How describing behavior can improve communication

How describing behavior can improve communication

Have you ever watched a news or political debate and felt frustrated by the poor communication, blame, and judgement toward one another. 

We all make judgments of other’s behaviors, but our interpretation of others is not always right. 

Behavior description is a basic way to improve communication and bridge the interpersonal gap. 

Since we all interpret verbal and non-verbal communication differently, the skill of describing behavior can be a useful tool to better understand others.

What is behavior description?

Behavior description is when we accurately describe the behavior of others based on observable actions rather than generalizations of another person’s feelings, attitudes, or traits.

Describing behavior is restating what was observed and not guessing why. It doesn’t infer whether the behavior was good, bad, right, or wrong. 

Nor does it use judgmental language like name-calling or accusations. In the simplest terms, behavior description describes what happened without interpretation. 

Examples of behavior description

In the examples below, I’ve listed some differences between describing behavior and making generalizations.

Behavior Descriptions

  • John arrived at the meeting 30 minutes after it began.
  • John Interrupted Jane while she was talking
  • John spoke the Jane about how much money he made from his new position as CEO


  • John is lazy
  • John thinks his position as CEO is more important than being on time to the meeting
  • John spoke down to Jane
  • John is rude
  • John doesn’t care about Jane’s feelings

From this scenario, Jane might say that John is rude and doesn’t care about her feelings, but that doesn’t accurately describe John’s behavior. 

If John tells Jane he wasn’t trying to be rude, and he cares about Jane’s feelings, he may be right, but he’s not improving communication or bridging the interpersonal gap.

What is the interpersonal gap

Instead of using judgmental words, Jane could more accurately describe John’s behavior to better understand how it affected Jane. 

For example, she might say, “I felt like you didn’t care about my feelings when you interrupted me and talked about your new Salary as a CEO.”

Misreading nonverbal communication

Sometimes non-verbal communication gets interpreted the wrong way when we make assumptions about what the other person is thinking.

You might say something that isn’t humorous and a coworker may laugh at what you said.  You may feel that the other person is laughing at you and feel humiliated, but they may not be aware of their behavior and may be laughing because of their insecurities. 

That’s why it’s important to accurately describe the behavior to become more aware the other person’s intentions.

John Wallen explained, “To develop skills in describing behavior, you must sharpen your observation of what actually did occur.  You must force yourself to pay attention to what is observable and to hold inferences in abeyance.  As you practice this, you may find that many of your conclusions about others are based less on observable evidence than on your own feelings of affection, insecurity, irritation, jealousy, or fear.”

Inferring vs describing the behavior

As you can see, we make generalizations and judgments all the time. We hear them at work with our coworkers, in politics, and at home.

Bridging the interpersonal gap starts with developing skills to become more self-aware of ourselves and others through describing behavior, feelings, and becoming better listeners. 

“Most of us do not describe behavior clearly enough for others to know what actions we have in mind.  Instead, we usually state what we infer about motivations, attitudes and personality traits; often we are not even aware we are inferring rather than describing.  Because we are so used to inferring, we may not even know what the other did that led us to our inferences. The skill of behavior description depends upon accurate observation which, in turn, depends upon being aware of when you are describing and when you are inferring.” John Wallen

Key Points

  • Behavior Description has two components:

    1) It is an observable action – what they said or did.

    2) It is non-evaluative – no judgments or inferences.

  • “To develop skill in describing behavior, you must sharpen your observation of 

    what actually did occur.  You must force yourself to pay attention to what is 

    observable, and to hold inferences in abeyance.” John Wallen

  • Behavior Description can be particularly helpful in a conflict where one party

    describes the other’s behavior and the impact it has on them.  It is also very

    helpful in performance reviews and parenting to clarify a specific 

    behavior rather than stating a judgment. (i.e. Instead of saying you are 

    irresponsible, describe the behavior that leads you to your perception.)     

    interpretations, or judgments by simply asking a question (an inquiry question

    , not a leading question).

    out assumptions, they are making in a meeting before it is over instead of 

    having the meeting after the meeting in a parking lot. 

  • “If you and another person are to improve the way you get along together, you must be able to convey what each does that affects the other.”  – John Wallen


John L. Wallen (1968), Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland, Oregon

Walking the Empowerment Tightrope: Balancing Management Authority& Employee Influence, Robert P. Crosby, HRDG, King of Prussia, PA, appendix G

LIOS, The Leadership Institute of Seattle, founded by Bob Crosby in 1969

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