The Top 3 Sources of Communication Breakdowns

These 5 tips help you keep a positive tone in a difficult conversation.

You have something to tell someone, but you’re not sure how they will take it. Your intentions are good. You hope they will see value in what you share. Past experiences tell you the conversation might not turn out as you hope.

When thinking about an upcoming conversation, remember that the information you give others will be interpreted by how they feel about what you say, no matter how logical or fact-based the information is.

There are three elements that will affect the outcome of your conversation as they impact how well you connect or disconnect, and if there will be negative residue in future exchanges. That person will either feel aligned with you as an ally or unsafe with you as a critic or foe.


1. What you assume will happen (assumptions of behavior)

You have ideas about what people will do and say before any conversation. Then, when in the moment, you judge them and yourself based on what you assumed would happen. Did you assume the person would also see the conversation as important and attempt to hear you out? Did you assume the person would agree with you? If you do not get what you assumed or needed, especially personally (e.g., respect, understanding, appreciation, attention, safety), your brain will be consumed with finding faults with the person or with ways to escape. The damage to your self-esteem and the strength of the wall you raise to protect yourself in the future will depend on how vulnerable you or your ideas were when the conversation started.


2. What didn’t happen (expectations of results)

You also judge what people tell you they have done or what ideas they have if you expected something different. You react when things don’t go according to what you want or thought was agreed upon in the past. The person might claim unexpected expenses, interruptions, and impossibilities. Or you simply don’t like what they present.


3. What should happen going forward (perception of desired outcome)

Any good conversation can turn negative depending on the differences in the visions the parties hold of the desired outcome — i.e., what should happen in the end. Often, these visions aren’t clear or shared, so disagreements around goals, priorities, and what is important to consider derail the conversation. If the desired outcomes are clarified, but one view tests the other’s desires or beliefs about what is right and what should happen, the disappointment, sense of betrayal, or irritation with each other’s perspectives could halt forward movement.


5 Tips for Keeping a Difficult Conversation Positive

1. Quiz your brain.

   A. Before you enter the conversation, ask yourself what you assume will happen. Then ask yourself what you will do if you are surprised.

   B. During the conversation, ask your body what emotional state it is feeling in the moment. If you sense any anger or fear in your body (upon checking in with your stomach, chest, and throat), ask yourself what you wanted to happen that did not. Be honest: No matter if you see yourself as a logical, non-emotional person, you are still human; your social needs supersede your logical analysis. Can you ask for what you need? Can you ask to be acknowledged for what you attempted to do? Can you ask for the person’s attention in the moment? Can you ask what is making the person feel disappointed or irritated with you? Your questions could shift the tone of the conversation.

2. Expect the unexpected.

Rarely do things turn out as we expect or assume. You will react when what happens doesn’t match what you wanted or hoped for. On the other hand, if you expect twist and turns, you will have less to protect.


3. Focus on what is in front of you.

Notice when you are stuck in judgment about what the person presents. Calm yourself. Take a breath, and say the word “curious” to yourself. Let your curiosity sink into your heart. Be interested in what is occurring in the conversation, instead of what you think is right or wrong. With an open, caring, and curious mind, ask the person what they thought you would be expecting. If there is a gap in expectations, can the perceptions be reconciled? Can the differences in deadlines, priorities, and what you want to happen in the end be corrected? Can barriers be removed? Are there other options, resources, and people who can help? Try to release your judgments, so you can focus on future results.


4. Separate your opinion from your commands.

Sometimes you must lay down the bottom line and hold people accountable. Other times, you can stimulate thinking so see what else can be done. When you feel the urge to jump in and tell the person what to do, let the person know you are speaking from your opinion and experience, so you aren’t deliberately making them wrong.1 Release your tension. Let go of your criticism. Then ask open-ended questions about what steps they might take next, what new ways they can look at the situation, and what else could occur going forward.

5. Make sure you aren’t hungry or tired before an important conversation.

Your physical needs will override your good sense and increase the intensity of your emotional reactions.2 Take care of yourself, so you have more control over the conversation.

Rumi said, “Out beyond wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Take people to this place of possibility with self-awareness, curiosity, and patience based in self-care.



1 Spenser Harrison, “How to Give and Receive Feedback About Creative Work,” November 13, 2017,

2 Brett Farmiloe, “What to Do When Things Don’t Go According to Plan in Business and in Life,” March 2, 2018.

Originally published at Psychology Today

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