THE BLOG
07/28/2014 04:51 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

Why Communication Fails and How to Fix It: The Perception Gap

Sometimes merely focusing on communicating with your team isn't enough. Why? Because the intention you set forth is often misunderstood by your audience. The gap between what you mean to communicate and what is actually communicated is known as the Perception Gap.

What is a Perception Gap?

Simply put, a perception gap occurs when the intention you set forth and communicate is misunderstood by your audience -- bosses, peers, subordinates, clients, partners, and even friends. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Here's why:

There are seven different forms of human communication: spatial, linguistic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, and logical-mathematic. While communicating a step-by-step list would work well with a logical-mathematic communicator, the conversation has a high probability of being misunderstood by a spatial communicator, who leans heavily on interconnected ideas. On the other hand, intrapersonal communicators need time and space to digest what has been communicated to them, in contrast to interpersonal communicators who prefer a group discussion.

Every person has a different primary and secondary communication form in which they best grasp and retain information. Consequently, you may run into trouble when your communication style strays far from another's primary and secondary communication style.

That "trouble" is the Perception Gap. Let's take a look at an example.

Example of a Perception Gap

Here is a perfect example: Manager Mike calls a meeting with a team member. The team member enters Mike's office. Mike shuts the door, and says bluntly: "We are behind on the deadline for our big project. I need you to get everything completed and on my desk by the end of this week, no exceptions. I know I can count on you. " Mike then opens the door, ushers the team member out and shuts the door.

The team member, not understanding Mike's personality and communication style, leaves Mike's office thinking, "My boss is a jerk. He doesn't understand or care what the cause of our project delay is; I really need to ask him an important question about the deliverable, but the heck with it now."

In this example, the Perception Gap is clear: the boss, Mike, simply intended to communicate urgency and actually called in his top team performer to get the job done on time. However, the team member interpreted Mike's communication as hostile and blaming, the impact being an erosion of trust. Consequently, good communication is thwarted, and the chances of the project being completed on time are now slim to none.

Results of a Perception Gap

Thwarting good communication is just the beginning of the problems a Perception Gap can incite. What comes next is the domino effect of a Perception Gap, which can be harsh: small misinterpretations grow into large misunderstandings, which grow into erroneous stories, which ultimately erode trust, credibility and transparency, all of which negatively impact performance.

It's amazing how a simple conversation can have such a negative effect on not only performance, but on relationships as well. It's important for managers to be aware of how they are communicating, in relation to whom they are communicating with. Get to know your team member's communication styles and aim to communicate in a manner that they are more likely to receive accurately and positively.

But how should managers handle a Perception Gap if one arises?

How to Deal with a Perception Gap

When it comes to a Perception Gap, clarity is the best defense. So make it a habit to reach out to people in the moment, or soon after the fact and ask, "Here's how I intended that message to be understood...how did you receive it?" This requires strong self-management, so be sure that you're open and ready for the answer to your question, whatever it may be. For example, your intention may have been to effectively get through the agenda in 45 minutes, so that everybody can leave work on time. Yet the feedback suggested you were curt and abrupt. While this feedback may have triggered an emotional response in you, a self-aware leader will thank the person for her feedback, accept the feedback, ask some clarifying questions and aim to minimize the gap in future meetings. Here are some specific tips for preventing Perception Gaps.

Tips for Preventing a Perception Gaps

Managers can take the following steps BEFORE they start communicating in order to lessen the likelihood of a potential Perception Gap.

  1. At the beginning of a call or meeting, state: "My intention for this meeting/call is X." That way, the team or team member can frame the meeting content within the stated intentions.
  2. At the end of the meeting or call, ask for feedback by saying "My intention for this meeting/call was X. How did I do?" This reiterates your intention to the team, and creates a welcoming environment for clarifying questions.
  3. Listen carefully to the reply to see if there is a Perception Gap.

It's a good idea to get in the habit of taking the above three steps before any communication takes place with your team. Unfortunately, communication may fail anyway. If that happens, here is how to deal with a Perception Gap.

Tips for Managing a Perception Gap

Here are the two steps for managing Perception Gaps.

1. Ask yourself four questions:

  • What communication method was used? Remember the seven different forms of human communication mentioned earlier. Identify the communication style that was used in this situation and consider if that communication style was appropriate for those being communicated to.
  • How was my communication received and perceived? The feedback received from stating, "My intention for this meeting/call was X. How did I do?" will provide helpful insight into how others have received and perceived the intended communication.
  • What might the other party's story be? With the seven forms of human communication in mind, managers can use feedback to understand the perspective of the other party.
  • What could happen if I don't address the gap? Asking this question will help you look to the future and importance of the current relationship.

2. Clarify the Perception Gap in a compassionate, non-threatening way.

It's easy to make the other person "wrong", saying something like, "What's wrong with you? Why don't you understand what I'm saying?" Yet it's important to remember that the person is a human being with worries that extend outside of work. So approach them with openness and find out where the communication gap occurred by saying something like "It seems I wasn't clear. Let's start again. What did you understand so I can fill in the blanks for you?" Then listen carefully and address the situation as quickly as possible. It is important to be compassionate, and actively non-threatening.

Do you have your own tricks for mitigating Perception Gaps? What has been your experience in managing Perception Gaps? Let's communicate about it. Please send me a tweet, leave a comment below, or write me an email.