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

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

January 7, 2021

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:


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


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.



Follow the Series






We take popular and acclaimed business books and break down their most essential principles — easy to digest, easy to apply. Learn the most important lessons and start implementing them today to improve your pharmacy business.

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

Becoming an Extraordinary Manager: The Five Essentials for Success

Without Saying a Word: Master the Science of Body Language & Maximize Your Success

Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success

Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable

The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors that Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders


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