A few weeks ago, on a stormy evening, my wife Carmel and I went out to see a movie. When leaving the car, I asked her if she took the keys. She lifted her palm, and in the poor lighting conditions and the rain I assumed she was showing them to me.
We greatly enjoyed the movie and stayed in the theater to see all the end credits and process the experience. From there, we went to a pub (don't worry, I wasn’t drinking) – which was closed, so we went to a second bar – it too was closing. Reluctantly we went back to our car. As we were getting closer I asked Carmel where the car keys were. "Not with me" she answered.
We got closer and saw our car's engine running, the lights on, and the keys still in the ignition. For two hours and 15 minutes it stood there, engine running and lights on (when we left, the engine of our hybrid car was silent…). I guess the few people passing by in the rain assumed a pair of lovers was having a romantic conversation and didn’t wish to interrupt…
I assume the same exact thing hasn’t happened to you, but am sure that you can remember at least one occasion in your life when miscommunication caused, or could have caused, great damage.
Usually the post-incident investigation is accompanied by fruitless dialogue: "I told you…", and "no you didn’t…"
Written massage too can be biased by our thought patterns.
As kids we played the game Telephone. We sat in a line, the first kid whispered something in the ear of the second, who whispered what they heard in the ear of the third, and so on until the last in line. Of course there was a considerable difference between what was originally whispered and what the last kid heard. That's how it is.
There's a gap between what we thought and what we said, and an even greater one between what we said and what was heard and understood. Then comes the greatest gap, created by our memory.
So, you might conclude, you should write things down.
See an example of a written communication I recently had with my friend Smadar. Carmel and I represent in Israel a Danish company, and we were going to present their products at the agricultural exhibit in Hazeva ("Arava Open Day"). Smadar's son is in Mechina in Hazeva and I sent her the following text massage (names were changed):
"Carmel and I will be at an exhibit in Hazeva Wednesday and Thursday. We'll be glad to have a visit from Yotam. Booth A60. And of course to ferry back and forth."
I'm not sure what you understand from this message, but I meant that we'll be happy to ferry things from the parents to the son and back ("…to ferry back and forth").
Smadar and Yotam are part of a very involved family. They participate in many projects and are always happy to help. As far as Smadar was concerned I asked for Yotam to come help us ("…to ferry back and forth").
Only when I contacted Yotam was the misunderstanding cleared up.
Our minds operate with thought patterns, which is why we can understand a text differently. We add and subtract words. We understand what we understand and process the information as memory. Even though a piece of information is written down, it's not guaranteed two people will remember the same thing after reading it.
In the above example, information was lacking that would have made my meaning clearer. I had my interpretation and Smadar had hers. Both completely legitimate.
Before I offer a solution, I want to discuss one more example from the angle of customer service.
An Example of Miscommunication that Caused a Considerable Financial Loss
In one of the companies I used to work with, customer service representatives used to report on problems and issues that still needed to be addressed with clients in freeform, with no forms or formulas.
When we examined why service calls remained open even after a second, third, or even fifth visit, we found the main reason was misunderstandings of the information reported by customer service representatives. They would write their reports in cursive which wasn’t always legible, and each used different wording.
Whoever read those reports later, would understand them their own way, and when sent to complete the service call would bring with them the wrong equipment or parts.
How to Convey Information and Communicate without Misunderstandings?
Let's start with verbal communications
When communicating verbally, take into account that your listener has many thoughts running through their head. You're the same, we all are. We can't control our thoughts. So, they hear only part of what you're saying. If you use many words, if your sentences are long, you'll lose listeners' attention faster.
In order to keep their attention, have a conversation. Don’t lecture. Talk to the person in front of you. Ask questions.
Especially when giving instructions, ask in the end what your listeners understood. It's important to do so respectfully. Avoid sounding like you think their idiots. Instead take responsibility for possible misunderstandings: for example, a sentence like "maybe I wasn't clear. Can you tell me what you understood?". Another option is "I want to make sure to avoid any possible miscommunications, can you tell me what you understood from me?".
Such a dialogue or similar is sure to be longer than short instructions or lecture. But it will be much more fruitful and have better results. The beginning will be longer, but misunderstandings and repeated questions will be avoided further on.
Remember that for every time you give a short lecture on a subject, or brief instructions – your listeners retain only part of what you said.
A wise HR manager defined it thus: "speak with more question marks and less exclamation marks".
It's best to teach managers to have coaching dialogues. That is, dialogues which are based on question, build listening, and have much better results.
Where Are the Keys?
When you ask a question, like I asked Carmel in the first example, make sure you understand the answer. After asking Carmel if she had the keys and seeing her lift her palm, I should have made sure I correctly understood her.
So why didn’t I? Until this happened, Carmel disliked my tendency to ask repeated questions and clarify answers. She understood it as mistrust in her abilities on my part. I write about it here to show how all communications can be awkward when we make sure we were understood correctly. Or that we understood correctly. But if we do so respectfully, like I wrote above, and take responsibility for the possibility of a misunderstanding – our intention will be clearer.
This is the easiest part. A summary of any discussion needs to have as its bottom line further actions to do, who's responsible, and a timeline. It's best to write these points on a board throughout the meeting so everyone can see it, comment, clarify, or ask questions.
After the meeting, the person who ran it needs to make sure a summary is sent to all participants as soon as possible.
The next meeting should start with a review of the actions taken after the previous one. By this I don’t mean you should discuss them again – only "done" or "not done". If an action wasn’t done you should set a new timeline. If actions are repeatedly not completed, the person in charge should have a separate private discussion with the people who don't perform their tasks.
Once a group gets into a routine of meetings, actions to do, review of actions and progression – everybody falls in line.
We've all stopped reading long emails. So be brief. That way people will remember what you wrote. But of course, with briefness comes quintessence. Write clearly.
Let's return for a second to the example with the Customer Service representatives who passed on unclear information. The best solution would be to use an app, enabling service representatives to choose the correct sentence out of a limited list. You could always include "other" as an option, and then be in contact with the client.
When a designated app isn’t an option, you must create a common language. The best way to do that is through feedback. Call the client and say: "my understanding is such and such, is that correct?".
Ask service representatives to take responsibility for their communications and to be clear. Not to assume they'll be understood. Don't allow repeated visits to the same client for the same problem.
I tried to answer all the main options, but there could be others. In any case, the principle remains the same: ask question. Make sure you understand the person you communicate with, and they you.
Summary and Recommendation
In this article I discussed possible sources of miscommunications, both written and verbal. The main one is that such communications involve more than one person. That is, we communicate with someone else. Every participant in the conversation has their or own thought patterns and paradigms, and interpret what was said or written differently.
That is even more noticeable when information or instructions are relayed verbally. Many thoughts pass through the listener's mind, and their attention is divided.
I suggested several ways to prevent possible misunderstandings.
I recommend, first and foremost, to ask for feedback from your conversation partner, and to make sure you understood each other. Such an understanding is not at all a given.
Additionally, I recommend you acquire the skills required for having a coaching dialogue. That is, use tools employed by life-coaches. It's possible.
If you are interested in my professional help, personally or for your company, the best way is to send a request through the Get in Touch form in my website (here).