Whenever we interact with people we make assumptions based on what we believe is or isn’t true. We tend to believe that if you and I speak the same language we will both attach the same meaning to the words we use. However, this simply isn’t true. It is possible to understand every word a person says and not get the intended message.
Often people assume they know exactly what others are talking about when in reality they don’t. For example, if I say “I can’t tell my boss”. You may understand every word in the sentence but unless you look for clarification and find out what will happen if I do, or what is stopping me from telling the boss you will simply be guessing. If your guess is incorrect we have a hidden problem that can disrupt work relationships.
Here I will explain what can happen when two colleagues have different understandings of a word like procrastination:
For Cora, “procrastination” means having a difficulty getting started on a task. For Colin it means deferring the task because something more important has priority. It’s hardly surprising that Colin and Cora have communication issues because they assume they are talking about the same thing but are unaware that they are conversing at cross purposes.
Miscommunication occurs in circumstances where people are unaware of making wrong assumptions.
Have you ever had a difficulty in a relationship with someone? You have no idea what caused the tension between you but it is tangible. Non-verbal communication may be the cause. Effective communicators understand that facial expressions, body language, gestures, tone of voice and other vocal characteristics play a greater role in effective communication than words.
We can select our words carefully, know what we want to communicate and unless we look for clarification, remain unaware of the miscommunication that can occur when the person listening to us has not understood the message we expected to convey.
It is often assumed that a person who makes no contribution to a discussion at a meeting is giving a silent agreement. Silence is a communication that is open to interpretation and misinterpretation. If I send an e-mail and you don’t reply that is a communication. I may assume you were too busy to respond, think you ignored me, and feel you will be in touch later. I will have a real emotional response to my own assumptions and the response I have will have an impact on our future relationship.
The underlying assumption in much of workplace communication is that if something is clear to me it should be obvious to my colleagues. Often it is anything but clear and this lack of clarity has the potential to cause costly mistakes and bad feeling between people.
We cannot not communicate. Our body language communicates what we don’t put into words. When it is seen as socially inappropriate to openly express anger or frustration, the tendency for people is to find other, less direct modes of expression. Whether we are aware of it or not all of us decipher the meaning of facial expressions and body language. We respond to the non-verbal communication when we see someone glaring, rolling their eyes, making faces, shrugging their shoulders or emitting exasperated sighs at us. We respond to what we assume are the motives, intentions and agenda of others.
Here is a simple sentence that can show you how clearly you communicate: “Let me clarify, I’m not sure I explained well. What did you hear me say?” The valuable feedback you receive can teach you how to be a more effective communicator.
No organisation will ever totally eliminate misunderstandings but by understanding the mind-reading that occurs because of indirect and non-verbal communication we can stop the miscommunication that conveys messages we never intended.
By Carmel Wynne, Toastmasters International