Agency.

  8. Jeannie Delahunt June 8, 2020 at 8:05 am #

    Awesome post!!! Important not to jump to imagining the worse, when the solution could be as simple as a phone call or checking spam.

  9. Jeanne Takenaka June 8, 2020 at 9:42 am #

    This truly is an evergreen post, Steve. Communication is pivotal in this business. How wonderful that you are willing to communicate in whichever way works best for your clients. I’m sure that helps the relationship a lot.

    I’ve found grace is an essential in communicating with others, for all the reasons you listed. When we give grace, we choose to think the best rather than the worst about another, which is helpful when we are unaware of the whole situation.

  10. Linda Riggs Mayfield June 8, 2020 at 12:44 pm #

    One barrier to writers’ communication is “delivering the mail to the wrong address.” It violates the Matthew 18 Principle of whom to go to first.

    Some time ago one of my doctoral dissertation clients complained that my last critique of her work was mean and hurtful. But she didn’t complain to me about it–she emailed all the other scholars in her cohort and forwarded my comments to them. One of them lambasted me in emails to me and their whole class for my “meanness” to her friend/classmate, calling into question my academic preparation, the reputation of the university that conferred my doctorate, my ethics, my claim to be a Christian, etc. It was awful. I responded gently in my own defense, but her attacks continued and worsened, so I just ignored the rest of them. I kept working for the client as if nothing had happened until she hired a statistician who sold her applications that weren’t even appropriate for her data and she chose to believe him instead of me. Her statistical results were “garbage,” (GIGO–Garbage In Garbage Out) so I told her I couldn’t help her explain those research results because I didn’t understand them (TRUE!) and I’d just resign and let her work with him. We remained friends and several other members of that class who had read the scathing emails and my defense hired me to consult on their dissertations.

    Now there is a short paragraph in my Work-for-Hire client contract I sign with every new client, specifying that any complaints or differences of opinion are to be brought first to me. i want to facilitate effective communication!

    • Steve Laube June 8, 2020 at 7:22 pm #

      It something all students and writers need to be taught…. how to handle critique or criticism (they are not synonyms!).

      Pity those poor students as they attempt to go into the unyielding world where they will eventually find that their hurt feelings won’t go well with their employer.

  11. Rich Bullock June 9, 2020 at 8:09 am #

    A wise boss once told me: “If you have more than two email exchanges with someone who seems to be antagonistic, pick up the phone and call them.”

  12. Kristen Joy Wilks June 9, 2020 at 8:55 am #

    Yeah, communication is hard. Our brains fill in any empty spots with details from our own experience and so what seems perfectly clear to one person, can be completely different in another person’s head. I was working on cleaning up brush at our Bible camp with someone who said to “have the boys pile the brush by the fire side.” Hmmm … what fire side. There is a building at the camp that my 102-year-old grandfather and my mother occasionally call “The Fire Side Lodge” it has hence been renamed “The Registration Building” and more recently “Bobcat.” So in my head, a head that associates “fire side” with a building that has not been called “the fire side lodge” for a good twenty years except by older folks, I immediately thought that it was a pretty strange place for a pile of brush, so maybe I should clarify. It was a good thing I did, because he meant “fire side” as it piled at the side of the fire pit out in the meadow. Ah … fire side.

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