5 Mistakes That Lead to Ineffective Verbal Communications

One sided verbal communicationsServant Leaders, especially those modelling themselves on Jesus’ leadership style, are good at communicating with others because their goal is that the people they lead achieve their full potential and how can they do that if the leader is a bad communicator. This article considers 5 mistakes that make verbal communications ineffective.

One of the tenets of servant leadership is that others should be enabled to achieve their full potential. Central to this is communication. It is vital for us to be able to effectively communicate ideas, problems, objectives, methods and the like, to others. It is vital because others need to respond appropriately in order to achieve their full potential and in so doing assist us to achieve our desired goals. Whilst mostly we are all able to talk and listen this does not guarantee verbal communication success.

Let me give you an example of a bad communicator:

I remember once  visiting the toilet at work to discover my boss trapped in a cubicle by Xavier, one of our sales guys and of course that is not his real name. Because my boss could not go anywhere Xavier was taking great delight in the opportunity to overwhelm him with words. This demonstrated the lack of sensitivity that was the reason that this was the only place Xavier could get my boss’ attention. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Xavier would not be getting anywhere with his insensitive, one-sided communication style that ignored the needs of his listener!

You might not be as tactless and inconsiderate as Xavier but are you anymore effective when it comes to communicating with others?

This issue, of course, is relevant to any verbal communication in any setting. The practicalities of how effectiveness is achieved may vary dependent upon the context but, the principles apply one-to-one and  one-to-many for church leaders, mission agency leaders or leaders in other para-church organisation.

So here is the question for you: Do you make these 5 mistakes when you speak with people?

Ineffective verbal Communications- Ineffective Leadership?

This series on “Communication Tips for Servant Leaders” is about what happens when we speak and how we can become “responsible” speakers and “responsible” listeners. Why responsible? Because it’s about us taking responsibility for understanding: Responsibility that our listeners understand us when we speak and, when we are the listener, that we understood what has been said to us. . It will help you to engage with both individuals and your team so that you can convey information to them in a way that makes a difference. It will help you in many other situations too, in fact any time you interact verbally with another person.

So here we go:

1 – Do you overwhelm your people with words?

Frequently people are so anxious, self-focused or simply so short of time that they spew words out like a burst dam. Often they are afraid that if they pause for breath the listener will nuke them with an objection or just tell them to go away. The result: they overwhelm the listener. Then when things are not understood or subsequently go awry they can be heard saying “Well I told them what they needed to know!” This is not the way of any who profess to lead in a style that would have been recognised by Jesus.

What happens to the overwhelmed listener? They neither have time to gather their thoughts and “clue-in” to what is being said, nor are they able to find a way in to clarify the situation, to get more information or ask for help in understanding. The “communication” is a one way flow. The longer it flows the less relevant it becomes to the listeners who switch off. When that happens the speaker’s frustration rises because no-one is taking any notice and he tries to beat them into submission with words and a positive feedback loop kicks off. Positive feedback may sound good but it is bad. It is the reason for those painful whistles and screams that cry out of a PA system when it’s not set up right. The whistle is picked up by the microphone and is amplified, emerging form the PA only to be picked up and amplified some more. It keeps on going until somebody turns the volume down. Jimmy Hendrix managed to make music with it but most of us don’t have that skill and it results in an objectionable noise.

What to do about it?

  • Relax: Don’t get wound up about whether people have understood or not, just make sure that you have time to help them understand. Avoid being in a rush.
  • Quality not Quantity: People can only take in so much information at a time so think out what they need to know, limit what you say and give them opportunity to ask questions.
  • Follow-up: If there is more information to convey then organise a follow up session when everyone is prepared to go into the detail.

2 – Do you tell them only what interests you?

The question here is what is more important to you? That your listener understands what you are sharing with them and commits to an appropriate response or that you are able to dump what you know or care about or think is relevant on them, in the hope that they can do something with it? That path leads to the listener switching off because you have failed to address their needs. Your message will seem less than relevant to them and will tend to be ignored because of this if not because they cannot work out how to respond appropriately. Whatever you are talking about, your listeners will have a perspective, concerns, objections or insights on the matter. All of which will be important to them. Key to engaging them is finding out what they think and what is important to them and addressing those issues. You may have to adapt what you a have to say accordingly. That is not to say you have to change things on the fly but draw things out or emphasise particular points in a way that addresses their questions.

What to do about it?

  • Engage: Seek to engage in a dialogue not a monologue. Be equal parties in the conversation.
  • Ask questions: This will enable you to see if you are getting your point or your information across.
  • Invite questions: Do this as you go along. It will help your listener help you to tell them what they need to know.

