Weekly Editorial

Communication Breakdowns Can Lead To Major Problems (Just Ask Johann Rall)

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Write Office • January 16, 2023

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On a cold, snowy Christmas Day in 1776, Johann Gottlieb Rall, the German colonel of the Hessian troops during the American Revolutionary War, was sitting down to a feast in the town of Trenton, N.J. Rall was there to help England keep General George Washington and the colonial army in check. By all accounts, he was doing a good job (at least up to that point).

Little did he know, Washington and his army of 2,400 men were about to cross the frozen Delaware River. Just before Washington and his troops made their fateful journey, a loyalist farmer found out about the plans and sent a note to Rall.

As he and his mercenaries celebrated Christmas, Rall took the note and put it in his pocket and ignored it. He woke up to Washington’s attack. The Battle of Trenton lasted an hour and Rall died with the unread (or disregarded) note in his shirt pocket.

It is a vivid example of communication gone wrong. If Rall would have simply read the note, Washington probably would have been routed and the results of the war could have turned out very differently.

Everyone has their own personal examples of communication missteps. Heck, I’ve worked in communications all my life and I still have problems communicating properly (just ask my wife). And while poor communication won’t have the same catastrophic results for us as the Battle of Trenton did for poor Col. Rall, it can still cause serious problems, both inside and outside your organization.

So I polled some communications professionals and scoured the web to compile a top 5 communication tips from an amalgamation of sources. From all the tips I found, the following were the most commonly recommended:

Be clear and concise — Skip the flowery words. Use less of them. Outlining what you want to convey and why will help ensure that you include all necessary information. It will also help you eliminate irrelevant details.

Not all communication is verbal — It is important to be mindful of nonverbal communication. According to a Harvard Business Review story, nonverbal cues can have between 65 and 93 percent more impact than the spoken word. And we are more likely to believe the nonverbal signals over spoken words if the two are in disagreement.

Listen actively and speak less — When communicating, some of us forget that it’s a two-way street. We are not just speaking at someone; effective communication includes listening as well. In her blog post, Mastering the Basics of Communication, communication expert Marjorie North notes that we only hear about half of what the other person says during any given conversation. The goal of active listening is to ensure that you hear not just the words the person is saying, but the entire message. That means giving the speaker your undivided attention (and expecting the same in return).

Be confident in what you are saying — When I was teaching journalism, during the chapter on writing reviews (whether for a restaurant, concert, hotel or piece of furniture), I would encourage students to take a strong position and stick with it, whether the review was positive or negative. It is perfectly fine to change your position after consideration, but when you are making a point, make it forcefully.

Silence isn’t a bad thing — Whenever people stop speaking, we have a natural tendency to fill in the quiet gaps with conversation. Silence can be uncomfortable in a conversation. Yet silence can be an excellent way of allowing space for the person you are communicating with to open up. It is a tool I use often when interviewing sources. If I just keep my lips from flapping, my sources tend to open up and fill that quiet space with some of the best information.

Most of these tips are common sense, but it is surprising how quickly I can forget them during my day-to-day conversations. By giving our communications some thought, we can avoid a lot of problems. And it might even help us win a few battles along the way.

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