Communication is a Basic Human Skill; Why Are We So Bad at It?

Posted inCreative Voices

If there’s a key that unlocks success in life, it’s clear communication. Whether we’re talking about love, parenthood, government, business, sports, you name it— if the task at hand involves multiple people, it’s essential that we engage in healthy communication built on clarity, trust, and empathy.

Sophisticated communication is one of our key differentiators as humans. Our ancestors started walking on two feet 2.5 million years ago, but it wasn’t until a little more than 200,000 years ago that large-brained Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, bringing with them the rise of modern speech.

Communication is so baked into human behavior that you’d think we’d be universally better at it. And yet communicating effectively is a persistent challenge in most nonprofit organizations (and in families, and in teams, and in businesses…). People misinterpret each other. Jargon gets in the way. Power dynamics, unclear roles, and unclear expectations muddy decision making. Feelings, motives, and biases get in the way of seeking deeper understanding. External messaging is unclear or unmotivating… the list goes on.

In a world of hijacked messaging and misinformation, communication, both internal and external is more important than ever. As Andrew Sherry of the Knight Foundation observed in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in his article, “The New Communications Imperative” in 2015, “Communications is no longer an appendage to the work, but an integral part. In the information age, it’s a big part of how social change happens.” In the same publication, Sean Gibbons added in his article, “The Case for Communication,” “If you want your ideas to take hold and win, you need to communicate and communicate well. It’s not an option anymore — it’s a necessity.”

Building on these ideas, in order to communicate well externally, it’s important to focus on communicating well internally first.

My Communication Journey

As a leader of a small company, I know firsthand how hard it is to nurture a safe culture that engages in clear, open communication. I have by no means mastered this, but it is work I prioritize every day. I’m on my own journey to center mindfulness and self-awareness, and to build my own understanding of how individual behaviors, rules, and interactions shape team dynamics.

I’ve heard it said that people accumulate enough baggage by the time they’re 30 to warrant seeing a therapist— I would say the same about seeing a leadership coach. Over the years, I’ve worked with both coaches and therapists who have helped me understand how clear communication can lead to drastically better outcomes. I also happen to be married to a leadership coach, Jenna Shapiro, whose company with Stacy Berger, called Women’s Brain Trust, focuses on developing and supporting resonant leaders in the social impact space. This stuff is dinner-table conversation in my house.

As I write this, and as mindful as we try to be about communication, our fully remote team is wrestling with big questions: how to avoid communicating in silos, how to report the information we need so team members can respond quickly, how to inform everyone who’s part of making big decisions in an equitable way. Each of these tensions can create dissonance in our team, so we work to resolve them, knowing that there will be others down the road. It’s the nature of collaboration.

At our dinner table, Jenna reminds me that tension and conflict are normal in teams, and especially in cross-functional teams working from different angles to achieve a mission. Open lines of communication, along with a healthy dose of emotional intelligence, are the prerequisite for normalizing tension and engaging proactively and productively with conflict. So many of us are prewired to be conflict averse, if not downright conflict avoidant. We’re taught that the first sign of tension or discomfort is bad. If, instead, we can work to build muscles around how to communicate effectively and engage in conflict in productive ways, we might just have a chance at building whole teams able to do their best problem solving together.

You May Not See Communication Gaps But We Do

When our studio engages with nonprofits on branding or rebranding initiatives, we often see communication gaps. Many are unintentional and unique to the organization. Sometimes they’re invisible to leaders or considered the cost of doing business. Rarely are these disconnects identified as barriers preventing the organization from clearly communicating what it does— that’s usually blamed on lack of perspective, lack of inspiration, lack of skill, or lack of strategic clarity. Any or all of these might also be at play, but they are usually symptoms of organizational cultures with unresolved internal communication challenges. These communication gaps leave space for conflict, which takes its toll at both the personal and the system level.

Many of these gaps start with the Executive Director, who might hold a lot of institutional knowledge and struggle to share it with their team. The length of their tenure might have led them to accumulate an outsized amount of power and control over the organization’s vision. They might have a tendency to micromanage and step on staff toes. These behaviors create cultures of fear that prevent people from innovating and sharing their ideas. For an organization to do its best work, its leader must nurture a culture that values clear, open communication. This habit, in turn, invites the team to actively participate in accomplishing the leader’s vision and the organization’s mission.

