When Communication Totally Breaks Down

As someone who works in the communication field, either with translation or coaching, there’s a lot to be said for those communication breakdowns: whether that question is how to facilitate the group back to the topic at hand, once someone says something out of the blue from a topic for 5 minutes ago, how to best translate a piece of software or technology using the right connotation, tone, and concision, or even how to give nonverbal feedback when a coaching client says something that I can somewhat understand, but there might be a better, more correct, or more precise way to say the same sentence.

For a world that loves how quickly and easily it communicates, these communication breakdowns happen pretty frequently.

You’ll hear the dreaded words: “misunderstanding” or “miscommunication”. It’s how we might think one thing will happen, and on a video call, in a meeting, or through a dreaded email chain, find that someone else entirely is at play. It’s how I thought I was going to a meeting to talk about Spanish, and instead got pitched a healthcare sales job.

For communication to be successful, there are a few different pieces needed: words and sentences may be the tools, but it’s really the purpose, intent, and expectations around those words and sentences that mean the most to communication.

This is how we can have communication across language barriers, and this is where those barriers put up the most fight: on the purpose, intent, and expectations. There also needs to be a fair amount of trust: you trust yourself to act within certain social constructs, to say what you mean in a socially appropriate way, and you trust the person with whom you’re doing business with to act within those same social constructs. This might mean not demanding a phone call at 1 am or keeping inappropriate comments at bay during the normal office setting.

The language does not matter at this point, but the trust and that relationship does.

For me as a translator, the intent and trust are two of the most important pieces of communication, and once they’re hindered, they’re also the hardest to build back up. There’s a boatload of trust that goes into translation and getting it just right, and to build that trust, I offer samples under a certain word limit for free and study Spanish every day so that I understand that purpose in the native language as best as I can. However, it can be hard to distinguish someone’s intent when they ask me to translate thousands of words for free, or when they re-translate something I’ve already translated and edited. This shows that the trust is not there and immediately leads to a communication breakdown. Though we have the same intent (get the best possible translated text), the expectations are not the same. The language does not matter at this point, but the trust and that relationship does.

As a coach, my clients trust me for that real-time feedback to improve their Spanish. In some ways, language is wonderful because there are many different ways to say one thing, but while learning that language, it can be really difficult to learn and go through all of the possibilities of saying that singular sentence or intent. Consistency builds up that trust and relationship because we all have shared goals and intents: to communicate the best we can in Spanish.

Communication breakdowns will happen, but when they do, we need to review the intent, purpose, and expectations. These breakdowns are easier to overcome, the stronger that relationship is. The more we build on trust, shared purpose, and intent, the quicker we can trust ourselves to get through a communication breakdown. Communication is a lot more than just words on a page: it’s a skill, and as with all skills, it simply takes practice.


Megan Miller
Megan Miller
As one enamored with deep thinking and deep conversations, Megan Miller shares her findings and experiences as a word nerd and language lover worldwide. With more than 2 decades of Spanish under her belt, Megan has experienced firsthand the benefits of bilingualism. Megan is the founder and owner of Aprovechar Language Solutions, a translation and Spanish/English language coaching business that focuses on mindset, habit, and real-world examples to improve people’s confidence and comfortability in speaking and communicating. When she’s not coaching or translating, Megan uses her communication skills as an IT Project Manager to produce technological solutions and likes to travel and bake in her free time

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  1. So well said, Megan. There’s no such thing as misperception, but miscommunication most definitely exists! I love this concept, that there will always be communication break-downs, but when we consider our intent and trust in the relationship, those break-downs will be less severe and more likely to result in an even closer relationship when the solution presents itself. Great piece here.

  2. I absolutely love that we can delve deeper into a subject – in this case, communication – by simply looking at it through a different lens! That’s exactly what you did here with this piece, Megan. You’ve allowed me to understand trust and intent in a much richer way. Thank you, friend! Beautiful insight!