March 5, 2018 | By

“What’s That Supposed to Mean?!” How to Avoid Miscommunication at Work

Imagine: You’ve just emailed your budget for a major initiative to your executive stakeholders. A few minutes later… ding! Your CEO replies,“Can you defend your costs for the items I’ve highlighted below?”

You feel your body temperature rise. Your heart rate increases. Defend? Why do I have to defend anything?! Is the CEO attacking my numbers?

No, probably not. Some people just like using war-like language in business. That’s why we have terms like “category killer,” “barriers to entry,” “revolutionary,” “torpedoing the project” and “killing it in committee.”

But this illustrates a common problem in the workplace, one you may be guilty of yourself.

Research shows that the actual words we use account for only 7% of what we communicate when we speak. The rest of our message is interpreted through tone of voice (38%) and nonverbal cues (55%). Without the benefit of body language and tone, it’s all too easy to misunderstand someone’s real meaning and see hostility where there may not be any.

Because we have so many ways to communicate that don’t involve in-person, face-to-face communication, you need to be hypersensitive to the words you use to help colleagues clearly understand your meaning—and so you don’t go accidentally spiking anyone’s blood pressure.

Here are some communication tips to help you make sure you and your coworkers are always on the same page.

Use sarcasm sparingly or not at all.

Avoid sarcasm in the workplace. It’s easily misinterpreted, and it’s often really hostility disguised as humor. Hold back the sarcasm with coworkers unless you know them very well and have confidence they won’t take offense.

Humor of any type is difficult to convey over an email, instant message or other types of written communication. So be super-careful when trying to include humor in your writing at work. If you’re unsure how your written communication will come across, try reading it in a monotone voice, without your inflection and tone. If something sounds harsher than you intended, or sarcastic when you don’t mean it that way, reword it.

Use precise language (and demand it from others).

Have you ever asked a colleague when he’ll have a project ready for your review and he answered, “very soon”? Has a supervisor ever told you she needed something from you “ASAP”? Have you ever asked your team how a campaign was working so far, and they answered, “It’s going great”?

What do any of those answers mean? These types of responses can be interpreted differently by anyone.

Try using more precise language so everyone is on the same page and has the same expectations. Use specific dates for deadlines, don’t use vague nouns, stay away from meaningless business phrases, and be as direct as possible. I also have to agree with Elon Musk —  acronyms do suck and should be relied on as little as possible.

Recap often with your team.

All too often people walk out of meetings and aren’t sure if they have action items, or they scratch their heads wondering what the key takeaways were supposed to be.

We don’t all speak exactly the same language: I might think you were taking ownership of a project or task, while you might just think I was talking about it generally. It happens all the time.

When you’re discussing projects and tasks with your team, it’s a good idea to stop every so often and do a quick review of assignments and key points. Make sure everyone is completely clear on what they’re responsible for and what they were supposed to take away from the meeting.

Lean toward over-communicating (kind of).

I’m not advocating rambling on, sending emails the length of short novels, or repeating yourself over and over. Effective communication means sharing your thoughts in a way that is clear and concise. But that doesn’t mean you always need to use as few words as possible either.

Keep in mind your listeners may be distracted (this can be especially true in large meetings or virtual meetings) and they learn in a variety of ways. Your coworkers are also coming from different backgrounds, experience levels and have different levels of context.

Don’t be afraid to provide a little more context or reiterate an important point now and then. And invite feedback often so coworkers feel comfortable asking for more clarity when they need it. Miscommunication will abound if everyone is too shy to ask questions or tell you they don’t understand.

Use video conferencing.

As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of what we communicate—often up to 80%—comes from our nonverbal cues, mostly body language.

Now, think about your team conference calls. There’s no body language and you can’t see if people are paying attention or how they are reacting.

Use video conferencing to boost the quality of your communication. Whether you’re having a quick one-on-one or a bigger team meeting, everyone will be more engaged and have a better understanding of what’s going on when they can see each other. Video also helps you forge deeper connections with your co-workers which also reduces the risk of miscommunication.

Have you learned any valuable lessons in how to avoid miscommunication at work? Share them in the comments below!

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