What to Do When Interpersonal Communication Fails

I coach interpersonal communication and I have made many, many mistakes, leading to multiple communication failures. From misunderstandings to dropping the ball, sometimes all the practice and coaching in the world can’t save folks from communication issues.

You’ve been there: you think you’ve been clear as glass. You’ve filled people in on their tasks and information. You think everyone is on the same page…and go time (whatever that means in your world and work) comes along and…everything explodes. Misunderstandings, balls have been dropped and feelings are hurt. And worse, you hear about the annoyance and frustration fifth hand – a person complained about you to another person and that other person told a friend…whew.

How do you identify and fix interpersonal communication failures?

Here are three common failures and some tips and advice to solve the problem – even if you created it:

Unclear Communication

If something makes sense to you, there’s a big chance it does not make sense to someone else. Even if you lay things out in a way that feels 100% crystal clear, there’s a chance that the other person won’t understand you.

Best case? The person you’re explaining things to will ask you for clarification. They’ll bring up what they don’t understand and then you can clarify, leading to a healthy and comfortable conversation, which then will lead to progress forward!

Worst case? The person you’re explaining things to will not ask you for clarification. They’ll smile and nod, and either do the job they think needs to be done, or, skip the things they don’t understand. When it comes time to harvest the work, it’s either undone, incorrect or a whole mass of misunderstandings.

To prevent this, the best you can do (and remember that nothing is foolproof!) is to ask the other person if they have any questions, and then check in after the project or initiative starts. When you’re giving directions or information, use as few words as possible to prevent misunderstandings. Being clear and to the point is always helpful, and prevents some misunderstandings. This particular failure may lie with the other person, so remember you can only “prep” so much.

Too Many Emails

Ah, the emails. My email box can quickly become a hydra – I “clear” it out and poof! Three more appear for every email that I take care of. And they are often from the same person, sending multiple emails on one subject.

Email has become a beast of a communication issue – because it’s so fast and convenient to send an email even when you’re sitting in the bathroom, we tend to over-communicate over email. This could be saying too much, having information presented in a disjointed manner or confusing the flow of conversation.

If you know this is a problem you have, and it’s you sending all of the emails, think about a summary email: be transparent with the understanding that you sent a bunch of emails. And there was a bunch of communication. So you say exactly that, and then summarize the important points in ONE email.

If it’s a problem someone else has, do the same! Send an email that essentially states that there was a lot of information and you simply want to be sure you understand everything that is being asked. Be sure to send it once (don’t add to the problem!).

That’s Someone Else’s Issue

You’re not worried about getting this thing done because someone else has it handled…right?

Are you sure?

We’ve all been there. We don’t do something because we think someone else has it handled. Why should we do it because they have it handled, and we don’t want to micromanage anyone, right?

Problems come in when they don’t have it handled…and we get to the due date…and it’s not done.

This one is easy: confirm who is doing what from the get-go. Don’t assume – it’s not worth it.



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