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

Despite your best efforts, there’s a very good chance that your communication is being perceived and processed in a way you did not intend. The disconnect between what is meant to be communicated and what is actually understood is known as a Perception Gap.

In this two part series, I will talk about Perception Gaps, what they look like, how to deal with them, and how they can be prevented.

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 it happens.

There are 7 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 grasp and retain information best. Therefore, 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.

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 the example above, the Perception Gap is clear: the boss, Mike, simply intended to communicate urgency and he 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 and with quality are now slim to none.

Thwarting both good communication and the chances of a project being completed 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? Stay tuned for part two in my series on Perception Gaps, where I will explain how to deal with Perception Gaps and provide practical tips for preventing them.

Are you aware of your own communication style? Can you pinpoint the communication styles that you have the most difficulty communicating effectively with? Let’s communicate about it

Let us share experiences. Leave a comment below, send us an email, or find us on Twitter.

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CHCI believes that the skills, capabilities, and well-being of employees are the most integral parts of any organization’s path to long-term success.

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Center For Human Capital Innovation

CHCI believes that the skills, capabilities, and well-being of employees are the most integral parts of any organization’s path to long-term success.