How You Can Avoid a Communication Breakdown

Communication Breakdown Lady Yelling at ManI forget the comedian but I remember the skit. He asks why it is that when we speak to a foreigner who doesn’t speak English, we do stupid stuff like speak more slowly and LOUDER.

“Excuse me. Where’s the nearest gas station.”

“Yo no hablo ingles senor.”


You know what the response will be. It’s funny. Thing is, we do it all day long. We speak to people in languages that are foreign to them. We talk to them about what we care about – not what they care about. We use terms and speak of goals that are incomprehensible at worst and uninspiring at best. There’s only one solution – learn to speak their language.

As a consultant, I was fortunate enough to serve a non-profit hospital system. They were affiliated with the church. Their hospitals were having significant financial troubles. Of course, we came along and found all this money just lying on the floor waiting for someone to pick it up (at least that’s most of the world’s view of consultants – we actually busted our butts crawling through their general ledger looking for places to remove costs without hurting quality of care. Immediately after that, we took the CEO’s watch, took it apart, reassembled it, gave it back to him and told him what time it was).

We found money. A lot. We went into the board meeting and pitched a plan for closing one of the underutilized facilities and saving a bunch of fixed costs. Millions of dollars. It was a no brainer.

We got tossed. Excused. Asked to leave the room immediately.

Why? We were speaking fluent Consultantese.* “Value added. NPV. IRR. CAPEX. Synergies. Project plan. End of the day.” Unfortunately (for us) they were only fluent in Nonprofitese. “The mission. Legacy. The community. Quality of care. Patient service excellence. Giving.”

The result? “Please go redo the plan and come back with something that will allow us to accomplish our mission.”

Classic mistake. We thought in terms of dollars. We were motivated by dollars. We talked about dollars. We were consultants. These things happen.

They on the other hand thought about giving and caring for their community. They had a higher mission and were heaven-bent on accomplishing it. The board was comprised of nuns, monsignors, physicians and a couple of business people to round things out. We totally missed the mark with our message.

We returned a week later. We told them we had found a way for them to accomplish their mission. To have the financial resources needed to serve their community. To be able to care for patients with outstanding service.

It was the same presentation we gave the week before. The same charts. They simply had different wording and conclusions. Our plan was approved. We were finally fluent in the local tongue.

The next time you pitch an idea, make sure you speak to your audience in their native tongue. They won’t change for you. You have to change for them.

*Disclaimer – I’m an ex-consultant. I’m authorized to make up words and phrases as long as I can say them convincingly and with a straight face. One of my favorites ever: “deconflict oversubscription of resources.” Ouch…

If you’re really serious about improving your communication skills and avoiding embarrassing situations like the one I went through, I highly recommend you talk to us about our Structured Thought and Communications program. We spend a lot of time thinking through the message, the audience, and how to position your recommendations such that the audience is receptive to them. Because I don’t care how wicked awesome your mad PowerPoint skills are, if you can’t accurately assess your audience and tailor your message to them, you’re toast.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

2 Responses to “How You Can Avoid a Communication Breakdown”

  1. […] Leaders How you Can Avoid a Communications Breakdown My personal communications breakdown favorite is Reverend Jim’s driver’s exam from […]

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