When Speaking Doesn’t Work, Try Communicating

Great With Words, Not So Good With People

Have you noticed how some people are great at speaking but not so good at communicating? That is, they seem to have an adequate vocabulary and more-than-adequate speaking skills but for some reason (or reasons) they just don’t communicate effectively with others. They talk a lot but don’t connect much.

Mostly, they tend to talk at people rather than with them. In many instances, they are more likely to confuse, offend and alienate than they are to inspire, enlighten or educate. And despite their (often) good intentions and more-than-adequate speaking skills, they typically create more disconnection and confusion than they do connection and understanding.

And You?

And what about you? Have you ever been frustrated with a particular person because – it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you tell them something, or how many ways you try to explain it – they just don’t get it? Or, get you - for that matter? You try to be patient. You try to be clear and articulate. You do your best to speak slowly and to be engaging but sadly, you never seem to get through. Lots of words, great intentions but zero connection. Sometimes, it seems like the light’s on but nobody’s home – as my mum would say. Well, there’s a very simple reason for all that disconnection, confusion and lack of results:

You’re not speaking their language.

Hit and Miss Communication

Sure, the conversation all makes sense in your head but the only person who lives there is you! If you’re trying to motivate, educate, enlighten and convince yourself, then yes, you’re doing a great job. If not, you might need to re-think your strategy. Some people – including a few who really should know better – use the same communication style for every person in every situation and then (curiously) wonder why their results are so hit and miss.

If you’re serious about creating real connection with the person/people in your orbit (be that an individual or an audience, personal or professional) then it’s in your interest to know (1) who you’re talking to and (2) what language they speak.

For example: I might say something simple like “C’mon, you need to do better” to six different athletes and, depending on who they are as individuals (that is, their world-view based on their experiences, beliefs, fears, IQ, EQ, age, background, likes, dislikes, expectations, emotional state and much more), it’s very possible that I might inadvertently create six different outcomes:

1. Motivation
2. Intimidation
3. Confusion
4. Anger
5. Amusement
6. Annoyance

While I was trying to motivate all six of my charges, I missed the mark with five because I wasn’t aware of – or perhaps, didn’t really consider – their individual motivational needs. In other words, I didn’t speak the right language. For them. Before I can motivate someone effectively or with any level of confidence, I first need to know what kind of approach (language, method, technique) will be optimal for that individual in that situation. Understanding who I’m talking to is a fundamental part of being a powerful and effective communicator.

Finding the Best Diet For Your Mind

Just like we all have our own nutritional needs on a physical level, so too do we as individuals have specific dietary requirements on a cerebral level. That is, some people thrive on a ‘diet’ of hard-core motivational language while some function best with an arm around the shoulder and some re-assuring words. Some will respond optimally to clear and specific instructions and information while others learn best when the lesson is wrapped up in an interesting and inspirational story.

People who only have one communication style rarely make good bosses, coaches, teachers, speakers or leaders. In fact, they tend to struggle with any task or role that requires an ability to connect with different egos, attitudes, personalities, ages and belief systems. That is, different people.

A Story

Imagine you’ve just flown into a non-English-speaking country. You’re at the airport and some serious-looking guy in a uniform has just escorted you to a small room for questioning. Apparently. You’re not exactly sure why you ended up in this position but you think it’s about the contents of your case. Fortunately for you, you’re confident there’s nothing to worry about. A well-dressed friendly man walks into the room and starts asking you questions in a strange language. Well, you think he’s asking questions because he has a curious look on his face and a question-asking tone in his voice. And you think he’s friendly because he’s smiling. Although you can’t really be sure.

He talks for a while and you look confused. You are confused. So he speaks slower and a little louder. Of course it doesn’t help because you can’t understand his language – no matter how slow or loud his words are. Unbeknown to you, the well-dressed friendly man decides to try a different approach. He endeavors to engage you with a few funny stories and jokes. You sit there looking even more confused and feeling totally bewildered. Possibly, a little scared.

After thirty minutes of nonsensical mumbo-jumbo and frustration, the friendly man doesn’t seem quite so friendly. He stands up and looks at you intently. You feel guilty but you’re not sure why? He leaves the room and now your anxiety level rises even more. Your mind races. What if they’re taking me straight to jail? What if I never see my family again? What if they frame me for something I didn’t do? It happens all the time!

Doesn’t it?

A few minutes later the friendly man walks back through the door with a friendly-looking woman. She asks you if you speak English. Your heart skips, your happy hormones do a little dance and you feel instant relief. A short time later the confusion is sorted, your papers are stamped and you’re on your way. ‘Thank goodness they found someone who speaks my language’, you tell yourself.

So, What Works?

