The Roadblocks to Communication

PURPOSE: To get familiar with the responses that block communication. DIRECTIONS: Read each roadblock and check the ones you tend to use. INTRODUCTION When people are experiencing a problem, most of us have the tendency to jump in with "help" in the form of "good advice" from our own experience, or questioning to get at the "facts" or reassuring to make them feel better. Even though our motivation is to help, these responses do just the opposite and become "roadblocks" that fail to relieve the other's upset, and often make it worse. Roadblocks tend to interfere strongly with the troubled person's ability to stay centered and continue to explore and talk about his or her own perception of the problem. Simply put, roadblocks take the conversational ball out of the troubled person's hands and put it firmly into the listener's.

Here is the complete list:

The 12 Roadblocks

  1. Ordering
  2. Warning
  3. Moralizing
  4. Advising
  5. Using Logic
  6. Criticizing
  7. Praising
  8. Labeling
  9. Analyzing
  10. Reassuring
  11. Questioning
  12. Avoiding

Following are descriptions of the 12 most frequent "helping attempts" when another person is experiencing a problem. (It is important to note that these 12 typical responses are roadblocks only when the other person signals that they are experiencing a problem. When the relationship is in the "No Problem" area, many of these responses are both appropriate and productive [e.g., asking questions, joking, instructing]. Others, like name-calling, criticizing and judging are always risky.)

1. Ordering, Directing, Commanding

("You have to...," "You must...," "You will...") Clearly, power-based responses like this show neither empathy for the team member nor acceptance of his/her strong feeling. Such responses very frequently stop further communication immediately, denying the leader any chance of learning why the team member is upset. Such responses convey that the leader wants to be in charge, so they have no place in a consensual and collaborative relationship. Orders, directives and commands are typically used by authoritarians who do possess power. They carry a high risk of making team members feel they are being treated like children. Most people resent such controlling commands and often retaliate against the leader who uses them.

2. Warning, Threatening, Admonishing

("If you don't, then...," "You'd better or...," "Stop that, or I'll...") Messages in this category certainly don't convey acceptance or empathy of the team member's feeling. Like orders and commands, this Roadblock also can cause resentment and resistance. Team members are likely to respond to warning and threats with an attitude of "How do you know?" or "Who says so?"

3. Moralizing, Preaching, Shoulds and Oughts

("What you really should do is...," "You ought to...," "It's your responsibility...") Telling team members what they should or ought to feel or do is seldom helpful. Such messages bring to bear on others the pressure of some external and often unknown authority-duty, obligation, religion. People frequently respond to such "shoulds," "oughts," and "musts" by resisting and defending their own postures even more strongly. These messages can communicate to team members that you do not trust their ability to judge ideas and values for themselves, so they should accept what others deem right. They may also cause feelings of guilt in team members.

Moralizing messages do not communicate empathic understanding and acceptance. In fact, they convey criticism ("You ought to know better."). Like other authority-based responses, these have a high risk of blocking further communication and bruising the relationship since they convey that the team member is not as wise as the moralizer.

4. Advising, Giving Solutions, Suggesting

("What I would do is...," "Why don't you...," "Let me suggest...")

At first glance, advice may not seem like a roadblock. But it is when given as a response to a message that signals the team member has a strong feeling, a need or a problem. It communicates a lack of confidence in the team members' ability to solve their own problems. Further, it prevents them from thinking through a problem, considering alternative solutions and trying them out. Offering advice and suggestions can cause dependency and resistance.

5. Using Logic, Arguing

("Doesn't it make sense that if...," "Here's where you're wrong...," "The facts are...")

These are attempts to influence the team member with facts, counterarguments, logic, information or your own strong opinions. When you take on such a persuasive role, it's difficult to stop instructing or using arguments, yet this kind of "teaching" often makes team members feel you're seeing them as inferior, subordinate or inadequate. Logic and facts often make others very defensive and resentful. People seldom like to be shown they're wrong. Usually it makes them defend their positions even more strongly. They often go to great lengths to discount your "facts." They may even ignore your facts and assume an "I don't care what others say" attitude. Heavy pushing doesn't build effective relationships with team members, nor does it encourage them to keep talking.

6. Criticizing, Judging, Blaming

("You aren't thinking clearly...," "You have nobody to blame but yourself...," "I couldn't disagree with you more...") Hearing others' problems often tempts us into making negative judgments or evaluations of them. These messages, probably more than any of the others, will make team members feel defensive, inadequate, inferior, stupid, unworthy or bad. Criticisms and negative evaluations also help shape others' self-concepts. As we judge others, so will they judge themselves. Negative criticism also evokes countercriticism. Negative evaluations will strongly influence team members to keep their feelings to themselves. They quickly learn that it isn't safe to reveal their problems. People hate to be judged negatively, so they usually respond defensively to protect their self-images. Often they become angry and feel hostile toward the blamer, especially if the evaluation happens to be correct.

