Communication Failure or True Disagreement


Odette Pollar


By Odette Pollar,

There is a famous scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke when the prison warden (the bad guy) says to Paul Newman, (the good guy) "What we have here", spit, "is failure to communicate." When two people disagree, it can be caused by not understanding each position. "I thought you said X" or "I thought you meant Y." Once the X and Y are re-explained, which sometimes requires the help of a third party, the light bulb goes on over the heads of both, hands are shaken and the crisis is past. Sometimes, however, the misunderstanding is not based on miscommunication or a language snafu. The problem is a genuine disagreement. In those cases, talking more can actually make the situation worse and drive the parties further apart.

David Stiebel, author of the book, When Talking Makes Things Worse! Resolving Problems When Communication Fails, says that we have traditionally learned that the best way to resolve disputes is for all parties to come right out and reveal their true interests. This will allow everyone to see how compatible they really are beneath their surface differences. The assumption is that deep down, after enough probing and honesty, we all basically agree with each other. This is not the case. When we talk more and insist upon our view, it can make the other person dig in all the more.

Inaccurate Language

The owner of an office building is negotiating the lease with a new tenant. The tenant wants new carpeting because the existing carpet is damaged in two places. In addition, the original office suite, which has been subdivided into three spaces, contains the fuse box for the entire floor. The tenant wants it rewired so that electrical use can be fairly determined for each suite. The owner keeps saying, "I don’t understand." The tenant keeps explaining why the changes need to be made. In this interaction two things are occurring. First, the owner used the words "I don't understand" as a synonym for "I don't agree." He perfectly understood and observed the worn carpet spots. Had the owner indicated disagreement with the tenant’s desires, the tenant could have used a different strategy in trying to get his ideas across. A great deal of time was lost reiterating the same point in different ways to the complete frustration of both parties. The second issue was that the owner wanted to spend the minimum amount of money on a building that he was planning to sell later that year. Both parties wanted different things and those basic desires were incompatible.

Different Goals

Here is a common situation. The management team has made a decision and progress has begun on a course of action. Holding a meeting because the people affected asked for an opportunity to provide feedback can backfire. Here is why. The group which requested the audience often means, 1) we want you to listen to our feelings/needs/concerns, and 2) we want to influence or change the decision process. Management is calling the meeting to give the group an opportunity to vent. The management team never sees the outcome of the meeting as a part of the decision process. When the meeting therefore falls apart, with everyone leaving more upset than when they arrived, management is often surprised, feeling that it was being responsive by listening. The group in turn, feels ignored and belittled.

Is it actually a misunderstanding or a true disagreement? This is a crucial distinction to make. David Stiebel suggests that you conduct this simple test to identify the nature of a dispute. A true disagreement will persist despite perfect understanding. If you succeeded in explaining yourself, would you change the other person’s mind? Do your goals conflict? If you only listened and understood the other person, would he/she feel satisfied and stop opposing you? If the other person explained herself more to you, would you change your mind? Does the other person benefit by downplaying the problem?

When true disagreements occur, what then? One party must ultimately be willing to change so that negotiations can begin. Only then can the two parties begin to move forward. Let’s sit down and talk about it, does not always work.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: Visit us at: call: 1-800-599-8463.

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