The Art of Miscommunication – and 7 ways to avoid it

Have you ever been misunderstood in a conversation at work? Perhaps it suddenly it became obvious that the other person had completely misunderstood something you said, leaving you feeling confounded as to how that happened? Or maybe you’ve been in a work meeting where you thought you’d explained your thoughts clearly, but reading the meeting minutes a few days later, you were surprised to see your key points had been missed?


Why is miscommunicating so easy?


In the world of communication, there are many theories about how and why humans misunderstand each other. Miscommunication happens so effortlessly that it should really be an art form! One reason for this is that everyone has different ways of processing and decoding words and ideas. As an example, what I understand by the word ‘compromise’ might not be what you understand. Another reason is that we often don’t pay enough attention to the other person speaking (how often have you felt not listened to?).


Unintentional consequences of miscommunication


The problem is that sometimes, miscommunications can lead to serious consequences in the workplace. Sometimes, people don’t fully understand instructions they’ve been given and make a mistake. Or someone hears something different to what was agreed, or misinterpreted a different meaning than the one intended. If not handled swiftly and effectively, these can escalate into serious consequences, such as complaints, grievances or misconduct. 

Here’s how miscommunication works in practice


Try this right now: picture a tall oak tree in a field that’s hundreds of years old. What are you seeing? Were there any leaves on your imagined tree? I didn’t mention what season it was and whether the oak had its leaves or not, so that was deliberately ambiguous. But it’s an example of where it’s easy to jump to assumptions and create a kind of ‘mental shorthand’ to fill in the gaps in our understanding. This happens all the time in communication.

As George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

So, what’s the answer? Is there one universal way in which we can all communicate and be fully understood? Well, it certainly hasn’t been discovered yet, and maybe that’s a good thing, as life might be very boring! However, you might want to reduce the risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted, so here are 7 ways you can avoid miscommunication:

  1. Don’t assume that everyone understands everything you say. This is highly unlikely! Be clear on your intention– what are you meaning to say? If it’s an important conversation, plan it in advance. Consider your words carefully and whether they achieve the intention you set. This will help you avoid regretting something you’ve said.

  2. Be alert to non-verbal signs from the other person whilst you’re talking. Do they look confused? Do they look like they have understood you? Are they just nodding without really listening? Check if you’re not sure.

  3. If not sure whether something you’re saying is making sense, you could wrap up with a short summary such as: “so essentially, what I’m saying is, there are risks we’ll need to avoid, but I agree, this could work.” Or, you could just ask “did that make sense?”

  4. Try and be fully present in conversations; don’t allow yourself to get distracted. We often try to do too many things at once, assuming we can do everything. But in conversation, it’s very easy to lose track and if one person loses focus, the other person may quickly follow suit. So, aim to give the person in front of you your full attention. That will lower the risk of you saying something you don’t really mean or of mishearing what the other person just said. It also allows you to clarify if you don’t feel you’ve understood them, rather than wishing you’d listened properly in the first place.

  5. Be inclusive in your language, use plain speech where appropriate, reducing cultural phrases and colloquialisms with people who may not be familiar with them. I grew up in Yorkshire, but I’ve lived in the Midlands for years, so I can’t use many of the Yorkshire phrases I learned when I grew up, as I’d have to explain myself all the time! It’s the same with in-house jargon and technical phrases, don’t assume people will always understand them.

  6. If you feel that you’ve been misunderstood in conversation, you can simply ask with curiosity: “what have you understood me to say?”

  7. If you’re not sure you’ve grasped what someone is trying to say, rather than let them carry on, check in with them and clarify. You could say: “so if I’ve understood you correctly, I think you’re saying…” and paraphrase into your own words. Or you could go back and use the exact words that you didn’t understand and ask them to explain a bit more about it.

If you want to improve your communication or your influence, feel free to get in touch. Or find out how DISC personality profiling can help!