7. Praising, Agreeing, Supporting

("I think you did exactly the right thing!" "I couldn't agree more...," "The same thing happened to me...")

We often think that a positive evaluation or agreement will help team members feel better, keep talking and get over their problems. Contrary to the common belief that such support is always beneficial, it often has very negative effects on a person with negative feelings and problems. A positive evaluation that does not fit the other's self-image may also evoke denial. People also infer that if we can judge them positively, we can just as easily judge them negatively some other time. Also, if praise is frequent, its absence may be interpreted as criticism. Praise is often felt to be manipulative, a subtle way of influencing others to do what you want them to do. And if you praise a lot, you run the risk of making people so dependent on your praise that they cannot function without constant approval from you.

8. Labeling, Name-Calling, Ridiculing

("You're being a worry-wart...," "You men always think...," "Okay, Miss Know-It-All...") These responses are bound to make team members feel foolish, inferior or wrong. Such messages can have very damaging effects on their self-image. People most frequently respond to them by being defensive: "I'm not macho." Name-calling can provoke so much defensiveness that team members respond by arguing or fighting back rather than taking a close look at themselves. These commonly employed responses have a high risk of irritating team members by putting them down rather than conveying acceptance and empathy.

9. Analyzing, Interpreting, Diagnosing

("You're just trying to...," "What your problem is...," "You probably feel that way because...")

Such responses tell others what you think their motives are or why they're doing or saying something. Analyzing can communicate that you think you have them all figured out and can diagnose their motives which can be very threatening to them. If the analysis is accurate, which it rarely is, the team member may feel embarrassed at being exposed. If the analysis is wrong the team member could become hurt, angry and resistant. When we play the role of amateur psychoanalyst and analyze and interpret, we often communicate to others that we think we are superior to them. Such messages usually block communication with others and they are very likely to damage relationships.

10. Reassuring, Sympathizing, Consoling

("Don't worry...," "Look on the bright side..." "Everyone goes through this...")

Reassurance and sympathy are used far too much in dealing with team members. It is very tempting to try to make others feel better by talking them out of their feelings, minimizing their difficulties, denying the seriousness of their problems. Such messages are not as helpful as most people think. To reassure

team members when they have a problem may only convince them that you don't really understand ("You wouldn't say that if you knew how strongly I feel."). We often reassure others because we're uncomfortable with hearing their strong negative feelings so we want to avoid hearing them. Such messages tell others that you can't accept what they are feeling so bad about. Also, people can easily interpret reassurances as a subtle and indirect attempt to change them.

11. Questioning, Probing, Interrogating

("Why did you do that?...," "And then what did you say?...," "Did you let your supervisor know?...")

When team members' messages clearly indicate they are having some kind of problem that is generating strong feelings, then probing questions can be strong roadblocks and can damage the relationship. Probing questions ignore the feeling the team member is experiencing which can be interpreted by him/her as a lack of understanding or caring. In fact, probing questions are often consciously used when one doesn't want to deal with a person's feelings. Probing questions also convey that the questioner is taking over the problem-gathering the relevant facts to help find a solution rather than Active Listening to facilitate the team member's own problem-solving process. Not only do probing questions shift the locus of responsibility from the team member to the leader but they also limit the team member's area of freedom to talk about whatever s/he feels is relevant and important. If you ask people closed-ended probing questions, all you will get is an answer, nothing more. In other words, probing questions program the team member's next message as clearly as if the leader said, "I don't want to hear anything else from you other than the answer to what I just asked."

12. Avoiding, Diverting, Ignoring

("I'd rather not talk about it...," "That's your problem...," "You think you've got problems...") This category includes messages that convey a strong desire to withdraw or a wish to distract the person from the problem through ignoring, kidding or changing the subject. Such messages clearly communicate lack of interest in the way the team member is, here and now. They also convey lack of respect for a person's feelings. Team members are generally quite serious and intent when they get the courage to talk about their feelings. If they hear a response that diverts or ignores them, it can make them feel hurt, rejected, belittled, frustrated or angry. Putting team members off or diverting their feelings may for the moment appear successful, but unacknowledged feelings do not usually go away. Psychotherapists have proven that feelings not acknowledged and accepted often come up again and again. When leaders fail to acknowledge messages of their team members and proceed to change the subject, which can seriously bruise a relationship.