Episode: 3 Communication Fails You Need to Avoid

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Today we’re going to show you how to get greater alignment with your team by boosting your skill in a critical area of leadership: communication.

Megan: Communication is a super important leadership skill, but it is hard. Oftentimes, you feel like you’ve said something clearly, and then you look at your people and they go, “Huh?” Or things aren’t getting done and you find out people are waiting for instructions you thought you gave them weeks ago. And don’t you hate it when you delegate something and the person keeps coming back with just one more question? Honestly, you get tired of saying things over and over again. Right? I know I can feel like that sometimes. The worst part can be that miscommunication costs you time and momentum. Most of us think we’re really good at this, but maybe not so much.

Michael: Yeah, maybe not. Well, today we’re going to solve the communication puzzle for you by showing you the three most common ways communication fails and how to avoid them, but first, we have to bring Larry on, because we cannot do an episode without Larry. We can do one without me, we can do one without Megan, but we cannot do one without Larry.

Megan: Now we know who the real linchpin is.

Larry Wilson: Wow! I’ve been called a lot of things. I don’t think I’ve ever been called a linchpin. So thank you for that. It’s good to be with you guys. I’m excited about this topic, and one reason is that it coincides with your brand-new book that’s out today, No-Fail Communication: 13 Workplace Communication Problems—and How to Fix Them. Again, that’s out today at We’ll say a little bit more about the book later. Clearly, you have thought a lot about this and experienced your share of communication problems. Why is this elemental thing such a big problem?

Michael: Well, it happens with such frequency that I think we accept it as normal. So, just a couple of illustrations. These are like two from a thousand that I could give you. One of the jobs I had during the summer when I was in college was I was a part-time clerk at a small engine repair shop. Now, I’m like the least mechanical person you know, but somehow, I got this job, and I was just a clerk. It wasn’t that hard. I kind of liked it.

I kind of enjoyed being around the people, enjoyed learning about the small parts and how small engines worked and all the rest of it. The problem was the boss. He just flat refused to communicate. He never really trained me, never really gave me any instructions or told me what he expected. One day in the shop, the whole lobby was full of people waiting to get their parts. I got a little bit flustered and couldn’t find a particular part, so I asked my boss. I said, “Can you help me find this part?”

He got so angry, he threw this giant parts book on the counter, and he said, “Okay. I’m going to show you one more time.” I mean, enormously humiliated me in front of all of these customers. But here was the thing: he never trained me the first time. He had never shown me how to do this. What I had learned, I had learned on my own, but he expected me to somehow learn by osmosis what had taken him years to learn. He wasn’t clear, and he didn’t state it.

Another example: when I was in the book publishing world. One author was very unhappy with their book cover. There are some authors who think just because they can write, somehow they can design, and this was one of those authors. He kept saying to me when I would show him one cover after another… We would do a mock-up, and I’d show him one, and he’d say, “It just doesn’t pop. It just doesn’t pop.” He kept saying, “Why is that so hard? Just make it pop.”

Well, actually, it was really hard because he wasn’t communicating what he meant by pop. It was just unclear. Unlike my first boss, he was willing to communicate, but also unlike my first boss, this guy didn’t really know what he wanted. He was talking, but the message was vague. We didn’t get it, and we couldn’t solve the problem and satisfy him. In time, I realized that all communication breakdowns fall somewhere between those two problems. It’s either unstated or it’s vague. It’s one or the other.

Megan: And that’s because effective communication has a single object, which is shared understanding. Sometimes we forget what the point of communication is, but that’s the point: the shared understanding. That requires sending a clear message, and it needs to be delivered through a medium, like speech or email, into the mind of another person. That’s how it works. When the person’s understanding matches our own, well, then we have good communication.

As we’ve been saying, there are so many ways this can go wrong. This is one thing, though, that you can control yourself. You can choose to clarify your own thoughts. You can choose to communicate those thoughts to others. By the way, that is not a given, like in your story. Sometimes people just don’t communicate at all. It’s not even so good as to be bad. It’s just nothing. But you can do that, and ultimately, you can arrive at a shared understanding you both agree on, and that’s what we’re after.

Michael: It is. And as you would expect, I have a 2×2 matrix that explains this and so much more.

Megan: I would be really disappointed if you didn’t.

Michael: I love me a good 2×2 matrix. This one is called the clarity grid. When we talk about a 2×2 matrix, just imagine for a moment four boxes. The horizontal axis stands for explicit. The continuum moves from unexpressed on the left side to expressed on the right side. Unexpressed ideas are hidden. That was my first boss. He wasn’t open about sharing with me what he wanted. He didn’t communicate his expectations. Expressed ideas are explicit, and that was the author I mentioned. He was explicit. He was saying it out loud. It didn’t pop.

The vertical axis represents precision. The continuum moves from vague to specific. Vague on the bottom part of the axis… Vague ideas or vague words lack precision, and that was the author who used the word pop. “It just doesn’t pop.” It was too vague to take any action on. Specific ideas (and that’s the top part of the axis) are precise. My first boss knew exactly what he meant; he just didn’t tell anybody.

If you can picture that grid, that basically roughs out to four boxes, four zones. The upper right quadrant signifies communication that is explicit and precise, and that’s where you get a shared understanding. The other three boxes represent some kind of failure in communication. Does that make sense?

Megan: Yep, and that’s what we want to talk about today: how to help you get to that place of explicit and precise communication that results in a shared understanding.

Larry: And, of course, we want to let everybody know that matrix is clearly spelled out in the book, so if you’re trying to take notes while driving or washing the dishes, or something, no fear. You can get a copy of the book and see it all spelled out there. So, today we’re saying that you can communicate clearly every time by making your communication explicit and precise. To arrive there, you need to avoid these three communication fails. We’re going to show you the fails and how to avoid them. Fail #1: no communication.

Michael: The older I get, the more likely it is that I fall into this particular fail, because I think sometimes if I thought it, then I communicated, but thinking it and communicating it are two different things. This is represented by the lower left box on the clarity grid. This is communication that is vague and unexpressed. In other words, you don’t really have clarity on what you’re thinking, and you don’t really try to communicate with others. It’s still just rattling around inside your head. This is quadrant one: no communication. The result? Ignorance. You don’t know what you mean, and they don’t either.

Megan: This happens a lot more than you think. For example, maybe you have a situation where some of your team members are missing their targets, and you realize there’s a problem, but you haven’t really thought it through that well. You’re not exactly sure whether you have maybe a morale problem or a lack of skill or someone’s failure to take responsibility, and you don’t really talk about it with the team. Does this sound familiar? We’ve probably all been in a situation like this. Right?

Here’s the thing: everybody is sort of feeling the same thing. They’re not sure what’s wrong. They’re not sure what you’re thinking about it or if you see it, and since people are just sort of coming up with their own interpretation of the situation, trying to understand it, it’s neither precise nor clear. As a result, you’re probably not going to get a resolution to that situation, because the communication is so muddy.

Here are a couple more examples. You leave a meeting, but nobody summarizes the action points. This is actually the default with meetings. Nobody takes responsibility to summarize and make sure everybody knows what they’re supposed to leave and go do before the next meeting. Or you hear company news through the grapevine but not from the leaders, and everybody is kind of talking about it and trying to translate what that means for them.

Or you get a meeting invitation with no agenda or stated purpose. Again, then you try to understand what’s going on or maybe you’re worried that you’re not going to be prepared because there’s no clarity because there was no precision. Those are some really familiar examples I think we can all relate to when there has been no effective communication at all.

Michael: One of the things I was just thinking as you were talking, Megan, is this is one of the reasons it feels like sometimes in our companies, in our organizations, we keep having the same meeting over and over again. If you leave a meeting but nobody summarizes the action points, you go to several other meetings before you realize, “I’m not even sure what we talked about at that meeting. Nobody took minutes, nobody took down the action points, so I guess we’ll have to have the meeting again.”

Or when you don’t have an agenda and you just kind of meander through stuff, again, you end up with the same meeting over and over again. All of this is terrible for morale. People start speculating about the problem and about you. Because you’re not being explicit, because you’re not being clear and precise, people are left to make up their own narrative about why what is happening is happening. When you don’t communicate, other people fill in the blanks.

You’ve heard it said that nature abhors a vacuum. And it does. In the absence of your narrative, in the absence of you explaining, people are going to fill in the gaps with their own explanation, their own reasons for why what they’re seeing is happening. No communication is a recipe for disaster. It impacts morale. It impacts alignment. It impacts execution. You really can’t do anything, at least of value, in a productive way that doesn’t begin with communication.

Megan: We have clients come to us sometimes to ask us questions about how to build a healthy culture or a thriving culture in their companies. Maybe they have some kind of a problem they’re trying to deal with or they’re wanting to build it right from the beginning. They talk about it sometimes like culture is this black box. Like, “Ooh, how do I do that?” or “How do I make it better?” It’s so elusive.

One of the most important components of healthy culture is good communication. You can’t have a great culture unless you have great, proactive communication. We’re going to get into some more of that as we go, but I just want to point that out, because if you’re finding that you have culture issues in your organization, part of it is probably that you don’t have effective communication. I think what we’re going to share is going to help give you a path to that.

Michael: The solution here is that, as a leader, you have to own the communication. You can’t be blaming somebody else. You have to own it yourself. You have to take responsibility for communicating. This is a high priority. It can’t be the last thing on your list. Especially in a crisis situation, you have to be proactive, and you have to communicate. There’s no such thing as communicating too much. The impact on your team or your business is just too great.

Megan: We’ve had, like many of you listening, a front-row seat and an invitation to practice this on a regular basis with high stakes during this COVID-19 crisis. At the time we’re recording, we’re kind of coming out of eight or nine weeks of quarantine. We’re starting to get back to normal, but we’ve all been in this intense season. We’ve been having regular team meetings, for the first part of that season, once a week, and now we’re doing it every other week.

One of the things I recently did was I talked about what it’s going to look like for our office to reopen. We’re not quite at the point where we’re doing that yet, but we’re planning for it. I knew our team was going to start wondering. I knew some people were going to be anxious for it to open in a good way, like they couldn’t wait to get back to the office. I knew some people were going to be anxious about it in a truly anxiety-prone way, like, “Is it going to be safe?”

In order to address that, I wanted to head that off at the pass by being explicit and clear in my communication. So, I talked about a three-phased approach and exactly what we were going to do to open the office. I shared the dates we were going to be doing the different phases, contingent on things that are happening in our state and local governments and their recommendations for us, and exactly what people could expect when they come to the office.

I think avoiding surprises, helping people know what the protocols are going to look like, what they’re going to be able to do that is the same as what they used to be able to do and what’s going to be different is going to facilitate a productive and seamless return to work throughout these phases. I think that’s something we’ve seen that has been really chaotic in the media. For example, all over the country, whether it’s at a federal level or a state and local level.

It has just been really confusing, and we haven’t had, necessarily, a lot of clear and explicit communication, which creates confusion for people. There are all kinds of reasons why maybe that has been the case, some good and some not-so-good. Regardless, as leaders, we can take a lesson from that and make sure we are communicating with our team proactively, whether it’s about things related to a crisis or just normal business-as-usual events. The more clearly we communicate and avoid this fail #1 of no communication, the better off our teams are going to be.

Larry: I can tell you, Megan. It was extremely calming and empowering to be on the receiving end of that proactive communication, because instead of showing up for work and wondering, “What’s happening this week?” or “Are we going to be back in the office this week or next week?” or even some harder things than that, like, “Are we facing layoffs?” or something like that… It was so calming and empowering to have a road map. There was no speculation. There were no rumors. There was no talking around the proverbial water cooler, the online water cooler, about that, because we had clarity. That was so important.

Megan: I think the more important the issue is that needs to be communicated about, particularly the more important it is for your team, if there’s something to lose, potentially, for them, like if there could potentially be layoffs or a restructuring or products that are being retired…you know, you can think of all the change management you need to communicate about…the more important it is to do it thoughtfully, because the higher the stakes, the higher the likelihood that people invent their own narrative.

Michael: I would just say that people can handle almost anything if it’s clearly communicated. What most people can’t handle, including me, is a lack of communication. I make up stuff in my own head that’s way worse than reality. If you would just come out and express it, trust me; I can handle it. Sometimes we don’t communicate because we don’t think people can handle it. Sometimes it just doesn’t occur to us. Regardless, that’s what I mean by “As leaders, we have to own it.” We have to take responsibility for communication. People need information. It’s the lifeblood of any organization.

Larry: So, communication fail #1 is no communication, and the solution is to take ownership of communication. As a leader, make yourself responsible for communicating proactively with your team. Let’s get to fail #2, which is garbled communication.

Michael: This is represented by the lower right quadrant of the clarity grid. This is communication that is explicit, which is good. Meaning, it’s expressed. That’s the good news. Somebody tried to communicate. Yay. The bad news is the meaning is too vague to be understood. This was the example I gave earlier of my author who just kept saying his cover should pop. He was annoyed at us. You know, everybody should understand what pop is.

That was a leader who was refusing to take ownership of his communication and be more explicit. People had to try to guess what he meant, and we weren’t very good guessers. We never did get it right. In fact, part of the story I didn’t tell was he eventually said, “Let me design the cover myself.” He happened to be an amateur photographer, and guess what: one of his photos ended up on the cover, and from his perspective it popped. By that time, he had worn us down, so we just gave up. True story.

Megan: I know. I remember that story. Joel brings it up to me often. This usually boils down to a lack of clarity in the speaker’s own mind. When you don’t know what you mean, you resort to vague language. You see this often in delegation. In fact, this is the worst place that you see it.

Michael: Totally.

Megan: People say things like, “You know that thing you did? Uh, just do that again” or “Let’s make this one really special” or “I don’t have the budget yet, so just keep costs in the ballpark” or “Just keep costs reasonable.” Well, if you want to find out that you have two different perspectives, use language like that.

This is one of the main reasons that delegation fails. I can’t give you what you want if I don’t know what it is. This is something we emphasize with our coaching clients: helping them figure out how to use communication to do better delegation. You just have to be explicit if you want to have a result that’s predictable.

Michael: I had a boss who once made a delegation to me that was vague in this sense. He was explicit. It was my first day on the job. There was a person who had been reporting to him who, now that I was in place, was going to be reporting to me. He went kind of on this diatribe about how this person had a bad work ethic and wasn’t that skilled and didn’t appear to be that smart, and so forth. Then he said at the end of it, “Just handle it.” I mean, what could go wrong? Right?

I walked away from that meeting, and I handled it. Basically, I fired him the next day. So, the third day on the job I came back to my boss and said, “Oh, by the way, you know that thing with that employee we were talking about? I handled it for you.” He said, “What did you do?” I said, “I fired him.” He said, “That’s not what I meant! I didn’t intend for you to fire him. I just wanted you to have a conversation with him.” But by this time it was already too late.

Megan: Oops!

Michael: Anytime communication is not precise, it can be garbled. When you don’t specify things like quantity or due dates or cost or exactly what action you intend for the person to take, people fill in the blanks. They use their own intuition. They use their imagination. When you don’t track your communication in writing, you contradict previous instructions. So designate who will be the communicator so you don’t get competing messages from different sources. That kind of thing can waste a ton of sideways energy.

Larry: You know, Michael, as we’re talking about communication being garbled or too vague, I’m thinking of all of the business buzzwords that float around out there. Would you believe that the Wall Street Journal actually created a business buzzword generator online?

Michael: Oh my gosh.

Larry: I tried it out. Here are some of the results: “I’m disappointed in the way we disrupt our tipping point. Let’s please roll out our efforts.”

Megan: Just try to translate that.

Larry: “Looking forward to 2021, onboarding will be the key to our ability to open the kimono and enterprise horizontally.” There are so many more. You can just type in a word and it’ll…

Megan: It feels like business mad libs.

Larry: Yeah, it is exactly like that.

Michael: I remember one time somebody put together a game called Buzzword Bingo. Everybody had a little scorecard, and every time somebody used one of those words, there was some kind of scoring system, and whoever got to “Bingo” first won.

Larry: These words crop up so much. What’s your take on words that become so prevalent in an industry or in a business that they become a kind of shorthand? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Michael: Well, I think it starts off as a good thing, but it ends up being non-thinking and basically filler. Acronyms can be the worst. I remember not too long ago, even at Michael Hyatt & Company, just starting to keep track of all of the acronyms we were using so that when we were onboarding (to use a buzzword) people onto the company, we could give them sort of a crib sheet with our main acronyms so they could know what the heck we were talking about.

Honestly, because I do take ownership for my communication, I don’t even allow myself to use acronyms. Usually I’ll try to explain them. I’ll use the acronym, but then I’ll explain what it means so people aren’t lost in the communication.

Megan: The solution here is just to take the time to get clear on what you think. One of the biggest reasons we end up with garbled communication is because we don’t take the time. We don’t sit down. We don’t put our thoughts down on paper. We don’t let them sit for a little bit and come back and reread them and make sure they’re at least clear to us. They’re never going to be clear to anybody else if they’re not at least clear to us.

I know when I’ve fallen into this trap myself, I usually tell myself this little story that “I don’t have time to think through that and put it on paper.” It’s much easier, as I’m walking by Courtney on my team, for example (she’s our chief marketing officer), to tell Courtney what I would like her to do instead of to give her a more formal delegation in writing.

Here’s the problem, though. If I have three to five minutes between a meeting… I feel like I’ve been super efficient. I’ve kind of passed her this delegation. Chances are, because I haven’t been as clear as I need to be…I may even have been downright confusing…she’s going to have to come back to me and ask questions. Then the likelihood of her not being able to execute as well as I would have hoped on a delegation I gave her is much higher, because it’s not clear, which means that then it’s going to take more time to fix it later.

She was never set up for success in the beginning. If I would have just taken half an hour at the beginning to articulate what I wanted clearly for her, it would have actually saved me time. We kind of kid ourselves, thinking we’re going to save time by doing this informally, and therefore, it results in this garbled communication, which is a total failure.

Larry: I’m reminded that back in the old, old days when people used to actually take notes in shorthand, take dictation, rather than using electronic means, they had to type up their notes immediately, because the shorthand was never intended to be permanent. It was just a placeholder until they could fill that out with more explicit communication.

So, communication fail #2 is garbled communication, and that’s when you communicate but don’t make your meaning precise. The solution? Get clarity in your own mind before speaking. Let’s talk about communication fail #3, which is implied communication.

Michael: This is the upper left quadrant on the clarity grid. This is communication that’s clear, at least to the speaker, but it’s not expressed or it’s not fully expressed. That was my first boss at the repair shop. In other words, he knew what he wanted, but others didn’t. I certainly didn’t. This is a case where you may know what you want but others don’t. That frustrates you, because people don’t respond as you’d like.

You think to yourself, “Why do I have to spell it out?” Oh, because you didn’t spell it out. People need clear, expressed communication if they’re going to meet your expectations. That’s why we said earlier that you have to own it as the leader. You have to own that communication. If it gets garbled, if it’s not clear, if people don’t carry out your wishes like you would hope, you have to take responsibility for the fact you didn’t fully express what it is you wanted.

Megan: I see this a lot with leaders who lack self-awareness. In the book, Dad, you call this gap awareness. They aren’t aware enough of their teammates and what they know and what they don’t know as compared to what, as the leader, that person knows. You assume that the people who report to you have had the same experiences you’ve had, that they have the same knowledge you have, and therefore, that you should be able to ask for something and they would understand exactly what that means.

Some leaders are even a little bit insecure, and they kind of hoard knowledge, which is its own problem all by itself. More often, they simply lack self-awareness and the awareness of others, and they forget that the people who report to them, whether it’s because someone is new on their team and they weren’t around when this shared experience happened, that maybe you’re not thinking about it very clearly, but you’re just assuming they were here for it, or they’re just generally less experienced…they’re coming from a different industry…or just simply that they’re a different person than you.

They just don’t have that common language, common experience that would allow you to use certain shorthand or other ways of implicit communication. Therefore, there’s this gap between what you think you’re communicating and what they understand, because they just don’t have that baseline for understanding that’s already baked in like you do.