In the vast majority of situations, effective communication has very little to do with the extent of your vocabulary or your ability to string a bunch of words together and a lot to do with how well you understand your audience. Or, more specifically, their language.

Having a meaningful and productive dialogue with a teenager (for example) doesn’t mean you need to ‘become’ a teenager (of course) but rather that you should find a way – at least for a moment – to see the world (situation, problem, challenge, relationship) through his or her eyes. You don’t need to agree with them to create connection but you do need to understand them. With lack of understanding comes lack of connection.

If you’re struggling in this area, here’s a great question to get you started:

“What’s the best way for me to communicate with this person, in this situation, at this moment in time about this issue?”

You’re welcome. :)

If you liked this article, subscribe to my blog and receive my FREE eBook. Click here: I want a FREE eBook. If you’re interested in having me work with your organisation you can contact me here.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Eduard - People Skills Decoded March 22, 2011 at 10:55 am

Hey Craig,

Yeah, communication is a two way street. It’s not how well you speak that matters, it’s the overall transaction that takes place. I like to see communication as a dance. You can have a lot of fancy moves, but if you can’t connect with your partner…


chebbieanne March 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I find that the best way to communicate is to try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. It is not always easy but it usually works. What are their fears and exectations and how best to address these are integral to getting to first base. Being friendly and approachable with some humour throw in opens communication lines. My three rules are Look, Listen and Learn.


Cyn March 22, 2011 at 2:20 pm

This is so much easier said than done. I am dealing with a similar situation at work and at me wits end! At what point do you cut your losses and move on?

The question you pose above is good, but if the disconnect is so great you have no idea how to answe that queation. Is there a point where you sit down with ‘the other language speaker’ and say ‘help me help you; tell me what I need to do to get you to see/do/understand xyz’?


Evan March 22, 2011 at 3:57 pm

It took me a loooong time to learn that sometimes the most intensely personal is what communicates best. It is easy for me to be cerebral and try different frameworks – but sometimes none of them cut it, and it is the intensely personal that really communicates.


Lisa March 22, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Haha, nice post. That person, you know, the one with all the fancy words but complete cluelessness when it comes to actual people? That’s my brother. :P
He has a tendency to come off as a bit of a know-it-all (or in my books, an asshat. Can I say asshat here? ^^;), which is such a shame because he really is such a nice, kind and caring person. He just shows it badly. Really badly.

Having said that, he’s gotten better – as have I. For a while we would get into arguments easily even as adults…then I realised that despite *his* social deficiencies, mine, at least when it came to communication with him, were just as bad. I was reacting to things he said in the same way I did when we were kids which escalated the problem(s). I would react in ways I would never react with any other human being; only him. I wasn’t even giving him credit when he was actually being pretty reasonable. :/

But we’re both working on it, and for the most part, life/communication is peaceful, yay! ^^)b

Just goes to show that as easy as it is to blame it on the “obvious” cause, the only thing you can control is your reaction. ^^;


Stark March 22, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Communication with connection is really important. Sometimes talking to people is not really that easy especially when they are just merely strangers. Communicating with friends is easy to do because I can connect with them. Just like a business owner, in promoting your product, you have to put your shoes on the consumer if this product is beneficial to them. In this way, you have to connect with them in order to get them and buy your products.


Vix in the uk March 23, 2011 at 4:30 am

Another great insight into life…

I wish I was brave enough to send this to the people I work with… They think effective communication (and all management tasks) is sending an email….. :-D


Kathryn March 23, 2011 at 8:40 am

Thank you very much Craig.



David Stevens March 23, 2011 at 10:11 am

Good stuff again Craig,
Covered all the bases. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood. I have been guilty of talking “gibberish” in the past. I now spend the majority of my one on one time “listening” to my clients. Guaging their language & where they are coming from. I can then ‘speak their language’ and communicate effectively. Thanks for the post.
Be good to yourself


Robbo March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm

As Judge Judy would say “you have 2 ears and one mouth for a reason, listen twice and speak once”. Communication is more about listening then speaking.


David Stevens March 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Is that Malcolm Turnbull’s double in the photo?
Trivially yours


Sandy Simpson March 23, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Craig, it sounds like you are speaking directly to me, thank you! thank you! I am learning over again how to do that, my problem is with a big crowd, can you help me please?

Love Sandy :-)


SonyaP March 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Hey Craig, I totally agree and read something very similar a couple of days ago. I too wonder how you go with a crowd, big, small or otherwise, what’s the best overall ‘language’ or ‘style’ to use?

p.s. loved your book…


Shell March 23, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Thanks Craig….great post as always (love your work)….always ‘tailor your presentation/email/talk/brochure etc to your audience’….marketing 101!!!


Leave a Comment

{ 3 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: