When things don’t go as they should at work, tensions can rise and workplace communication breakdown happens. At best you might not communicate as effectively as you normally do with your coworkers, and at worst, things can start to feel personal leading to situations escalating further. To avoid this, here are 19 questions to ask when communication breaks down before you take things personally. 

1. What’s in the best interest of the team/business/project? 

Whatever’s going on, if you can stay focused on the matter at hand it will be easier not to take things personally when communication breaks down. Even if you’re working with a difficult colleague whose behaving badly, set yourself apart by staying focused on what you’re trying to achieve. 

2. Am I being singled out?

When someone’s behaving badly or communicating in a way that feels personal, it’s worth asking if this behavior is specific to you. This doesn’t mean to say that bad behavior is acceptable,  but it will help you to understand if the communication breakdown is due to their attitude and is personal to you or a wider-reaching issue. 

3. What would I have done if I were in the other person’s shoes? 

We’ve all had moments when we haven’t responded to things as well as we would like. For this reason, it’s worth trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, when communication starts to break down and things start to feel personal. 

Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes will help you to not only understand where they may be coming from, why they might be frustrated and why they may be feeling angry, but it will also help you to understand the best way to respond and how to work with them more effectively going forwards. 

4. What was the alternative response the other person could have given?

This might seem like a strange question to be asking in the midst of a workplace communication breakdown. However, even asking yourself this after the interaction has ended will provide you with a great learning opportunity because it invites you to analyze exactly where things went wrong and how communication could have been improved. 

5. What response would I have preferred?

Again, the purpose of asking yourself this question is to learn. This question will help you to understand more about how you like to communicate. It builds self-awareness. In addition to this, by reflecting on how you would have preferred the conversation to go, and reflecting on what would have been your preferred response, you can identify why things fall apart with communication and specifically what makes communication feel like a personal attack. Understanding this is valuable so that you can avoid making the same mistakes in your communication style and approach. 

6. Does the other person’s point support the wider business goal?

Sometimes, it’s not what someone says but how they say it. When it comes to communication breakdown, the tone used is a big culprit. 

You might know that the point someone is making is a good one, but you don’t like how they make it. It’s important to remember this in the heat of the moment, when communication breaks down and when tensions are high. 

It may be best to focus on achieving the desired outcome right now and making time to discuss the communication mistakes later when things have calmed down. 

7. What are we trying to achieve here? 

This question serves as a reminder that you’re all on the same team. Even if you’re working with another department, ultimately it’s in everyone’s interest that the business goals and objectives are achieved. 

8. What’s the objective?

As with the question above, asking what’s the objective will get everyone back on track and focusing on the task at hand. 

9. How does this person typically communicate?

Sometimes people act out of character. While this could be due to work-related stress, it’s important to remember that colleagues may be experiencing stress outside of work. If a colleague’s communication feels personal but is also out of character, consider the fact that they may be going through something difficult outside of work, and might feel unable to ask for help. 

10. How can we make this a productive conversation? 

Our brains naturally seek solutions. Asking how the conversation could be more productive directs everyone involved to try to come up with a productive answer to the question.

11. What’s a better approach to this communication/situation? 

If a discussion isn’t going well, it may well be that a different approach is needed. Perhaps you need to have another person involved that isn’t present, or perhaps you need to revisit the conversation when you have more facts and figures to hand. Either way, a change of approach is sometimes all that’s needed to ensure a more successful communication outcome. 

12. Do I need to take a step back from this? 

When we’re deeply involved in something, it can be hard to remain objective. When you’ve poured your heart and soul into a piece of work, having someone giving you lots of criticism could feel very personal, no matter how constructive the feedback is. That’s why sometimes you need to take a step back. 

This could mean taking a moment and coming back to the discussion at a time when you feel calmer, or it could mean reminding yourself of the value that feedback provides. 

13. Is this the best time for this conversation?

When it comes to communication, timing is everything and the right discussion at the wrong time will often not yield good results and can quickly lead to a breakdown in communication. 

14. What else could they mean? 

This question is particularly important when it comes to written communication. Emails can come across in a very different way than they were intended and it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion. But before you take things personally, ask yourself if there could be another less upsetting meaning behind the communication. 

15. What’s the underlying issue here?

Sometimes with communication, you can end up going round in circles and never reach an agreement, which is frustrating for everyone concerned. 

In my experience, when this happens it’s often because there is an underlying issue that isn’t being addressed. You may be trying to solve the problem when what’s needed is an understanding of the root cause. 

16. What can I do to help?

Usually when people get angry, upset, or frustrated it’s because some expectation that they had isn’t being met. 

Maybe there was a different understanding of what was to be delivered in terms of the work product or the timescales, or perhaps there isn’t alignment in terms of roles and responsibilities. 

Either way, I have found that asking people how you can help them will get to the heart of what they require as quickly as possible.  

17. What can I learn from this situation? 

When communication breaks down, it’s critical to learn from the situation, otherwise, the same communication challenges and mistakes will keep cropping up. 

Reflecting on what you can learn is the first step to ensuring that you improve your communication skills in the future. 

18. What can we all learn from this situation?

Of course, communication isn’t one-sided and for it to be effective and for future communication breakdown to be avoided, everyone needs to understand what’s gone wrong and take lessons from the situation. 

This is why all parties must come together and discuss the lessons learned. 

19. How could I approach this differently in the future? 

Finally, there’s no point talking about lessons learned if nothing changes. Writing down the key lessons from the experience but also what actions you will take to improve things going forwards is the key to lasting improvement and more effective communication in the future.  

Are you ready to improve your workplace communication skills? Then read on…

Are You Making These  10 Common & Costly Communication Mistakes?

9 Different Types Of Communication In The Workplace And When To Use Them