When Communication Blows Up

and four ways to still create a good outcome.

In a recent situation, I was reminded that regardless of how much we think we’re on top of our communication skills, or, how we think we’ve got our words ‘just right’ we have no control over how they land in someone else’s ears and are interpreted in another’s brain… You might have come across this when you have received an ‘out of the blue’ inflammatory response from a colleague, or when someone has just shutdown on you in a conversation. All of a sudden, with one fell swoop you’ve gone from ‘I’m all over this communication thing’ to ‘well…maybe I just spoke in another language?’

At this point, regardless of how well you thought you had communicated what you were trying to say,   you have reached a crucial crossroad. You can choose to either:

1. give an irrational, emotional reaction


2. give a rational, calm response.

Breaking this down further, you can either respond, passively or aggressively (irrationally) or you respond assertively (rationally). If you respond passively, you might retreat. Say sorry, shut down yourself and step away from your intended communication. When you’re a passive communicator, you tend to put your needs behind others and therefore there is low respect for your own boundaries. This type of communication also tends to put you in the position of the victim. Their reaction to whatever you said evoked an emotional response in you and in turn, you make yourself smaller to step away from confrontation.

If you respond aggressively, you have also fused with the emotion of what you are responding to though your outward reaction is different. Aggressive communicators will often accuse the other person, or let their emotions control their response. When you respond aggressively you tend to assume the role of a persecutor, you will try and make yourself bigger than the other person and may even lay blame on them for the misstep. Also, by responding aggressively, you often fail to respect another’s boundaries, which can make them feel threatened, fuelling more emotive responses.

Finally, you can respond rationally and assertively. When communicating from here, you tend to be able to communicate your feelings, thoughts and desires and not be wound up in the whirlwind of emotion. You can dance in the conversation, stepping back, forward and sideways. You can gain further understanding, clarify, counter and acknowledge all from the standpoint of getting the other person closer to what you had tried to communicate and make the communication breakdown smaller.  Assertive communication isn’t about making sure you are seen as ‘right’, nor is it about avoiding a confrontation. It can involve compromise, compassion and acceptance that a difference of opinion or perspective is okay. It’s about how you get to where you were headed in the first place, and, ensuring there is still a relationship with the other person at the end of it.

So how can you do this?

1. Ask to try again

If you feel that you didn’t do the greatest job in articulating what you wanted to say, acknowledge it, and ask them if you can try again to get closer to your point.

2. Inquire about the response you received

Sometimes, when we’re met whether a less than ideal response, we are so taken aback we get stuck on the broad response and emotion that was thrown our way. Ask the other person to get more specific by exploring the response, emotion or criticism that came your way. ‘I can see I have just upset you, can you tell me why so we can work through this together?’ Or, ‘Can you explain that statement a bit further so I can understand?’ Getting the other person to become more clear on their criticism or explaining their reaction helps you find ways to continue to move forward with the conversation. Greater insight increases appreciation of another’s viewpoint. When you can understand it, you can more effectively address it. If you don’t, it can be like playing lucky dip, hoping you pick up the right problem or reason for the reaction to address.

3. Acknowledge the response and address your standpoint again

If you feel you have articulated your point clearly, you can acknowledge or agree with the criticism that has come your way without letting up your demand. ‘I’m sorry you disagree with the way this has to be done, if I could make it easier for you I would. Unfortunately, I cannot because…’

4. Use an I-Statement

Finally, if despite your best efforts you continue to feel misrepresented, unheard, you’re frustrated or angry and need to let them know, or, you simply need a shift in the conversation or the situation, you can use an ‘I-Statement’. The formula is as follows:

  • When you (describe their reaction)
  • I feel (describe your emotion)
  • because (describe the effect of their behaviour on you)
  • and what I would like you to do instead is (ask for what you want).

This might sound like ‘When you continue to shut down and get short at me after I offer to try and understand your perspective better I feel frustrated because you leave me with no options to help you, or move towards a solution. What I would like you to do instead is keep communicating with me so we can find possible solutions together.

Not jumping to the first reaction that leaps into your head at these pivotal moments is a crucial leadership skill. It’s self-regulation in action. It helps the most junior Pharmacists communicate with the most senior, creates space for respectful, open communication and encourages everyone who is involved in such a conversation to do better.

You may have heard the saying, ‘how do you change culture? One conversation at a time…’ It is in the heat of these moments, at these intersections, we shape the culture of our workplaces and mark how we are seen within them.  
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