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10 Steps on How to Avoid Miscommunication at Work

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10 Steps on How to Avoid Miscommunication at Work
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10 Steps on How to Avoid Miscommunication at Work

Miscommunication.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, miscommunication is:

“A failure to make information or your ideas and feelings clear to somebody, or to understand what somebody says to you.”

And it’s everywhere. It’s in the “he said, she said” of relationships. In consumer relations. In work teams. We don’t even need dialogue to miscommunicate.

How scary is that?

Since we’re not relationship counselors, today’s topic is on how to avoid miscommunication at work. Because while the “he said, she said” can be damaging, organizational miscommunication can be catastrophic.

To put it plainly, effective communication at work is critical to your organizational success. The cost of miscommunication at work is high, from both financial and human standpoints.

From the financial perspective, costs could include:

  • Lost sales
  • Missed performance goals—which has a human impact as well
  • Delayed or incomplete projects

On the human side of things, the cost of miscommunication could include:

  • Missed goals, which could mean a loss of income
  • Low morale
  • High stress
  • Bad attitudes

At the end of the day, communication breakdowns can impact everyone on the team—from senior management to front-of-the-line staff.

We use communication to collaborate–to share information and ideas. To build people up by inspiring or persuading them. That’s on the positive side.

But what about the negative?

Here are some examples of miscommunication at work.

Miscommunication at Work

Examples of Miscommunication at Work

Here’s the thing. For the most part, it’s doubtful that anyone sets out to be a bad communicator–and it’s a likely bet that even the worst communicator assumes they’re quite effective.

The problem is that what they say and what the listener actually hears are often two very different things. Then before you know it, there’s conflict and a breakdown in morale and productivity.

So let’s take a look at some examples of miscommunication at work. And from there, we’ll discuss which steps you can take to avoid it.

Communication Styles

Communication Styles

Depending on who you ask, there are 4, 5, or maybe even 7 communication styles. For those who follow the rule of 5, they are:

  • Assertive
  • Aggressive
  • Manipulative
  • Passive
  • Passive-Aggressive

Each of these addresses how a speaker communicates whatever information they are sharing.

Remember, it’s already been established that effective communication at work is critical to organizational success. Yet if different communication styles aren’t handled properly, communication begins to break down.

How?

Before you know it, people with clashing communication styles are confused, stressed, and often completely misunderstanding what the speaker thinks they are conveying.

Incidentally, clashing communication styles don’t necessarily mean opposite styles. For example, a conversation between two aggressive communicators will often deteriorate. They’re both vying for domination, with neither willing to listen to the other’s point of view–because their point of view is always right.

In a situation like this, miscommunication is bound to happen.

So what’s the solution? Both—or all—parties must strive to hear what the speaker is saying. Listen to what they’re saying instead of how they’re saying it. For the listener, that may mean filtering out their own emotional responses. Without emotion, the listener is better able to be objective.

Think back to the definition of miscommunication above. The failure can be on the part of the speaker when trying to convey their ideas or feelings, or on the listeners’ inability to understand the message.

Instructions

There’s a good chance you’ve heard, “That’s not what you told me to do,” a time or ten. Maybe in an employer/employee setting. Maybe in a parent/child setting.

Someone gave instructions but they miscommunicated them. The listener misunderstood, and a task was carried out wrong.

Frankly, part of the reason for this is wrapped up in the communication styles mentioned above. Because just as each speaker has their own style, so does each listener. And they will filter everything they hear through their own style—often different from the style the message was delivered in.

At this point, you’re dealing with more than communication styles. Personality styles need to be factored into the equation as well.

Do you see the recipe for disaster here?

The above mentioned are broad examples but I’ll provide some specifics as well.

All of us at times say one thing when we really mean something else. Don’t believe me? Google “when she says she’s fine” or “when he says I’ll call you.”

Sexist? Sure. But a great example of people saying one thing when they mean the exact opposite. Now let’s take this to an organizational setting. Here are a few classic lines you might hear—or have said yourself—during the workday. And what they really mean.

What they say and what they mean

1. They said: They’re not paying me enough for this.

They meant: I’m working myself to death to please them, but they neither value nor appreciate my efforts.

2. They said: I’m finding my job too boring and too easy to accomplish.

They meant: Please, I’m begging you. Give me more responsibility.

From all the above examples, it’s easy to see why there’s so much miscommunication at work. But what can be done about it? Since a lot of the problems with miscommunication can be traced back to communication styles—which all of us naturally have—should everyone assume they’re doomed to endless communications potholes?

Nope. Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can avoid miscommunication at work.

How to Avoid Miscommunication at Work

Let’s start with the most obvious.

1. Communicate Clearly

In the most simplistic of terms, communication consists of 3 components: the speaker, the message, and the recipient. However, the route between the speaker and the listener can be impacted by a range of things. Emotions, culture, the medium in which the message was passed on, even the location where it happens.

If you’re the speaker, keep all that in mind. If part of your job is to explain tasks to team members, be as clear and concise as possible. If necessary—and without being condescending—use small words. That may sound like you’re being encouraged to explain things to your team members as if they were five, but no. Remember the without being condescending bit of advice.

