#PRQuote: Stop Talking Past Each Other

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

– George Bernard Shaw

There are times when a C-Suite Executive instructs his colleague, and the person would not decipher the message. When he returns with what he was sent to do, the Executive would ask, “But I explained to you? Did you not understand my instructions?”

This is what happens when we assume that we have communicated but did not. This is the reason why customer service representatives are trained to always re-echo what the customer has said so that there would be no assumptions.

According to a Harvard Business Review written by Judith E. Glaser, People often think they’re talking to each other when they’re really talking past each other. They carry on monologues, not dialogues.

There is a biological explanation for this: when we express ourselves, our bodies release a higher level of reward hormones, and we feel great. The more we talk, the better we feel. Our bodies start to crave that high, and we become blind to the conversational dynamics. While we’re being rewarded, the people we’re talking to might consciously or subconsciously feel cut off, invisible, unimportant, minimized and rejected, which releases the same neurochemicals as physical pain.

Feeling that rejection sends them into a “fight, flight” response, releasing cortisol, which floods the system and shuts down the prefrontal cortex, or executive brain, letting the amygdala, or lower brain, take over. To compound conversational challenges, the brain disconnects about every 12-18 seconds to evaluate and process, which means we’re often paying as much attention to our own thoughts as we are to other people’s words.

These are natural impulses. But we have to learn to master them because clear two-way, empathetic, non-judgmental communication is critical for the high functioning of any business. It’s how deals get done, projects get run, and profits get earned. That’s why I now spend my time teaching people how to become more intelligent about conversations.

Recognize your blind spots.


  • assuming that others see what you see, feel what you feel, and think what you think, since that’s rarely the case
  • failing to recognize that emotions, such as fear and distrust, change how you and others interpret and talk about reality
  • thinking you understand and remember what others say, when you really only remember what you think about what they’ve said.
  • underestimating your own propensity to have conversational blind spots!


  • paying attention to and minimizing the time you “own” the conversational space
  • sharing that space by asking open-ended discovery questions, to which you don’t know the answers, so you stay curious (i.e. What influenced your thinking?)
  • listening non-judgmentally to the answers
  • asking follow-up questions

They started asking discovery questions and paying close attention to their customers’ answers, which expanded their frame of reference and gave them new insights into needs and opportunities. In so doing, the executives presented themselves as conversationally intelligent partners.

Let me end with the words of Dr. Amy Zalman “Good communicators reveal, in speech and action that they understand the motivations and aspirations of their audiences- and it is via this understand that they gain their sympathies”.

Olutayo Irantiola writes #PRQuotes weekly

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