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How to Deal with Communication Breakdown

A few years back, my family and I set out hiking along a wooded trail, high in the

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A few years back, my family and I set out hiking along a wooded trail, high in the Pryor Mountains of Montana heading to a cave we wanted to explore.

The short trail led us to the entrance of the cave. With the warm summer air in the forest, we could feel cold air flowing out of the cave entrance. While we were preparing to go in, we noticed on the trail behind us a large black bear staring us down. Usually black bears are shy and won’t hang around if there’s a human nearby. But this one seemed very interested in us. Rather than running away, he slowly watched and circled.

Eventually, it did wander off into the woods but we couldn’t figure out why it was hanging around. Once the adrenaline had subsided, we entered the cold, damp cave and discovered signs of the bear and realized what should have been more obvious. This was the bear’s den! We’d invaded his territory and risked having a Revenant style communication breakdown.

communication breakdown, bear encounter

I wrote a while back about our triune brains, consisting of the primitive brain stem (reptilian brain) and the limbic system (mammalian brain), as well as the more evolved cortex (thinking brain).

The brain stem and limbic system combine into a kind of ‘feeling brain’ whose focus is to avoid danger, seek food and mate. This part of the brain is essential for survival, but it doesn’t always act in our own best interests. If it’s reacting to a car about to hit us as we’re walking into the street, then that’s great! It’s less great though when it starts to act up when you’re trying to nail a job interview and your palms are sweaty and your heart is racing. And it doesn’t have your best interests ‘in mind’ when communication with others gets tense. This is very apparent by watching an argument from the sidelines. Even if the people arguing can’t see it (because their ‘limbic larry’ is driving them), it’s obvious to an objective outsider that logic and reason has gone out the window. Does that sound like some recent political debates? We all end up in arguments, misunderstandings and hurt feelings. I want to help you prepare and handle communication with the 3 ‘shuns’ of communication breakdown: PrevenTION, RecogniTION & ReacTION.

1. Prevention

bear, communication breakdown

The best way to deal with communication breakdown is to prevent it in the first place. If you read my other article, I pointed out a power struggle between your thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) and the feeling brain. Our thinking brain is where our goals, values, logic and reasoning resides. If we can keep our thinking brain at the helm, we’ll be able to communicate calmly and clearly. But when the balance of power shifts to the feeling brain, that’s when things go south. Let’s use my encounter with the bear as an example. Our feeling brain is very primitive and animalistic. It can help to think about how an animal might react and why because that’s essentially what our feeling brain is doing too. When we first saw the bear, what are some of the thoughts the bear might have? Remember with its own mammalian and reptilian brain, it cares about food, perpetuating the species and avoiding danger. Here’s some possible things it was thinking.

  1. Are they food? Can I eat them?
  2. They’re invading territory? This turned out to be the issue, since we were at his den.
  3. Are they competition towards my goals of food, shelter or sex?
  4. Are they a danger to me (freeze, flight, fight response)?
  5. Are they a threat to my offspring?

I know we like to think of ourselves as more evolved than a wild animal. And we are when we’re using our thinking brain. But if we’re not, then we respond very much like an animal. Can you think of some equivalent human reactions to those of the bear? There are countless, but here are a few examples.

  • Invasion of Territory
    • Invade someone’s personal space and I guarantee you’ll see some nonverbal displays of discomfort
    • Someone stealing your idea at work
  • Competition
    • 2 guys liking the same girl
  • Feeling threatened
    • A woman clutching her purse to block and protect from a guy that makes her uncomfortable
  • Protective
    • We’re protective of those we care about, especially our children

Meaning Making Machines

Understanding that we all have this basic animalistic response to people we see as threats or competition helps us to understand and empathize. But as humans, we have even more complex ways to lose control and lose the war in our brains. We all have a little voice in our head that talks too much. If you just asked yourself, ‘What voice?’ then THAT is the voice. It’s an almost constant inner dialog with ourselves. And have you ever noticed that even though it’s your voice, how often it doesn’t seem to be on your side? For most of us, that voice is more of a critic than a cheerleader. Thoughts run through our heads telling us that we’re not good enough, not worthy, not cared for etc. This voice tries to interpret everything it sees and for some reason often assumes the worst.

diary, communication breakdown

It seems to be part of the human condition to assign meaning to things that happen to us. In many cases this helps us learn and protects us. As a child, if we touched a hot stove, that inner voice makes a decision about hot stoves. ‘I better NEVER do THAT again.’ But it might also makes decisions about you and your environment to try to protect you, which may not be in your best longterm interest. Like the hot stove, if you get your heart broken you might decide never to fall in love again. There are literally countless examples of meaning making that humans do. Consider this example of ‘His and Her Diary from the same day’:

Her Diary: Tonight, I thought my husband was acting weird. We had made plans to meet at a nice restaurant for dinner. I was shopping with my friends all day long, so I thought he was upset at the fact that I was a bit late, but he made no comment on it. Conversation wasn’t flowing, so I suggested that we go somewhere quiet so we could talk. He agreed, but he didn’t say much. I asked him what was wrong; He said, ‘Nothing.’ I asked him if it was my fault that he was upset. He said he wasn’t upset, that it had nothing to do with me, and not to worry about it. On the way home, I told him that I loved him. He smiled slightly, and kept driving. I can’t explain his behavior, I don’t know why he didn’t say, ‘I love you, too.’ When we got home, I felt as if I had lost him completely, as if he wanted nothing to do with me anymore. He just sat there quietly, and watched TV. He continued to seem distant and absent. Finally, with silence all around us, I decided to go to bed. About 15 minutes later, he came to bed. But I still felt that he was distracted, and his thoughts were somewhere else. He fell asleep – I cried. I don’t know what to do. I’m almost sure that his thoughts are with someone else. My life is a disaster.

His Diary: Motorcycle won’t start…can’t figure out why.

What does this have to do with communication breakdown? So much of our pain and hurt feelings in relationships come down to the story our inner voice is telling us, and not actually the objective facts. Our tendency to jump to conclusions and assume the worst can put our feeling brain into the driver’s seat where we are no longer making logical decisions nor seeing things clearly. We can’t control how others interpret our actions. But we can be aware that meaning attaching is occurring and gain new perspective on it. And we can watch our own inner dialog and challenge it when it’s irrational or counterproductive. As Dr. Daniel Amen suggested, talk back to yourself like a teenager might talk back to their parents. Don’t let your inner critic or your feeling brain tell you what to do or how to feel.

Sense of Significance

maslow's hierarchy of needs

One area where we attach special importance to our meaning and stories is about our own sense of significance. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist in the mid 1900s. He’s famous for his ‘hierarchy of needs’. The basic idea of his hierarchy is that we need to meet lower, basic needs before we can focus on higher social needs. And those needs must be met before we can become fully self-actualized. You’ll notice that moving up the pyramid is much like moving up our evolutionary brains. Physiological and safety needs are very much rooted in the brain stem and limbic system. As you move up the pyramid, it gets more to the cortex area of the brain.

Near his death, Maslow pointed out a problem with his model when it comes to humans. In the animal world this is followed closely. An animal may even eat their own young if they’re starving to death. But with humans, we’ll sacrifice those basic needs IF we see significance in the sacrifice. We’ll sacrifice our life and safety for our young. We’ll go to war if we feel it’s for a worthy cause. We all want to feel important and needed. And we want to feel like we’re a contributing part of something bigger than ourselves. This need for significance and to feel important is incredibly strong and important to us. Psychologist Stephen Glenn found through a massive study on child development that this need is one of 7 key perceptions or skills children need to develop in order to become healthy, capable and productive adults. One surefire way of sending someone’s feeling brain into overdrive is to treat them as if they or their ideas don’t matter. Here are just a few common ways that this can happen.

  1. Katie Freiling talks about an improv technique where you build on another person’s ideas rather than shoot it down. If the first person in an improv act gets up and says they have an apple, it kills the show if the next person says, ‘no, actually it’s an orange’. Instead they do a ‘yes and…’ approach where they take the person’s idea and build on it. Be aware of your conversations with others and see if you’re responding with “No, actually..” as opposed to a “Yes and…”. Psychologically, ‘No’ fires up the feeling brain. Not good for communication!
  1. Not listening will also convey to someone that they don’t matter. Show that the person is important by nonverbal signs of listening and engagement, using active listening techniques, removing distractions etc. This showing of respect will go a long way in preventing arguments and hurt feelings.

Bottom Line: Be aware of what makes communication go wrong. Anything that makes a person’s feeling brain take over or makes him/her feel like they’re not important should be avoided.

2. Recognition

If you’ve done your due diligence and worked hard to prevent communication breakdown, that will go a long ways. But we’re still human. There’s going to be arguments, hurt feelings etc. The next ‘shun’ if you can’t prevent breakdown is to recognize it when it starts. Our brains are wired to notice the feelings of others. But it’s a skill that isn’t often taught or practiced, so we miss a lot of the cues that something’s wrong. Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent who used nonverbal communication in his work to be able to notice when someone is lying or to see what they’re feeling. He points out that the limbic system is a very honest part of the brain. When we’re feeling sad, mad, scared or out of control there will be nonverbal cues. To develop or hone this skill I’d recommend taking one of our body language courses or working with one of our awesome coaches. But here are just a few things to watch out for.

