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The 7 Deadliest Communication Sins

Many of us are guilty of them, but we can change, conference speaker says

A group of business people in a meeting.

Your CEO says he wants a job description for a new HR manager on his desk "ASAP."

So what does "ASAP" mean? Does it mean after you finish the other three projects you're working on? Does it mean you drop those projects and make this new one a priority? Does it mean tomorrow? By week's end?

Those are the questions you should be asking your CEO, yet too many workers fail to demand specifics about vague instructions like these—which can lead to miscommunication that can cost a company in the ballpark of $5,200 per employee, per year, said Skip Weisman, who spoke at the Society for Human Resource Management's Talent Management Conference & Exposition.

Weisman, president of communication consultancy Weisman Success Resources, Inc. in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., outlined what he called the seven deadliest communication sins that "everyone is making every day that are causing most … challenges" in the workplace.  

"I would venture to say that there is not anything—success, failure, challenge, frustration—that is not directly related to communication," he added.

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

Weisman is a former professional baseball executive who served as CEO of five baseball franchises over a two-decade career, starting at age 26.

It was during those years in baseball, Weisman said, that he made some of the communication mistakes he speaks about today. The biggest mistake, he said, was failing to address the hostility between his wife, who was director of business operations, and a work colleague of hers. Both left the franchise after one especially heated altercation, and 18 months later, he and his wife divorced.

Communication, Weisman said, invariably leads to three outcomes: building a relationship and trust; slowly eroding a relationship and trust; or instantly destroying a relationship and trust. In fact, he asserted, every single time one person communicates with another, there's a 67 percent risk of damaging that relationship, which he called "pretty frightening."  

Here are the  Weisman's seven deadliest communication sins: 

  1. Lack of specificity. Vague terms—for instance, about meeting times or deadlines—leave workers wondering what's expected of them. Such terms, he said, include: "Call me anytime;" "I need it by COB;" "We'll talk next week;" or "Let's do it at your convenience."

    "We need to push back when we know we don't have the information we need to do our jobs," he said. "I don't care if it's the CEO or whoever your boss is. Push back in a respectful way."
  2. Negative instructions. "How many times do you tell someone what not to do, or what to stop doing?" Weisman asked. Saying "don't," he warned, forces the person listening to guess at what you want because it fails to provide guidance for future behavior. "We need to talk instead about desirable behaviors," he said.

  3. Lack of immediacy, urgency or promptness. If a conversation is touchy or uncomfortable, some people tend to put it off. Learn to confront someone as soon as possible, which does not mean being argumentative or disrespectful. "Communicate at the first most appropriate time," he advised, which may mean waiting until emotions have settled down or when you have a private moment to talk with someone.

  4. Lack of respectful rebuttals. Too often, managers or colleagues communicate about our work with comments like "That's a great idea, but…" or "You did a great job, but…" "What comes before the 'but' is negated," he said. "Many people tell me they shut down and stop listening." Instead, couch a suggestion about a colleague's work with comments like "That's a great idea, and…"

  5. Lack of appropriate tone and body language. Two colleagues once told Weisman that he would glare when he didn't like something, and that this made them feel he was angry with them. He had no idea he did this. Co-workers might perceive an off-putting tone in e-mails. Glares, stares, rolled eyes, folded arms, a pointed finger, a raised voice—all can be intimidating during conversation. Encourage workers to be honest with a colleague if the latter's tone or body language make them uncomfortable. Often, he said, the person on the receiving end may not realize how they come across.

  6. Lack of focused attention. If someone is multi-tasking while speaking with you, "how does it make you feel?" Weisman asked. "Do you feel important in that conversation? We're all guilty of this …and we're never going to get rid of it. But be aware of this and reduce the frequency with which it happens."

    By the same token, if people aren't paying attention to you, you may be partly to blame. Be sure to keep your communications succinct. Leave out unnecessary details. Aim for an immediate solution. "Frame the conversation up front and let them know what you need. Say, 'I need your help making a decision on this. Can we get together for 10 minutes? Is now a good time, or should we schedule another time?' Be respectful of other people's time. You'll get more people's attention that way."

  7. Lack of directness or candor. In the workplace, Weisman said, there can be a lot of touchy issues that people dance around. "Who are the elephants in the room no one is talking about?" he asked. "There are 10 people on a team, and only one person is dropping the ball. Do we talk to that one person? No. We call a team meeting. Does the issue get resolved? No. Because that one person doesn't see himself as the problem."

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