When communication is effective, you’ll typically see flourishing teams and businesses. When it’s poor, you’ll see conflict, tension, missed deadlines (or opportunities!), mistakes, inefficiency and other mayhem.
Learning how to avoid miscommunication is key.
In our work with leaders, we’ve seen some common areas where communication can be problematic. Here are some of the challenging trouble spots for leaders:
- Lack of clarity. Sometimes the message is not delivered well and folks are confused (or they think they understand and don’t realize what they’ve heard is not what was intended — either way, problematic!). Communication — whether you’re speaking to someone or to a group or sending an email or text — needs to be clear to be understood.
- Hesitating to be direct. Call it what you will — waffling, sidestepping, spin or just “trying to be nice. When leaders don’t want to say what they mean in a direct way, the message can get lost. Hinting at something or suggesting leaves room for people to guess (and they often guess incorrectly!). Unsurprisingly, this often happens around performance issues (and typically ends in incredible frustration for the employee and for you).
- Speaking, but not listening. Communication means not just speaking, but listening and understanding. Many folks listen with the intent to respond when, instead, it’s important to listen to understand. The difference is that listening and hearing what your peers, bosses or team members have to say (or, are trying to say), really listening, can change how you react and how you respond.
- Making assumptions. As human beings, we have experiences, biases and misconceptions that can influence how we perceive others and, in turn, how we communicate with them. We recently discussed how making assumptions can be damaging your team.
- Not speaking for your audience. Different personalities need to hear messages in different ways — or they react in different ways — which is why many times misunderstandings arise. At Padraig, we use the Everything DiSC Assessments with our clients to help them understand themselves and others. What one person perceives to be curt and unkind is what another person defaults to as factual and brief. It’s very beneficial for leaders and their teams to understand how personality affects communication styles.
- Mismanagement of information. As leaders, we also need to know which information to share and how much is too much (boring or alarming) or too little (leaving questions and possibly mistrust). We also need to be comfortable saying when we need to find out more if we don’t know something because pretending to know everything can backfire.
Strategies to avoid miscommunication
When you want to avoid miscommunication with your team, there are some strategies that help to improve the quality of your communication and how it is received. This includes:
- Make any messages you share clear and concise. Whether you’re speaking or writing an email, avoid unnecessary adjectives and state what you need to say in plain language. When you can, take time to jot down your key thoughts and intentions so that when you speak or write, you’re focused. If you have information to share, prepare handouts or attach pertinent documents for reference. When you’re emailing, use a clear subject heading and keep your message focused by using headings and bullets as appropriate. It’s also helpful to pause and reflect — is there something you know about this situation, or that you take for granted as “common sense” or “basic knowledge” that your audience might not know. If so, you need to explain your thinking before people will understand your message.
- Check in with your audience. Did they hear the message the way you intended? What else do they want to know? Respond accordingly. This is when it’s valuable to understand how different personalities will react to things in different ways. Ask folks to tell you in their own words how they understand what you’ve said. For example, if you’ve had a conversation with Ravi about a performance issue and you’ve asked for certain things to be improved, ask: “So, can you reflect back to me what we’re agreeing the next steps will be?”
- Don’t avoid uncomfortable topics. Be honest and direct. We frequently speak about turning difficult conversations into essential conversations. Hinting at things is never as effective as being clear about your expectations (and avoiding these discussions is worse!). Pro Tip: if you find yourself thinking, “maybe this will clear up on its own” or “if I am just patient, maybe this will go away,” it is TIME to have an essential conversation.
- Choose your method of communication wisely. It’s sometimes easier to send an email than to talk with someone face-to-face or on the phone. Similarly, especially right now, it might be easier to send a quick email than to gather your team for a town hall in person or virtually (or a mix). There are times that speaking with people in person or even via video teleconference is better than sending an email because they get to hear your tone, observe your body language and ask you questions in the moment if they’re uncertain. Email can be problematic because it’s so easy for tone or intent to be misconstrued and the subsequent back and forth exchanges can lead to more misunderstanding.
- Pay special attention to communicating with virtual team members. When you’re not in a physical office space together, it can be more challenging to build strong team relationships (but not impossible when you’re managing virtual teams!). It’s very easy for emails or instant messages to be taken the wrong way. If you ask, “When did that happen?” the recipient might be wondering if you’re angry or annoyed, when really you’re just curious. Be very clear about things like deadlines or expectations, using calendar reminders or project management apps so you’re never saying, “I thought that was clear.” Using more than one way to communicate, a combination of email, phone and videoconference, helps to build in some camaraderie.
- Maintain your sense of calm. It’s easy for leaders to react or, as we discussed earlier, listen to respond. If you are able to, take a few moments to compose yourself and stabilize your mood before you communicate something difficult so you avoid miscommunication. Remember that if you are frustrated or angry or need time to think, you can return to a conversation after you take some time. Review our tools for developing your executive presence, which helps you to be calm, confident, credible and consistent in your leadership communication.
- See silence as a good thing. Learning to sit comfortably in a silent pause is an excellent leadership skill. Sometimes we are conditioned to or feel we should fill all the silence with our own ideas and directives. Pausing before we respond allows time for reflection and an opportunity for other people to interject with their own ideas and opinions. It also demonstrates active listening to the other person or people.
- Encourage people to come to you when they’re unclear. If you say there is no such thing as a stupid question, you must work to ensure you don’t make anyone feel silly if they ask you something you think they should know. Make time to talk with your team members, and consider setting up one-to-one meetings to build a solid culture of engaged employees.
When have you recently experienced miscommunication with your team? What more could you be doing to avoid miscommunication? Which strategy can you employ this week?