3 – Do you ignore the communication markers?

Communications markers are the non-verbal cues that your listener gives when you are attempting to communicate with them. In face to face situations it’s primarily body language and tone of voice. These markers give you clues as to what your listener is thinking. Being sensitive to them will help you steer a course that keeps them on-side and engaged. Ignore them at your peril.

Remember Xavier? He demonstrated a serious lack of sensitivity that meant that trapping  his victim was the only way that he could get my boss’ attention. It also meant that he could happily, if unhelpfully ignore all the communication markers, which may well have meant that the conversation eventually erupted in the positive feedback loop of violent language!

Don’t be so self focused or unaware that you ignore the communications markers from your listener. To do so means that you have joined  Xavier  standing outside that toilet cubicle. You won’t get anywhere fast because your will miss the signals that say “We have had enough.” “We don’t understand.” “Can you say that again please.” “We want you to stop.”  “I have to go now.” ……

What to do about it?

  • Avoid being self focused: Think about and interact with your listener as you talk with them.
  • Be concerned for the other person: Do your utmost to make them feel an important part of the conversation.
  • Learn the physical signals: There are good books that can help you understand body language but some of it is very obvious. You won’t miss it if you maintain your awareness of the other person.
  • Listen for the audio cues: Communications markers are audible as well as physical. Listen for changes in tone of voice.

4 – Do you assume they have understood you?

If we are self-focused or simply concerned to “dump” our message and rush off, it is very easy to assume that our listeners will have understood what we have to say. It may be that we are a “detail person” and simply overwhelm people with that detail, forgetting to provide any context. There are any number of reasons why we may prevent people from understanding us. Then of course, there is whatever is going on with the listener that means they miss the point, get the wrong end of the stick or are just unable to “tune in”. Factors that may further obscure understanding are abstract concepts and our attempts to be diplomatic. I remember one of the first staff appraisals I ever conducted. I was diplomatically attempting to “correct” my team member’s approach and attitude, which had shown up in his frequent conflict with another team member. I was so diplomatic that in the end he thought that I had complimented him. Chalk that one up to experience!

An extra dimension to be aware of is attempting verbal communication cross-culturally. We may be speaking with people for whom our language is not their first language. Then issues of vocabulary, idiom and style can impede our attempts to communicate, even when we have everything else right. Whatever the reason, there is always the possibility that others do not fully understand what we have said, its implications and the need for action. The consequence is misunderstanding, confusion, incorrect action and  even conflict. A man called Wiio declared a law of communication, which essentially is: If it can go wrong, it will go wrong; if it can be misunderstood it will be misunderstood.

What to do about it?

  • Keep it simple: Use plain language and avoid jargon, idioms and phrases that assume knowledge on the part of the listeners
  • Make space for understanding: Speak in shorter segments so that the listener can assimilate what is said before you move on to the next idea. That will also provide scope for them to ask questions.
  • Ask questions: This gives the listener the opportunity to confirm understanding and seek clarification.

5 – Do you assume that it is the listener’s responsibility to understand?

“If they don’t understand they should ask” may seem sensible, but it has at least two flaws.

  • The first is that in general, people tend not to ask out of fear; fear of looking silly or perhaps fear of you.
  • The other is that they may not fully understand that they do not understand. If they have missed or misunderstood something then it may all seem to make sense – until later that is.

Beyond the various issues already discussed, when things seem really clear to us it can be difficult to appreciate that people may not have understood or perhaps cannot understand. After all it is so obvious. At the other extreme we may feel that it’s not our job to “wet-nurse” our listeners. However, if it is in our own interests that they understand what we are saying then it is in our own interests to take responsibility to ensure that they understand.

What to do about it?

  • Make understanding your goal: Measure success differently. Communication is only ever achieved when the other person understands and can act accordingly.
  • Avoid assumptions: Many actions fail due to assumptions, especially the unwritten or unthinking kind. It’s best to avoid them, declare them or test them.
  • Partnership: Communication really only succeeds when both sides are in an equal partnership that allows understanding to flow. Encourage your listeners to participate in that partnership. Be aware that you may need to give them permission to join in.


Take a moment over a cup of coffee to reflect upon how you approach communication with others. Are you concerned that they can achieve their full potential? Have you recognised that this is also in your best interests? Think on how you set about communicating with others and whether you get the results that you desire?

Turn your next attempt at communication into a dialogue. Ask the listeners specific questions to test understanding and encourage them to ask you questions. Try it and see what happens.

The Effective Communications Series

This article is one of series on effective communications for Christian servant leaders. You can access the others through the following links:

Image: Todd Ryburn Flickr.com