Easy and Hard Communication Tasks

Some communication tasks are easy, and some are hard.

An example of an easy communication task is to describe your home or apartment. Faced with this task, most people complete it easily. Interestingly, most people approach it in the same way—they provide a verbal “tour” of their house:

As you come in the door, there is an entry way. To the right is the dining room and to the left is the living room. Straight ahead is a short hallway with the stairs to the right and the entrance to my office straight ahead...

Easy communication tasks involve few goals. There is only one dominant goal in the apartment description task—describe it accurately. Maybe there are sub-goals, e.g., be amusing, be brief, make your home sound nice.

Simple goals and low stakes make the task easy. Skilled and unskilled communicators perform well on the task, and they tend to produce similar messages.

A low hurdle will not reveal the differences between strong and weak athletes, and simple tasks don’t differentiate between good and bad communicators.

Most of my work is about difficult conversations. There are three that I’ve studied extensively.

In one, you are the leader of a group project at work, and one member of the group, Ron, promised to do an important part of the project. The night before the final group meeting, Ron calls you and tells you he hasn’t finished his part. What would you say?

In the second situation, you have a friend Terry. You and Terry have been friends for a long time, but lately Terry has been acting differently. Terry has canceled your last two plans to get together. Tonight you have plans with Terry at 7pm. At 5pm, Terry cancels your plans again. What would you say?

In the third situation, you are a healthcare professional taking care of a patient named Mary. Mary is having an outpatient surgical procedure. During the procedure, something goes terribly wrong, and Mary stops breathing for 7 minutes. She has a cardiac arrest but is resuscitated. She’s now unconscious and in the ICU on life support. You have to talk to the family in the waiting room. What would you say?

Most would agree that these are difficult communication situations. Some of you might feel anxious just reading about them. We’ve given these vignettes to hundred of people over the years. Unlike the apartment description task, there's tremendous variability in how people respond. Like a high hurdle, these tasks do highlight the differences between skilled and unskilled communicators.

What Makes Some Interactions So Difficult?

Difficult conversations have several common features:

  • They involve multiple, competing goals.
  • They are highly consequential.
  • They involve intense emotions.
  • They involve people’s identities.
  • There is often little time to prepare.
  • They lack conventional solutions (i.e., simple politeness seems inadequate to the task).

Multiple Goals

Difficult conversations involve multiple, competing goals. It is hard to devise a message that simultaneously achieves all the goals at once. The exact nature of the competing goals will differ from task to task. But commonly, there is a tension between task goals and relationship goals.

This tension should be familiar from our recent discussion of face and politeness. Politeness is a set of strategies for managing the tension between being efficient, clear, and direct, and doing what needs to be done, on the one hand, and being kind, tactful, and diplomatic, and preserving the relationship, on the other. The reason that politeness is routinized and culturally universal is that the tension between task and relationship is universal.

Since the presence of multiple, conflicting goals is a defining feature of difficult conversations, one of the main techniques for handling such conversations is making a concerted effort to attend to all of the important goals, and in particular, to attend to the relationship goals before dealing with the task goals.

When we teach healthcare professionals how to break bad news to families after serious medical errors have occurred, the first thing we tell them to do is think about the goal of the interaction.

You should do the same. And unless you are breaking up with someone, preserving the relationship will always be a goal.

To see examples of how to deal with one difficult conversation, see last week's blog.

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