What Should We Do When Communication Breaks Down?
Written by Jim Knight.


Communication is not easy work. It is even more challenging given all the uncertainty we are facing these days. It is one thing to read or hear about listening, and trust, and effective questioning, and nod our head in agreement.  “Yes of course we need to be better listeners,” we might say. “Yes of course I want my words and actions to communicate respect.”  But it isn’t so easy when we feel we are insulted, or diminished, or bullied, or when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly, or treated like a stereotype. In organizations people are passionate about what they do and they take their work seriously (don’t we want every school filled with people who take this work to heart?) and sometimes people can let their emotions get the better of them. We can walk away from conversations, feeling saddened, weakened, even hopeless.  At times, it can seem like no matter what we do respectful conversation is impossible.



During those moments when conversations fail, we need to keep ourselves moving forward. The first step may be that you need to forgive yourself. After an unpleasant conversation, we can feel a kind of heart-breaking guilt.  We feel like we’ve done something wrong, but sometimes our perceptions or memories of the conversation are simply incorrect, and sometimes we feel guilty even though we can’t even say why. This kind of soul-crushing, untethered guilt can make us want to stay in our bed all day.


Certainly, we need to learn more about how we communicate, so that we have more knowledge about what we do well, and where we need to improve. That’s why I think it can be very helpful for people to video record their conversations and look back on the recordings to see and reflect on how they communicated. But I think the most important action you can make is to forgive yourself. We are human.  There is a reason why there is a clear button on the ATM machine.  People make mistakes, and just like everyone else, you will make mistakes. You are a wonderful, imperfect human being, so remember that and start by forgiving yourself.


Perhaps just as important is forgiving others. People are such complicated collections of life experiences, both good and bad.  It is rare that we can fully understand why people do and say what they do. As Longfellow famously said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each [person’s] life, sorrow, and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” If we truly knew what our conversation partners were dealing with, chances are we would be quick to forgive and more inclined to offer help than criticism.


Exceptions to the Rule

The one exception to this rule is when conversation partners are verbally abusive.  When people use words to attack, their blows against us can do more damage than physical abuse. When people are verbally abusive, they constantly criticize, belittle, or insult. Abusers tell you that you said things you didn’t say, which can lead you to question your own sense of reality. They make conversations personal rather than focused on the issues. They use language to diminish other’s self-efficacy, often so that they can control those others they are attacking. When we are experiencing verbal abuse, the first step is to disengage from the conversation as quickly as possible. We also need to learn as much as possible about recognizing and responding to verbally abusive conversations (for more information on the topic, a good place to start is Patricia Evan’s The Verbally Abusive Relationship (2010). Fortunately, most of the time we are not experiencing abuse.

One last way to move through emotionally exhausting conversations is to feed your soul. If you love music, listen to the music that brings you joy. If you love to cook, stir up a delicious dish. If you love to watch sports, look up and watch an old classic game or highlight from your favorite team. Another idea is to take the time to do the activities that fully engage you, whatever they might be—go for a walk or a run, read a book, play a board game, or maybe listen to a meditation. Finally, the best antidote to the way you feel after a tough conversation might be to have a positive conversation with someone who will listen to you and communicate with you in the ways described in this chapter. If you are fortunate enough to have a friend or partner who will listen to you and affirm you, you may find that a great conversation is still one of the best experiences we can have to fortify our souls.


What do you do to feed your soul? Answer in the comments below.



  1. Jan Hasbrouck

    Jim, this is lovely and timely for all of us, I’m sure. I’m currently reading “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999). It was just re-released as the 10th anniversary edition. Superb, insightful guidance for those conversations that all coaches will face at some point, and every human being will, too!

  2. Diana Morello

    Thank you for acknowledging, even though it is far and few between, that we must be aware and guard ourselves from abusive communicators. Thank you for this heart felt message for such a time as this

  3. Terri Boman

    Dr. Knight, this is very appropriate for these times. We are spending more time with those we love and conversations can be tenuous. I need to focus on forgiving myself. I resonated with you line concerning the guilt and wanting to stay in bed all day. I feed my soul by sitting in my happy place watch birds and thinking then journaling. There is always music playing in the background!

  4. Anne Parks

    I am so hard on myself when I make a gaff in conversation. I’m still mentally revising discussions I had with college boyfriends, so you know I do it with professional conversations! That said, I’ve learned 2 things that really have worked for me with this: assume everyone is doing his/her best (thank you Brene’ Brown) which helps guide me to positive presuppositions, and forgive myself, as you stated above. Imperfect Human, here, after all.

    That said, I’ve been feeding my soul by feeding myself and my family. I’m taking this additional time at home to focus on really good, healthful comfort foods. Having my whole family here to enjoy every meal every day with is a bonus.

  5. Stephanie Martinez

    This was very powerful at a time like this where stress is high. All of us will have conversations in the next month where the stress has taken over and either yourself or the one you are speaking to may not have the best words to be said. I think the first thing is that you need to recognize when you get to this point an do something to offset it. And then understand that those you are coaching have the same anxiety and stress that you do.

  6. Purvi

    I think this article triggers and constantly reminds that we need to watch our actions. The verbal encounter is devastating and lasts longer both in mind and heart.I have dealt with people who have been brutally arrogant and blunt. That’s when I decided how important is feeding my soul.I personally liked the exemplars doing what you like and forgive yourself and others. Taking something challenging , listening to music elevates mood for good.


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