Part of the above is understanding your audience. If they’re a group of peers who are industry professionals that have a business language all of their own, you can feel safe in using terminology you know they would understand.

Document Instructions

2. Document Instructions

Not everyone is an auditory learner.

An auditory learner is someone whose primary learning method is through speaking and listening. They’re the people who can listen to a presentation and understand the message. Their employer can walk up to them and say, “I want you to do this, this, and this,” and that’s enough.

But not everyone learns this way. Some learn visually. Some need to read instructions.

And no, your company doesn’t need to produce a video every time you want to explain something, just so the visual learners aren’t left out. But at the very least, important instructions should be documented, not just verbalized.

This serves a dual purpose. When someone comes back and says, “That’s not what you said to do,” you can pull out your documentation and confirm that yes, you did say that.

This could be particularly important when it comes to sharing things like timelines, targets, and other specifics.

3. Listen

There is a significant difference between simply hearing something and actively listening to it.

How many times have you only heard the droning voice of a parent, teacher, or partner? The blah, blah, blah, and not the words at all?

If your boss or team leader is talking and that’s all you hear, there’s going to be a problem at some point. So stop simply hearing the noise of their voice and pay attention to the words they are saying. This means you’re not checking your phone or allowing interruptions.

And if necessary, take notes.

Finally, feedback is another key component of active listening. Offering specific feedback can help the speaker understand that it may be necessary to alter a message so it can be properly understood by the listener.

4. Clarify Expectations

Are team members clear on what you expect of them when it comes to a project or task? Don’t just assume they understand. Instead, take the time to discuss with each teammate—individually, if necessary—what their responsibilities are.

Do you have short- and long-term goals? And if so, does everyone understand their part in getting there?

Follow up

5. Follow Up

It can be hard to keep everyone’s attention during a team meeting.

If you’re a project lead, try to spend some time with individual team members after a meeting. Make sure they understand their role. Catching miscommunication at work while it’s still in the early stages can save an organization a lot of time and money.

6. Stay on Point with Emails

Raise your hand if you’ve ever received a rambling, confusing email from someone on your team.

You all have your hands up, don’t you?

If verbal communication is full of miscommunication at work, emails are often 100 times worse. So keep your emails simple. Stay on topic and format with headings and bullet points if necessary. You want your emails to be easy to read and easy to understand.

7. Watch for Body Language

There was a study done a long time ago that states body language—non-verbal communication—is typically more truthful than verbal communication. In other words, the mouth can lie but the body can’t. This is why law enforcement receives training on how to read body language.

Signing up for some law enforcement classes would be a bit extreme, but we’re talking about how to avoid miscommunication at work, and one of the best ways would be to be on the watch for non-verbal cues. Whatever your position in a team, make sure your body isn’t saying one thing while your mouth is saying another.

Experts say our brains will interpret and read the unspoken language of the body before it pays attention to the verbal message. And if the two messages contradict, humans tend to believe the message the body is giving, not the message the mouth is giving.

Watch Your Tone

8. Watch Your Tone

Did you ever have anyone–maybe a parent or a teacher–tell you to watch your tone? What did they mean?

The way you speak, your tone, can convey emotions. This isn’t a bad thing, but you need to watch your tone if it’s not appropriate for the time. If you’re leading a meeting about the launch of a new product that could make or break the company and you’re super casual, or laughing and cracking jokes, people might naturally find it hard to think you’re taking it seriously.

When the subject of a meeting is something that could mean the loss of jobs, it’s definitely time to avoid miscommunication at work.

9. Go to the Source

Sometimes information is handed down via a third party. You’ve probably heard of the game where someone tells the person beside them something, who passes it to the next person, who repeats it to the next.

The last person to get the message receives something different than the original message. This might be a fun game, but it has no place in an organizational setting. It’s sure to lead to miscommunication at work.

Any important communication should be directly shared with key parties.
Also, it’s a good idea for managers to have an open-door policy. This encourages staff members to come to them directly when they need clarification on something. Going to other team members with their questions only opens them up to the possibility of getting the wrong info.

Ask Questions

10. Ask Questions

No, not to be annoying.

There are multiple benefits to asking questions, both for the speaker and the listener.

Sensible questions show a speaker that you’ve been paying attention to them. It also gives you the chance to ask for clarification if necessary.

And questions don’t need to be limited to verbal conversations. You can reply to an email with follow-up questions as well. Either way, questions are just one more way to avoid miscommunication at work.

Conclusion

That covered an extensive amount of information about how to avoid miscommunication at work. Let’s remember why it’s important

The cost is high. A team that’s stressed and conflicted will have low morale and likely poor performance and productivity. There’s a long list of negative consequences for companies and employees where communication is lacking.

Understanding the reasons for miscommunication at work and knowing what to look for can help you build strong, cohesive teams. Teams that can get the job done and meet their goals.

Good communication is the foundation of all aspects of your company culture. It’s about positive team environments, client relationships, and so much more.

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