Frustrating misunderstandings aren’t inevitable.
I was sitting in the car outside our house, waiting for our son to join me on a trip to the grocery store.
After waiting for a while, I called his cell phone. “Are you coming?”
“Where are you?” he asked.
“In the car, waiting for you,” I said. “Where are YOU?”
“I’m at the desk,” he replied. “I thought we’re working on our creative writing project?”
We’d both been in the same conversation, but somehow, each of us had come away with two very different understandings of what was happening.
I thought we were going shopping. Our son thought we were working on a creative writing project.
How could we have interpreted the same words so differently?
What Causes Those Frustrating Misunderstandings
Communication is a funny thing. You’re never as clear as you think you are because several problems get in the way.
Your words make sense to you, but those words can mean something entirely different to another person. You each bring a lifetime of experiences and interpretations to every conversation. Those filters color our understanding – and cause a host of frustrating misunderstandings.
For example, take something as simple as “Let’s take out the trash.” Depending on your team’s experience and interpretation, they could hear:
- I will take out the trash.
- You will take out the trash.
- We’re both going to take out the trash.
- We’re showing that we’re all in this together.
- We’re doing work that’s beneath us.
- No work is beneath anyone.
- We can’t afford a cleaning service.
- We’re scrappy and efficient.
- You don’t value the important work I could be doing instead of taking out the trash.
- We’ll take the trash to the front door.
- We’ll take the trash to the dumpster.
And that’s assuming they heard your words correctly. You can imagine how comedies would have someone hear “Let’s check out that rash.”
It turns out that when I said, “Let’s go shop” what our son heard was, “Let’s chop.” Which he interpreted to mean “chop-chop” as in, “Let’s get to it.” Since creative writing had been on his mind, he filtered the encouragement to action through the lens of what had his attention.
In organizations and teams, these kinds of misunderstandings aren’t so funny. They cause endless frustration, headaches, lost productivity, and aggravation.
Close the Loop
Effective leaders work hard to remove the chance of misunderstanding. You do this by the example you set, by understanding who you’re talking to, connecting what to why, and checking for understanding.
It’s leadership 101—lead by example. But it’s more than a trust-building boost to your credibility. Your example clarifies your words and helps everyone understand exactly what you mean.
Understand Who You’re Talking To
Get to know your people and you can tailor your communication to reach mutual understanding quickly. For example, if you have a detail-minded person who takes things literally, understanding that will help you avoid theoretical language. They need to know what, specifically, needs to happen.
People are different. How can you give everyone the best chance of understanding and action?
Connect What to Why
In the absence of information, many people fill in their own stories—and they’re usually not pleasant. Nowhere does this happen more than in filling in the “why” behind what’s been asked.
Eg: Why are we taking out the trash? It must be [insert negative reason here] – we’re broke, the boss doesn’t like our work, they don’t know what we do, they don’t know who I am, it’s a punishment.
Eliminate misunderstanding by clarifying the why behind what you ask.
Check for Understanding
There are two ways to check for understanding: actions and emotions.
Check for Understanding #1:
The action-focused check for understanding ensures a mutually shared understanding of the activity. It looks like this:
“Let’s do a quick check for understanding—what are we doing after lunch?” “Yes—we’re all taking out the trash.” “And why are we taking it out?” “No, it’s not because we’ve done anything wrong—it’s because we’ve got another group in here after us and it’s going to smell awful if we leave it in the trash—and that’s what we’d want them to do for us.”
Check for Understanding #2:
The emotion-focused check for understanding gives your team a chance to process what’s happening and surfaces any issues that might arise. It looks like this:
Leader: “Great meeting. I’m super excited about this strategy. Before we end, I’d like to ask, how is everyone feeling?”
Team member 1: “Well, I’m excited about it too, but I’m also worried about how we will do this considering our other priorities?”
Team member 2: “I’m feeling overwhelmed. These are wonderful ideas and I really want to do them, but I don’t know where to begin.”
Once you know these issues exist, you can help your team move through them, adjust expectations, or remove roadblocks.
In remote work settings, closing the loop and ensuring shared understanding is even more important when we don’t have the visual cues and reinforcement we’re used. As you implement long-term crisis-related health and safety plans, these four steps will help avoid frustrating misunderstandings and keep everyone healthy and safe.
We’d love to hear from you: What are some of your best techniques to ensure you and your team communicate clearly with one another?