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How to Avoid Miscommunication at Work


“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” George Bernard Shaw once said. Miscommunication in the workplace is very common. It’s a big reason for missed project deadlines, postponed meetings, and misunderstood expectations. For example, maybe your boss expected you to be at work today because your leave was “till” today, but you meant it to “include” today. Sometimes, the communication channel just isn’t clear.

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(Photo Credit: stockmonkeys/Flickr)

If you want to communicate, you should be able to both listen and talk effectively. Here are a few tips to help make that possible.

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1. Reduce external disturbances

If the information you are about to share or hear is critical, ensure that you are in a location with minimal disturbances. If you do not have your own private office, can you pre-book a meeting room to have the conversation? If you can, avoid peeping into your laptop or checking messages on your phone during this time. If you must take notes on your device, make sure you’re doing just that. It’s easy to get distracted with cat faces and cute babies online. Go the old-fashioned way and use pen and paper, if it helps. Eliminating foreseeable disturbances will help you pay a bit more attention to the conversation.

2. Know your and your audience’s communication style

True, it’s not always possible to know the communication style of everyone you meet, but when it comes to people you know, make sure you are communicating with them in their preferred style. Some people prefer being given all the details, some just want the to-do list, some want to see it in writing, and some would prefer to speak in person. If you are aware of these differences, use them to your advantage to get your point across.

Similarly, be aware of the communication method you prefer. If you feel that you are always misunderstood over the phone, request an in-person meeting and follow up with a detailed email about the discussion to ensure that you and the other party are on the same page.

3. Do not make assumptions

Just because you think something is “obvious” or “simple” does not mean it’s the same for everyone else. This is true even with your boss who has assigned you the project in the first place. Just because he was the one who asked you to do the work, does not mean he knows everything about it. The same goes with your team, whom you’ve known and worked with for a long time. The inherent assumption here is that they “know” what you’re working on, how you work and think.

“We are particularly likely to be ‘sure it was obvious’ with people we know well or who we’ve worked with for a long time – we assume our thoughts and behaviors are transparent, when they are far from it,” writes Heidi Grant Halvorson at Forbes. “So, ironically, the risk of miscommunication is greater with a close colleague than a brand-new coworker.”

Be detailed and relevant in your discussions without being too condescending. It’s a thin line, so tread carefully.

The same is true when you are the listener. Do not come to conclusions before the speaker is ready to do so. Do not finish their sentences and do not preempt their point. It is both disrespectful and counterproductive. Give the speaker the courtesy of letting them finish their thought before you interrupt with your own response. As Steven Covey once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

4. Recap before closing

To make sure that both parties are on the same page when discussing a topic, close the conversation by recapitulating the conversation, paraphrasing what you heard, summarizing action items. If there is any misunderstanding, this gives an opportunity to instantly address it. Make sure the expectations are well understood before you get started on a project only to deliver different results.

Tell Us What You Think

So how do you avoid miscommunication at work? What are your tips? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Padmaja Ganeshan Singh
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