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How To Close Communication Gaps That Kill Team Performance

How To Close Communication Gaps That Kill Team Performance

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:

  1. All of us bring our own assumptions, histories, cultures, and preferences to our interactions. These are the filters we see through. They drive both the words and actions we choose to communicate our intended messages, and how we interpret the words and actions of others. If my filters don’t match yours, we’ll probably experience lots of gaps.
  2. Intent and impact are always internal to the individual. Unless directly stated, they can only be inferred by others. And most of us are not in the habit of clearly stating our intentions or openly describing the impact that others have on us. We just don’t give each other enough information to know when there are communication gaps between us.
  3. Most of us believe our interpretations and treat them as facts. Human brains tend to jump very quickly from the facts of a situation (for example, Joe interrupted Sally three times) to our interpretation of those facts (Joe is rude and pushy). Problems arise when we don’t take the time to check out our interpretations and instead respond to others as if our beliefs are true. (In fact, Joe heard Sally presenting inaccurate data, and was trying to save her from embarrassing herself in front of the boss.) As John Wallen said, we know ourselves by our intentions, and we know others by their impact on us.

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:

  • Describing impact. When someone says or does something that has a negative effect on you, don’t assume that was their intent. Clearly describe your experience – what you observed, what you thought, what you felt – and ask “Is that what you intended?” The key here is to take responsibility for your own reaction, and describe it without making judgments about the other person.
  • Clarifying intent. When you become aware that you’ve had an effect on someone that you didn’t intend, the first step is to acknowledge that impact (see below). Then, clarify your intent. Be explicit about what you were trying to achieve. Often, when people hear that what they thought was intended wasn’t it at all (like when Sally realizes that Joe really had her best interests at heart), they’re able to let go of the impact and move on.
  • Acknowledging the other. Even though you didn’t intend a negative impact on someone else, it’s important to acknowledge that it happened. Likewise, when someone else has a negative impact on you, it’s important to take responsibility for your own reaction and acknowledge that the intent was very different. Paraphrasing is a critical skill here, as is letting go of “right” and “wrong.”

The Best Kind of Team Building

communicationWhen 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!

2 Responses to How To Close Communication Gaps That Kill Team Performance

  1. Victoria Mamvura gava says:

    Are the comments public or to the trainers?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Victoria – comments here are public. If you’d like to comment privately, you can reach me through my contact page. Thanks!