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How To Navigate The Most Treacherous Hazards On The Communication Highway

Written by: Beth Johnson, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Early in my leadership career, I began to observe how people communicated in various settings. I soon realized that most interactions failed to foster understanding, engagement, and timely responses. It appeared that most people simply wanted to share their own agenda and opinions. I get it. I was one of them! Yet even the most seasoned leaders, whom I tried to emulate, struggled to communicate effectively. Too often, they fell back on directives rather than providing guidance or support, much to the detriment and progress of those in their charge.

After years of observation and study, and with some help from my mentor John Maxwell, it hit me. During our school years, we received instruction on subjects or professions. However, little emphasis was placed on successfully interacting with our fellow humans. We graduated without understanding the nuances and complexity of communicating.

A few years later, spurred on by a period of great discontent amongst my direct reports, I decided to change my own communication practices. Self-reflection, therapy, and most importantly, listening to employee feedback, led me to understand that their dissent had started with me. I committed to improve myself and help guide my team, but I had no idea where or how to introduce what I heard learned. In the end, I chose to use a common analogy - the perils of a busy highway – what I call our Communication Highway.

Similar to navigating a fast-paced interstate, communicating with other people has its inherent hazards. Each time we ‘merge’ we make navigation decisions that may deliver us to our destination in a timely and safe manner, or perhaps the opposite, leave us stranded on a rutted dirt road preparing for a visit from Bigfoot!

Yet, if we want to succeed, none of us can avoid this highway. It is a path required in helping us reach desired outcomes. Because, as we know, no one succeeds alone. We must engage others.

It can be tricky to navigate a road shared with people whose style, experience,s and habits differ from ours. On the Communication Highway, tires go flat, wrong turns are taken, and vehicles cut you off. Deep ruts and damaging potholes develop when the highway is neglected. Forks in the road appear out of nowhere requiring decisions you had not anticipated. On the Communication Highway, we find people:

  • Exiting (unexpectedly leaving a conversation)

  • Avoiding Potholes (reacting versus responding)

  • Swerving (changing conversational direction)

  • Off-roading (going against the crowd)

  • Detouring (straying too far off-topic)

  • Stopping (shutting down)

  • Congestion (too many people/ideas/emotions)

Leaders, it is a safe bet you will run across these conditions multiple times a day when trying to influence or inspire team members. To successfully navigate each condition requires clear, direct and honest communication in its many forms. In short, everything you hope to accomplish is impacted by your communication decisions.

It’s no secret that leaders today are heavily taxed on time and energy. When the rubber meets the road, deadlines and company objectives often take priority. Yet it is critical in these moments to communicate with the individuals and teams assigned to meet those deadlines, and achieve those goals. They will stall out if the vision, mission, and expected outcomes are relayed in a stunted or rushed manner, or worse, not at all.

Having said all that, there are two hazards in particular that I find present the most danger and create the most chaos on our Communication Highway -- Assumptions and Expectations.

Hazard No.1 ‒ Assumptions

While financial and hiring assumptions have their place in business they do not belong in our day-to-day communication. If you prefer a favorable outcome, that is.

You may feel you can relate to another person’s situation or believe you know how he or she feels or will act, based on historical data. However, even if you have a history or experience with them, it is unsafe and disrespectful to assume how they will respond. You can guess, but to plan your response based on your assumption is reckless at best. When responding based on assumption versus fact, a negative component of communication is introduced, one that can be perceived by others as:

  • Deflection of your true feelings, beliefs or fears.

  • Unwillingness to own your choices.

  • Your desire to be right.

Furthermore, when assumptions are made it is human nature for the receiving party to take a defensive position. They may fight (argumentative), freeze (stop listening), flight (avoidance) or fawn (submissiveness), all of which are counter-intuitive to engagement and progress.

In his book, "Don't Make Assumptions: The Four Agreements", Don Miguel Ruiz outlines the damages we do to self and others when we assume. My favorite excerpt reads, “Because we are afraid to ask for clarification, we make assumptions; then we defend our assumptions and try to make someone else wrong. It is always better to ask questions than to make an assumption, because assumptions set us up for suffering.”

