4 Ways to Stop Frustrating Misunderstandings

4 Ways to Stop Frustrating Misunderstandings

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.

Your Example

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 – 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.

Your Turn

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?

5 Reasons Your Team Just Doesn't Get It

5 Reasons Your Team Just Doesn’t Get It

When your team just doesn’t get it, you’ve got a chance to level up.

It’s a lament we’ve heard from many leaders—usually accompanied by frustrated pacing or a discouraged slouch with their head in their hands: “I don’t know what else to do. My team just doesn’t get it.”

This is one of the most frustrating leadership experiences. You’re working hard, moving fast, and passionate about what you do, but your people seem clueless. They don’t focus on the MITs (Most Important Thing). They seem lackadaisical about the details that matter most, and they don’t seem worried at all about the strategic issues keeping you up at night.

5 Reasons Your Team Just Doesn’t Get It (and what to do about it)

1. They don’t know what you know.

You earned that insight, energy, and wisdom. You know what’s likely to happen because you’ve been there. But your people might not get it because they don’t have your experience or knowledge.

Have you ever tried to describe the taste of an orange to someone who’s never eaten one? It’s challenging. It’s so fundamental that you’ll use it as a baseline for other conversations: “It tastes like an orange, only more bitter.” But someone who’s never tasted an orange won’t get it. You’ve got to start with them tasting an orange and build from there.

If you want your people to be able to think as you do, give them the same information you used to decide. Connect what they do to the strategic reasons for their work. Help them understand how their decisions affect the customers, their team, and themselves.

2. You haven’t said it so they understand it.

We are professional communicators. We speak for a living—and yet, just this week, Karin said to David, “Can you finish one of those sentences? I’m not following you.”

Later that day, David looked at Karin and said, “I understand all the words you just said, but feel like I’m missing something important.” Communication isn’t always easy—even for professionals!

You probably don’t communicate as clearly as you think you do. In fact, we can almost guarantee it.

The words in your head make sense to you, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have the same meaning for another person—if they even hear all of them. Your message winds its way through an obstacle course of competing priorities, distractions, and the filters each person has in their head.

To guarantee that people hear and receive your most critical messages, use 5×5 communication (say it five times, five different ways) and check for understanding (ask people to share what they heard, using their own words).

When you use five different ways of communicating and consistently check for understanding, you will find the communication tools that work most effectively for your people.

3. You hired the wrong person.

There are also times where someone doesn’t get it because their values don’t align with yours or they lack the skills they need to perform well.  One of the most common places this happens is in demanding, stressful jobs. Desperate for bodies, recruiters undersell the challenges and what it takes to thrive in the role.

If you’re regularly hearing exit interviews like “It was way harder than I expected” or “This isn’t what I thought it would be” then it’s time to look at your hiring process.

When a role or culture is demanding, don’t shy away from it. We have both hired for teams that asked more from people than most people would want to give. Don’t hide it; lead with it. Eg: “This role isn’t for most people. It’s demanding and hard. And it will give you an opportunity to make a real difference to our customers, clients, and your career.”

Follow up with behavior-based interview questions that help you identify if your candidates have shown this character, capacity, and values they’ll need to succeed.

4. They get it—and wish you would too.

It’s quite possible that you’re the one who doesn’t get it.

Doug is a senior leader who was frustrated by his team’s performance. He’d done an incredible job training them in the methods and processes that he’d introduced and that had fueled his company’s success over the past twenty years.

The problem was that technology had changed. His customers, and the way they consumed his product, had changed. Doug had been a victim of his own success. His people understood their customer and half-heartedly met Doug’s expectations while trying to fulfill their customer’s expectations.

His team got it. But Doug had to relearn what success looked like and how to lead a team that wanted to succeed but needed to do it differently than Doug had.

5. You don’t ask for what you really want.

Another common cause when your team just doesn’t get it is that your measurements ask for something different from what you really want. People focus on getting a score and forget the game. Common examples include:

  • The target has changed recently, but you haven’t updated your 5×5 communication and measurement strategy. Everyone’s still working toward the old definition of success.
  • People hit their KPIs, but focus on them exclusively and ignore the strategy or experience that the numbers represent.
  • Too many measurements obscure what matters most. Eg: Your customer service checklist has 54 items and people can score well on the rubric without providing a great customer experience.
  • You had a hidden benchmark that you never shared. You likely took this measurement for granted, but then realized that people with different experiences or personalities needed to know it’s important.

The key to solving the measurement problem is to ask clearly for what you want. Help everyone focus on a few meaningful metrics that paint a complete picture of success. Connect those numbers to the strategy and the specific behaviors that make the numbers meaningful.

One way to know that your team gets it is frequently to check for understanding about what truly matters most. Eg “Why do we track these referrals—what does that represent? What should it mean when the numbers are good? What do we do that gets us the numbers we want to see?”

These questions are brief micro-engagements that continually reconnect your people to the strategy and behaviors behind the numbers.

Your Turn

It’s frustrating when your team just doesn’t get it, but it’s also a huge chance to get better and improve your leadership, processes, or communication. We’d love to hear from you: What have you learned when your team just doesn’t get it that made you a better leader?