The Most Common Communication Mistake You Don’t Realize You’re Making

The Most Common Communication Mistake You Don't Realize You're Making

Think about a time as a manager when you’ve given a staff member feedback, but the message just didn’t get through. You weren’t on the same page, or even reading the same book.

You might have fallen prey to a communication phenomenon called “switchtracking.” The concept was coined by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.

A switchtrack conversation is like being at a railyard, and while one person is heading one direction, the other party flips a railroad switch, and they start heading down an entirely different track. You may be having a back and forth conversation, but in your minds, you’re heading farther and farther apart.

When you give feedback, your staff member might “switchtrack” you, which might sound a little something like this:

You: When you were on the phone with a patient earlier, you sounded short with them. I need you to prioritize being polite.

Staff Member: I don’t like the phone system we have in place. It’s frustrating to use.

While you think the problem is that your staff member was rude to a patient, your staff member thinks the real problem is the technology you have in place at the pharmacy.

Usually, the person doing the switchtracking doesn’t realize that they are changing the subject, and often, the other party doesn’t recognize that what they said wasn’t really heard. Until both parties can get back on the same track, it will be hard for any feedback to sink in.

Why Switchtracking Happens

When a conversation gets switchtracked, it’s often caused by a relationship trigger, according to Stone and Heen. The issue isn’t necessarily the content of the feedback, but with who is delivering the feedback, as well as where it’s delivered, how it’s delivered, and when it’s delivered.

Those relationship triggers fall into two categories: the person will switchtrack the conversation and discard feedback because of who is delivering it, or they will switchtrack based on how they feel treated.

When people switchtrack because of who is delivering feedback, it often looks like one of these three situations:

  • The person receiving feedback thinks the person giving feedback is exhibiting poor judgment by when, where, or how they give that feedback. If a manager criticizes a staff member in public instead of in private, the conversation could switch tracks and become about how the staff member feels they’ve been embarrassed in front of their peers.
  • The person receiving feedback doesn’t find the person giving feedback credible. They might say, “You don’t use the pharmacy management system as often as I do, so you aren’t qualified to criticize my pace.” The conversation then becomes about a manager’s qualifications instead of the content of the feedback.
  • The person receiving feedback doesn’t trust the person giving it. They aren’t convinced that their manager has their best interests at heart, and therefore, any feedback they receive from their manager is tainted by doubt. In this case, the conversation might not actually switch tracks in the open, but in their head, staff members will be countering every piece of feedback with, “They’re just jealous,” or, “They don’t want me to succeed.”

When people switchtrack because of how they feel treated, situations often manifest in these ways:

  • The person receiving feedback feels underappreciated. They may be able to acknowledge that they made an error, but will respond to feedback by saying, “Okay, but I came in early this morning to open when my colleague couldn’t. Don’t I get credit for that?” Instead of focusing on their error, they’ll change the topic to something they think they deserve praise for.
  • The person receiving feedback feels like their autonomy is being limited. They might say, “We’ve always done things this way. Why do you suddenly care about it now?” They will be focused on the fact that they’re being told what to do rather than the advice they have received.
  • The person receiving feedback doesn’t feel accepted by their manager. If they are told they need to have a friendlier attitude with patients, they might counter by saying, “I’m an introvert, and I’ll never be good at talking to patients. Can’t you accept that?” When the feedback they receive goes counter to who they are as a person, they’ll get caught up feeling like they will never be good enough.

How to Overcome Switchtracking

Switchtracking doesn’t have to derail your conversations — if you’re proactive, you can sidestep it and get your message across.

The first step to neutralizing the effects of switchtracking is recognizing when it’s happening and calling it out. If you give a staff member a piece of feedback that they have a pattern of coming in late, and they respond by saying, “You’re always scheduling me for early shifts,” instead of letting the conversation switch tracks to scheduling, steer it back to your original feedback.

After you’ve addressed the initial piece of feedback, you can return to the switched track. Once you’re sure your staff member understands the importance of showing up on time no matter what shift they are scheduled for, you can circle back and address the issue of scheduling to see if there are any changes you can make.

In some ways, switchtracking can actually be valuable, because it lets you know what your staff members are actually thinking about and brings new issues to the surface so you can deal with them.

Stone and Heen also recommend taking “three steps back” to get a holistic view of your operations and spot where your view of the pharmacy is diverging from the views of your staff members. Then, you can make repairs and stop switchtracking before it starts.

  • When you take one step back, look to see where your different tracks intersect. You think your staff member is making too many errors when they use the pharmacy management software, and your staff member thinks it’s too difficult to use. But you both might agree that more training on the software is necessary.
  • At two steps back, you should examine your role and the roles of your team members. Often times, there aren’t clear boundaries for each position. That can cause tension and gives staff members an opportunity to change the conversation with switchtracking.
  • From three steps back, you can see the big picture. Take a look at your policies, your workflow, and your decision-making processes and determine how you can reform them to encourage staff members to contribute positively to the pharmacy. By setting staff up for success, they won’t feel such a strong need to switchtrack when receiving feedback.


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