Communication gets derailed when decisions and initiatives are handed down from on high to the teams responsible for making them happen; without context and meaning, those folks are left wondering why things are the way they are and how those decisions were made. When leaders don’t fully understand the technical work that’s required to bring the mission to life, or don’t grasp the roles that individuals play and the contributions they make to the team, they’re ill-equipped to balance conflicting points of view and to resolve conflict.

Brené Brown addresses this issue in Dare to Lead, with the concept of “painting done.” Rather than just handing down a task, leaders are better off explaining what “done” looks like and why it’s important, and inviting the person being asked to do the work to ask questions and suggest solutions.

In her research, Brown identifies the top cultural issues leaders around the world identified as obstacles to impact and success:

  • Avoiding tough conversations
  • Spending unreasonable amounts of time managing problematic behaviors
  • Lack of connection and empathy
  • Stifling smart risks and bold ideas
  • Dwelling on setbacks and disappointments
  • Shame and blame instead of accountability and learning
  • Opting out of conversations about diversity out of fear
  • Ineffective and unsustainable problem solving
  • Gauzy organizational values that are hard to measure
  • Perfectionism and fear

I can attest to witnessing some form of all of the behaviors in both the organizations we’ve worked with and within our own walls. This stuff is hard and, being mindful of the last point on Brown’s list, we won’t ever achieve perfection. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t constantly strive for improvement in ourselves and across our teams— our organizations’ success depends on it.

Before we even start talking about branding and execution, it’s important to work on having healthy interpersonal communication within your team so you can set them, and your organization, up for success. After all, branding is an exercise in communication. If communication within the organization isn’t working, branding won’t save you.

7 Strategies for Improving Communication

Being a leader is hard. Making impactful decisions is hard. Running an organization of any size is hard.

But in an environment that lacks healthy communication, leadership and decision making and management are even harder.

Fortunately, communicating effectively and healthily is a skill that we can constantly work to develop. Many of us have taken a university class or professional development course on interpersonal communication. But I’ve gained the most from real-world experience: watching what happens when I’m clear and open with my team, observing the fallout when I mess up, and vowing to do better in the future.

I’ve landed on seven strategies that have helped me improve my communication style as a leader of my own team and as a consulting partner to our nonprofit clients. Some of these were learned from coaches, some from the wisdom of my colleagues, and others from personal values and experiences.

1) Building authentic relationships. Help your organization’s employees, at all levels, know that you see them as people, not just co-workers. Relationships are built from a continuous stream of small interactions, not from landmark moments.

2) Make the implicit explicit. A prerequisite of a healthy, equitable, and inclusive culture is clarity. Clear purpose, values, reporting structure, roles and accountabilities, and processes are all critical in leveling the information playing field. Providing important context and reasoning when asking people to take on a task and leaving room for interrogation yields better work.

3) Co-create a code of conduct with the team. Belonging is our first value. Without safety, there can be no belonging. Establishing clear values, principles, and behaviors that guide how we interact with each other helps us navigate difficult situations together knowing we’re doing so from a place of emotional safety.

4) Foster an environment of trust. This falls entirely on us as leaders: to hire the right people and then let go of control so they’re free to do the work. When we trust our teams, we can remove ourselves from day to day work so we have time to think about the bigger picture, and so team members have the space and independence to innovate.

5) Make space for all voices. We set the tone for this, both formally and informally. Go out of your way to ensure everyone in the organization feels important and empowered to contribute. Establish a mechanism in meetings where they can count on having the microphone, and keep your office door (real or remote) open so they know they can talk to you.

6) Function as a coaching leader. One of our main roles as leaders is to set our people up for success. We need to observe our people in action and see where we can help. If we see people trying to work together on similar goals and objectives, but having difficulty understanding each other, we can help them focus on hearing and building empathy for each other, rather than trying to dictate the solution.

7) Establish clear decision-making modes. When you’re weighing an option or action, understand what you need from your team (input or red flags or active participation), and let them know clearly what you expect.

I am by no means perfect at adhering to this incomplete list of strategies, but I can attest that making progress in all of them has strengthened our culture and made it possible for our team to be active participants in our own internal branding and positioning work. I can confidently tell you that checking off even one of these strategies can improve your team’s communication and, in turn, culture. Strong internal communication creates the ideal state for rallying around your organization’s brand and sets you up to make a bigger impact.

We have experience helping organizations recognize their communication challenges— let’s, you know, talk about it.


This essay was originally posted in the newsletter Insights by Hyperakt, a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. Illustration by Merit Myers.