A Failure to Communicate

Don't assume what your colleague is thinking -- in-person discussion can avoid misunderstanding and build constructive relationships, writes John P. Frazee.

November 21, 2014

After seven-plus years as director of faculty relations at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I have come to appreciate the sly wisdom of the famous line from "Cool Hand Luke": “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Although conflicts between faculty members may lack the drama of Luke’s confrontation with the warden in the film, the overwhelming majority of those conflicts originate in a failure to communicate.

Given that academics are a highly verbal lot, one might be surprised that they often struggle to communicate with one another effectively. There are several ways in which the failure to communicate occurs. The first is making assumptions and acting as if they are true. I often use the following scenario to illustrate how things go.

At a faculty meeting the previous Friday, Professors Smith and Jones, who were on opposite sides of an important issue discussed in the meeting, had a heated exchange. The following Monday morning, Jones and Smith walk toward each other in the hallway. Smith greets Jones, but Jones does not respond. Smith begins thinking:

“Hey, why didn’t Jones respond to my greeting? I’ll bet it’s because I disagreed with him at the department meeting last Friday. Well, I have every right to voice my opinion without being shunned for it. He’s being really disrespectful! What kind of person holds a grudge about a legitimate difference of opinion. Jones is a jerk. If that’s how he wants to play it, fine. I’m not going to give him another chance to humiliate me. I’ll be damned if I’ll be the first to say hello the next time I see him.”

This interior monologue takes a matter of seconds, but in it Smith has made several assumptions: that there is a connection between Jones’s lack of response today and their disagreement at last Friday’s department meeting; that Professor Jones’s behavior is motivated by lingering anger over their disagreement and shows his anger by treating Smith with disrespect; that Jones’s anger is a sign of bad character; and that Smith is therefore justified in being angry at Jones. Each assumption builds on the previous one as each is treated as a fact and becomes the basis for another assumption, which is treated as fact in its turn.

Having concluded that Jones is a jerk, Smith is likely to treat Jones in a less-than-friendly fashion the next time they meet. It’s likely that Jones will begin to tell himself a story about Smith’s actions, motivation, and character. And they are off to the races, building assumption upon assumption and inflicting increasing damage to their relationship.

I then offer a different scenario. This time Smith responds differently:

Hey, why didn’t Jones respond to my greeting? I wonder if he’s angry about the faculty meeting last week. I should find out.

Smith goes to Jones’s office and asks, “You didn’t respond when I said hello this morning. That got me concerned that you may be angry about the department meeting last week, so I thought I’d better check with you. Are you angry with me?”

To Smith’s surprise and relief, Jones responds: “Did we pass in the hall this morning? I’m so sorry. My son came down with the flu yesterday, and I was up all night taking care of him. So I didn’t have a chance to work on the grant application that’s due today, and I was exhausted and pretty freaked out this morning. I didn’t even see you.”

With this information in hand, Smith can now respond in a relationship-strengthening manner: “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m sorry about your son. I hope he’s doing better. Is there anything I can do to help you get your grant proposal ready?”

There are several lessons embedded in this scenario. First, and most important, pay attention to what you know and observe about your friends, family, and colleagues as compared to what you assume to be true about them. To put it another way, pay attention to those moments when you make the leap from knowing to thinking you know. If you pay attention, you will be surprised to see how often you make an assumption based on something you’ve seen or heard — and how quickly that assumption morphs into a something you treat as a fact.

Second, having recognized that you’ve made an assumption about someone, test it out right away. The speed with which highly intelligent professionals can put two and two together and come up with five for an answer argues for promptly checking out assumptions before they harden into “facts.”

Third, as Smith did in the second scenario, check your assumptions out in person. It is highly tempting -- and all too easy -- to rely on email for communication, but the potential for adding to misunderstanding by using email is so high that you should avoid it, especially when a relationship is at stake.

Beyond avoiding misunderstanding, having an in-person conversation in a world where email is the dominant form of communication will come across as a pleasant surprise — and a sign of respect and caring.


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