Earlier this year, a colleague and I did some team coaching with a client and her team. In the course of practicing one of the communication tools we introduced, one of the team members initiated a conversation with a colleague about an incident that happened two years ago, which left him feeling hurt and offended.
Two years. That’s a long time to hold onto bad feelings. And it turns out that this team member’s interpretation of his colleague’s behavior, which led to his emotional reaction, was based on incomplete information. Sure, there were other team dynamics that contributed to the two-year silence – yet I remain struck by how significant an impact simple communication gaps can have. For this person, the incident negatively affected his perceptions of his colleague and trust took a nose-dive. How well do you think these two people were able to work together over those two years?
Communication gaps like this happen all the time. Much of the time, they go unnoticed, and don’t ever get resolved. As a leader, you should care deeply about this. When teams experience communication gaps and aren’t able to close them, misunderstandings and hard feelings can persist, leading to unnecessary conflict, factions among the team, “over-reactions” to minor incidents, and unwillingness to go the extra mile for each other. Bottom line: team performance suffers.
The Interpersonal Gap
The Interpersonal Gap is a model of human interaction that was developed by John Wallen in the 1960’s. It offers a very useful window into how and why communication gaps happen. Even better, it points toward strategies for closing them. A simplified version of the Interpersonal Gap looks like this:
Let’s say you’re Person A. In any interaction, you’re constantly using words and/or actions to accomplish what you intend. Your words and actions have an effect, or impact, on Person B. The Interpersonal Gap appears when the impact on Person B doesn’t match your intent. There are several factors that create these gaps:
The first step toward bridging interpersonal gaps is to learn to recognize them. Look for clues about how your words and messages are being interpreted, and move quickly to address any gaps that you think exist, using one of these strategies:
The Best Kind of Team Building
When team members share an understanding about the Interpersonal Gap and how it works, they can support each other in identifying when gaps occur, and hold each other accountable to describe impact, clarify intent, and make sure that gaps get closed. And as teams develop the capacity to address misunderstandings, resolve conflict, and build trust in the process, that’s when you get high team performance.
What communication gaps have you experienced with your team or with colleagues? How have you closed them? I look forward to hearing your comments!