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You’ve heard the expression, you may even have used it. ‘Communication breakdown’ is a handy metaphor, but a metaphor is symbolic, which means it shouldn’t be taken literally.

When a washing machine, car, or ‘fridge breaks down, it is due to mechanical failure. Some part or system within the machine stops working as it should (the same goes for electronic systems, even though there are no moving parts).

Communication isn’t like that. Typically between two people, it is an exchange of information. You cannot NOT communicate. Even refusal to talk or interact with someone communicates something. In that case, it is sending out information which says “I won’t (or I can’t) communicate”.

Communication breakdown is a handy concept, but it can also be a cop-out. It’s a useful term in that it suggests an impasse, but if you take it literally it becomes an excuse to stop trying.

The next time you meet with a communication breakdown you could try imagining that the term doesn’t exist. For example, ask yourself how you’d describe the situation in literal and behavioural language. “We stopped talking”; “One of us walked away”; “I kept repeating what I was saying and he kept repeating what he was saying”; “As I raised my voice she raised hers and neither of us seemed able to acknowledge what the other was saying”.

If you can do this dispassionately, as an observer without judging or blaming, it might give you insight into what to do next.

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