  1. Distancing – When we don’t like something or are uncomfortable, we’ll try to increase the distance between us and that something. Nonverbally this can be expressed in a lot of ways. Leaning back, a foot pointing out while talking to someone, moving the head to the side. If you’re talking to someone, take note if they make some kind of distancing move. Don’t let your inner voice jump to conclusions just yet, but note it and watch for more cues.
  2. Blocking – Similar to distancing, we’ll use blocking to ‘protect’ us from things that we don’t like. This can be with our arms folded, hands over the head or eyes or using an object like a purse to block the torso. Or it might be something as subtle as closing one’s eyes.
  3. Self-soothing – When our limbic system is fired up, especially if we’re nervous, we’ll often engage in some kind of soothing gesture to calm ourselves down. Common ways this manifests is face touching or rubbing of the arms or hands. The suprasternal notch, near your throat, is a hot spot for self-soothing. If you see this pop up in a conversation, they may be feeling nervous.
  4. Expressions – Our expressions show what we’re feeling. We can fake these, but a microexpression will show what we’re really feeling because it’s an involuntary response. Our online training or coaches and help you become a master at catching these as well.
  5. Anger cues – Anger is just one of the emotions we feel, but is one of the more prominent ones in communication breakdown. Obviously look for anger expressions, but you might also see things like a lip purse (lips pressed tightly together), see their hands clench up or see the person jut their chin forward.

As always with body language, when noticing cues consider context, look for clusters of 3 or more cues trending the same way and then confirm through questions. But once you have identified that someone is getting upset, now you can handle it appropriately. Bottom Line: Watch for cues in others to identify if they’re getting angry or upset. 

3. Reaction

You’ve tried your best to avoid a messy situation. But now you’ve noticed that things are going south. Maybe you see that someone’s getting mad at you. This means their feeling brain is taking over. Here are some tips for handling the situation.

  1. Your feeling brain will try to take hold of the steering wheel. Don’t let it! Letting the animal out won’t make things better.
  2. Breathe. Before responding or making a decision, pause and take a few deep breaths. In some branches of the military, they teach tactical breathing as a method of calming the fight or flight response. Big breaths in through your nose, out through the mouth.
  3. Time is your best friend in these situations, because it allows for the emotions and chemical reactions to subside. Then you can look at the situation with your thinking brain. Do what you can to buy time to think. You can ask, “Can I have some time to think this over and get back to you with some ideas on how to resolve this?”
  4. Step back. You might have learned from our previous articles that fronting is good. This is where you point your head, torso and toes towards the person you’re speaking with to show engagement and openness. When situations are tense, do just the opposite. Joe Navarro suggests that the best way to help people clam down is to take a step back and angle away from them. This is respecting their territory, so they have some room to calm down.
  5. Listen to understand, not to respond. This is a good time to practice active listening. Restate what the other person is saying to ensure you’re understanding and to show that you care about what they’re saying.
  6. Empathize. You can express empathy and understanding without necessarily agreeing with them. “I understand how frustrated you must feel.”
  7. Clarify specifics of the problem. Getting into specifics is buying you time, helping engage the thinking brain again and ensures that you’re on the same page. Then focus on solutions and finding some common ground.

*One side note to using these strategies. There ARE toxic people out there, for whom none of these approaches will work. You don’t have to allow yourself to be abused, manipulated or used under the guise of ‘getting along’. If someone is a drain on the relationship, I’d consider moving on. Bottom Line: Don’t let your feeling brain join in when someone is upset. Try to settle your own emotional response, then try to get their feeling brain to calm down.


It seems like a never ending battle between what we know we should do and how we end up acting. That primitive drive from our feeling brain is strong. The good news is the more you practice keeping your thinking brain in charge, the stronger it gets. My hope with this article is you have new insight into WHY there’s communication breakdown and give you some specific things to try next time you’re in a difficult conversation. Remember what is driving the negative feelings. This helps you understand where the other person is coming from. And with that knowledge, respond appropriately to diffuse the situation. And once again, don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of if the person simply can’t be reasoned with. There’s a time to say ‘no’ and move on.

This article is written by Jeff Baird, a Certified Body Language Trainer through the Science of People and founder of Arise from the Dust, a mentoring service to help people overcome obstacles and conquer their goals. You can follow Jeff on Facebook here and Twitter here

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