If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.
– E. Joseph Cossman
Volume 76 | Issue 1
January 2008

From the Executive Director: Communication Breakdown

Marsha Herman-Betzen

I made a New Year’s resolution that might appear surprising to those of you who don’t interact with me on a regular basis. I am going to work really hard at becoming a better communicator in 2008. What is remarkable is that I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees plus 60 additional hours in communication; have taught communication classes on the high school and college level; and have tried to remain current in my chosen academic field by presenting numerous communication sessions at ACUI seminars and regional conferences. But during my last performance evaluation several staff members suggested I could be a better listener and that on any given day my ability to effectively communicate fluctuates between needing a little tune-up to requiring a major overhaul. How is that for humbling?

The old saying, "Those who can’t do—teach," probably fits me. Unfortunately just because you are a good communication teacher does not mean you are a consistently good communicator. Before I become too self- deprecating, I think the key words here are "dependable communicator." The reason I have chosen to write about this topic is because I do not believe I am unique and certainly not alone. I challenge each of you to name a colleague, friend, relative, boss, or partner who exhibits extraordinary communication proficiency most of the time. I believe that while you may be a financial genius, strategic mastermind, technological wizard, or change agent extraordinaire, if you are not a constant, reliable communicator, you will never be truly successful in leading your team, department, or organization; much less excelling or even maintaining satisfying relationships.

"Words that Work: It‘s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear" by Frank Luntz (2007) and "Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and In Life, One Conversation at a Time" by Susan Scott (2002) contain fresh approaches to many of the age-old communication dilemmas without being overly academic, corny, or spouting stock solutions. Both books are easy reads with substantive examples that gave me many insightful moments and, if taken to heart, have the potential to alter some everyday communication snags. In fact, both books served as the impetus for this column. Through these two publications and my own experiences, I’ve developed the following list of five communication challenges many of us face:

Learn to be present.

After many frustrating lunches in the Tudor Room of the Indiana Memorial Union with my mentor and former IMU director Winston Shindell, I finally had the courage to talk honestly with him about the annoyance. I explained that I certainly understood how difficult it was to maintain eye contact or listen to my stories while having lunch in a building for which he had the ultimate responsibility. Couple that challenge with the university politics of prominent, vocal faculty members and high-ranking administrators having lunch nearby, and you can imagine how paying any reasonable amount of attention to your invited guest would be difficult.

Our compromise was to never again have lunch in the union and instead to meet at a downtown restaurant once a month. What a difference changing locations made. Suddenly I felt validated, like I was being heard. I was eating across from someone who was not just physically present but also cognitively engaged. It made me a better listener as well because the conversation now felt more reciprocal. To this day, I cherish the monthy lunch meetings I had with my mentor.

To paraphrase Scott (2002), we should learn to listen to each other as if this is the most important conversation we will ever have with that individual. To me, this is the most prevailing skill to try to develop. We recently had discussions in the Central Office about the effect of checking Blackberries or texting on cell phones during internal or external meetings. Intentional or not, those kind of behaviors convey several messages, and I can assure you none of them are positive.

Scott quotes an influential passage from "The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook," edited by Peter Senge, which summarizes the importance of being present.

Among the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to "hello" in English, is the expression: "sawu bona." It literally means, "I see you." If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying "sikhona," or "I am here." The order of the exchange is important: Until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence. (in Scott, 2002, p. 92)

Be real.

How many people have ever really had lunch together after one of them said, "Let’s do lunch?" Don’t you get tired of those individuals who robotically kiss the air with an insincere greeting, put spin on every utterance out of their mouth, and pretend to be more knowledgeable than you know they are? Every single time I have let myself be the most forthcoming, perhaps even the tiniest bit vulnerable by admitting I don’t know something, retelling a time I was not proud of myself, or sharing a mistake, I connect with the listener or reader in far deeper and more reflective ways. Recently, I had a chance to do that exact thing on behalf of the Association, by sending an e-mail to all of our members telling them The Bulletin would be late and providing an alternate vehicle for some time-sensitive information. There was absolutely no backlash or negative fallout from that simple gesture of organizational honesty, and there rarely ever is. Scott (2002) says:

When our idealized views of ourselves are set in stone, despite evidence that there’s an imperfection or two, (or three) the people in our lives have little recourse other than to work around our flaws or to leave. We can see an organization or a department or a relationship with clarity only when we look ourselves full in the face. (p. 74)

And for all those bottom-line people out there, let me assure you that less-than-genuine conversations are not only time intense, they are costly for both the individual and the organization.

Say what you mean.

When it comes to overusing jargon and buzzwords few groups surpass higher education. What makes it even worse is that the words aren’t really ours; we borrow most of the trendy terminology from business. Recently, I came across a website called MBA Jargon Watch (2006). By the time I got halfway down the list of words, I’d started to chuckle because it was apparent that I was big-time guilty. In the last year alone, I’ve used the following: best practices, buy-in, deliverables, drill-down, dumb-down, facetime, low-hanging fruit, mission-critical, operationalize, paradigm, pushback, robust, seamless, synergy, turnkey solution, value-added, value proposition, and win-win.

One of the exercises I have used when I teach the concept of "say what you mean" lets participants unravel complex, obscure sentences breaking them down to their simplest form. Employing the K.I.S.S. factor (Keep It Simple, Stupid) should be all communicators’ No. 1 priority. For example:

Al Gore and John Kerry, legitimately bright individuals with Ivy League backgrounds, suffered from the same fate. Where an average critic of the Bush administration could attack its foreign policy for "going it alone," John Kerry felt the need to offer "a bold, progressive internationalism that stands in stark contrast to the too often belligerent and myopic unilateralism of the Bush Administration." (Luntz, 2007, p. 5)

Talk about needing a core message! The more concrete, clear, and concise our words are, the smaller the possibility of communication breakdown.

Forgo disingenuous congeniality; conflict can be productive.

When are we going to call each other on unacceptable behavior and quit acting in a conciliatory manner for the sake of the so-called relationship? Higher education’s culture of deadly amiability during meetings is leading us to mediocrity. It happens in so many of our work groups in so many arenas. I am not suggesting we should ever be anything but polite, respectful, and professional, but whatever happened to direct, honest, and sincere, even when it is uncomfortable? Isn’t it far better to confront each other in an open and appropriate manner than in a cunning subversive manner as soon as our colleagues turn their backs?

Earlier this year, I was in a cab with two volunteers on our way to dinner. While travelling through a rather dilapidated part of town, the driver made a racist comment, which we simply ignored. However, as the three of us later discussed his actions with disgust, we regretted our avoidance of conflict. When will we begin to have the integrity to stop disregarding inappropriate behaviors in meetings, in casual conversations, or in a public arena?

Take responsibility for your words.

For a leader, there is no insignificant statement. And boy have I learned this the hard way, mostly because I am the kind of person who thinks and processes out loud. Something I might not have even remembered saying has wound up having a demoralizing affect on someone who was looking to me for guidance and support. British food writer Elizabeth David once said, "There are people who take the heart out of you, and there are people who put it back." I aspire to being the latter but unfortunately have been guilty of being the former. Although I rarely am aware of my communication behavior until after the fact, and would argue that my poor choice of words is not premeditated, I can be sarcastic, use humor inappropriately, be condescending, or exhibit a comfort level that may be presumptuous and not always reciprocated.

My earlier statement about being a better teacher of communication than a good communicator stems mostly from the opportunity to prepare to teach. Similarly with my Bulletin column, both myself and an editor continually review and revise my words, always improving them. Verbal communication is totally another ballgame. Not only do we not get practice runs or do-overs, other factors like lack of sleep, previous interactions, environmental factors, and stress wreak havoc on the message we are trying to send. Those who can consistently, succinctly, and directly think on their feet and deliver accurate and appropriate messages are a rare and cherished asset to any relationship.


Luntz, F. (2007). Words that work: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear. New York: Hyperion.

MBA Jargon Watch. (2006, December 14). Retrieved November 27, 2007, from http://www.johnsmurf.com/jargon.htm.

Scott, S. (2002). Fierce conversations: Achieving success at work and in life, one conversation at a time. New York: Berkley Books.