Michael: The solution here is to overcommunicate. In fact, you won’t be overcommunicating, but it’ll feel like it. In fact, if it feels like you’re overcommunicating, you’re probably doing it about right. As a leader, you have what’s called the curse of knowledge. You’re so familiar with something you have a hard time imagining that other people aren’t familiar with it. You have to think like a beginner. When you delegate or make a product announcement or institute any kind of change, give more information than you think people need.

Always communicate the why. This is critically important. This adds so much clarity. When people can understand the rationale behind the decisions or behind the announcements, it really helps. And close the loop by asking, “What do you understand from what I just said?” or “Repeat that back to me,” even.

Megan: The good news about this is that when you communicate like a beginner (in the sense that you’re thinking like a beginner; you’re not assuming anything), you set people up for success and ensure that nobody is going to feel stupid. We’ve all been that person in a meeting, where you’re kind of looking around at the people next to you and wondering, “Did they understand what they’re supposed to do?” And they don’t. Nobody understands.

By being really, really explicit and overcommunicating, you’re saving people the embarrassment of that feeling, which is, honestly, more about you, as the leader, than it is about the people who are catching your poor communication.

Larry: When in doubt, too much information is better than not enough information, especially in a business context. So, fail #3: implied communication, and the solution is to overcommunicate. Michael, we’re launching your new book No-Fail Communication today. I know one thing about you, Michael, is that when you launch a book, you like to give away free stuff to go with it.

Michael: That’s true.

Larry: Is that the case here today, and if so, what can I expect if I get a copy of your book today?

Michael: Well, I wasn’t going to do it, but I didn’t want to disappoint you, Larry, so I have some free bonuses. First off, if you buy the book, you get with it the Key Communication Template Pack, which is a free resource for everyone who gets a book

It includes our Project Vision Caster, which is an amazing tool for delegation; the Hard Conversation Template for whenever you have to have those inevitable hard conversations with your teammates; the Recommendation Briefing Form, which is a form we use internally whenever someone is making a recommendation for which they want a decision; and then our Note-Taking Template, which makes sure you get the best notes from every meeting you attend.

Also, three Executive Summaries for Communication. These are condensed summaries with an Activation Guide for three super good books on communication. First of all, one of my all-time favorites, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Another book: Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement. And finally, another one of my favorites, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. Plus, the Feed Forward Audio Course, “How to Give Constructive Feedback Without Offending.”

If you wrap it all up, the total value of these resources is a little over $400, but you have to act fast. The Executive Summaries for Communication and the Feed Forward Audio Course are available for one week only, and then they’re going to go away. So, to claim your copy and your bonuses, go to You can buy the book there, and you can get your bonuses for free.

Larry: Well, today we’ve learned that you can communicate clearly every time by making your communication explicit and precise, and to arrive there, you need to avoid these three fails. Fail #1: no communication. The solution? Take ownership of your communication as a leader. Fail #2: garbled communication, and the solution is to get clear in your own thinking before you communicate with others. Fail #3: implied communication. The solution is to overcommunicate. What final thoughts do you have today?

Megan: Larry, I think the great news here is that good communication is a skill any leader can learn. There are not that many people who are just born with this as a talent, but it’s okay, because you can develop this as a skill, and it’s really rewarding when you do. What you will find with your team is that not only will your entire culture grow and become what it always could have been, but the trust you’ll be able to command from your team will be exponentially greater the better communicator you become.

That’s really important. It’s important for execution, it’s important for realizing your vision, it’s important for accomplishing goals…all of those things. So, it’s well worth the time. It’s not that hard. You just need to implement some of the strategies we talk about in the book, and you can take your communication to the next level and become a master.

Michael: Just to piggyback on that idea, I think every great communicator started as a poor communicator. The best way to improve is to see every day as another opportunity to practice, to hone your skills, and to get better in communication. If you do that, over time, incrementally, little by little, you’ll get better.

Larry: Thank you both for this episode today. You’ve helped bring clarity to the problem of communication.

Michael: I see what you did there.

Larry: Okay. And also, thanks for the book, Michael. I have read it, and it’s a wonderful book. I know it’s going to help a lot of people in their communication.

Michael: Thank you, Larry. Thank you, Megan. And thank you guys for joining us today. We will see you right here next week. Until then, lead to win.