Don reveals here the 1 tool for squashing assumptions. Ask questions. Be curious. Dig for truth and reality. Doing so will save you countless hours of frustration. Misunderstanding and conflict create time-consuming and unnecessary meetings, elongated projects, employee dissent, and team breakdowns. Asking questions can help mitigate these issues and so much more. Here are some other reasons why taking the time to ask, to converse, trumps assuming every time:

  • When others feel heard, they are more receptive to what you have to say.

  • When you build trust and establish two-way respect, people are more likely to follow.

  • Your choices will be made using fact versus hearsay or intuition.

  • Problems resolve more quickly with reduced focus on negative emotions.

  • Connection and creative thinking happen organically, leading to better results.

Assumptions are the termites of relationships. Henry Winkler

Hazard No.2 ‒ Expectations

For this article, I refer to expectations as the ‘unstated, unshared prediction of another person’s results, words or actions based on a hunch or an assumption’. Setting expectations of or for another human being without giving them a voice in the matter, no matter how honorable the intent, is simply an attempt to control both the outcome and other person.

Left unshared, the other party (whether employee, colleague or manager) is working with a data set based on his or her interpretation, experience, and knowledge. If that data set differs from your expectation, your interaction will inevitably fail. Trust issues will arise, creating massive roadblocks for you both. Progress will stall. Relationships will suffer.

Following are a few examples of unstated, unshared expectations that will bring open communication and collaboration to a screeching halt:

  • I expect they will do their job the way I want it done.

  • I expect others to keep me informed.

  • I expect my employees to know and follow the company vision.

  • I expect my teams to stay in constant communication.

  • I expect all employees to understand and respect our current financial position.

  • I expect my boss knows I will meet the deadline since I have clearly been working hard.

Most of us struggle or even choose not to voice our expectations when under strict time constraints, heavy workload, or during conflict. Ironically, those are the most critical times to communicate. Unspoken expectations lead to misunderstanding, blame, and contention. All of which can be mitigated by clearly starting your expectation. Let’s look at this example.

A leader has asked that a new training manual be written. The leader should provide the following five pieces of data, at a minimum:

  1. WHAT: A 100-page, 2-sided training manual for the customer management system.

  2. WHO: Who writes? Who leads? Who collaborates? Who reviews? Who receives the final product?

  3. WHEN: What specific day and time should drafts and final version be delivered?

  4. HOW: How should the manual be presented? Digital or print?

  5. WHERE: To which digital or physical address do you expect delivery?

Assuming that the people involved in this project already know the answers to one or more of these five questions sets everyone up for failure. For instance, they may fall short of 100 pages, involve others too early, deliver past the time you needed to make your deadlines, present in a format that is difficult for you to review or requires a software you don’t have. Just one of these unvoiced expectations can create frustration, confusion, lost time and money, and more.

So the next time you set an expectation, voice it. Share the specifics. The minutes you spend doing this can save you hours of future frustration. Not to mention that doing so gives all parties equal opportunity to participate, clarify and voice concern in the moment, reducing or eliminating long email threads, unnecessary meetings, and project delays. The short and long-term payoffs can be priceless. A clearly stated expectation can shift both parties' focus toward creating an intentional and mutually beneficial result.

Expectations are like fine pottery. The harder you hold them, the more likely they are to crack. ‒ Brandon Sanderson

When you make a commitment to ‘ask versus assume’ and to ‘voice your expectations’ you limit negative interactions and stabilize your own road conditions. Your Communication Highway is then clear of hazards and traffic will flow smoothly. Best of luck on your future journeys!

For more tips on navigating your own Communication Highway, click here for a complete copy of my e-book The Communication Highway, a Guide to Navigating Conversational Potholes.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Beth Johnson, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

‘Culture Concierge’ Beth Johnson partners with gutsy leaders as they flip the script to cultivate and uphold people-first cultures. Beth focuses on 6 core leadership principles, all of which are inextricably tied to emotional agility, conscientious communication, and conflict management. As a leader in both the U.S. and Europe, Johnson reenergized and reorganized multiple teams formerly labeled as disengaged, fatigued, or failing. Beth has always promoted human-centric leadership and her 25+ years of leadership experience has proven that ROI follows.



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