How to avoid misunderstandings at work

When people misunderstand one another, everything takes longer and feels more tiresome. You try to say something to a colleague but they don’t understand you. You don’t know why they’ve misunderstood and, when they try to explain, you misunderstand them. You could go round and round this loop forever. 

If you can avoid misunderstandings at work, you will be much more effective.

  • Be clear, not confusing
    Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re working on a report and have written the first draft. You feel a bit stuck and want some input from your colleagues. You send them an email, attach your first draft and say, “Need input on this draft, great if anyone has some opinions.”

    Do you see the problem here? What do you mean by ‘opinions’? It may be obvious to you what you mean, but is it obvious to your colleagues? Do you want their opinion on the content or on the general structure of the report? Are you asking about the wording and grammar? Is it the conclusion of the report that you feel uncertain about? When do you need these views and opinions?

    You haven’t been clear about what you really need. With a little luck, you might still get some useful input. However, you’ll also receive irrelevant comments that are just a waste of everyone’s time. You should rather specify what you need help with and when you need it.  


  • Clarify meaning
    Sometimes, we all use words that aren’t very clear. If someone says something you don’t understand, clarify what they mean. If they’ve used ‘big’ words you don’t know, ask them to explain things more simply. If they’ve used technical terms you aren’t familiar with, ask them to say the same thing in a non-technical way.

    Words like ‘urgent’ and ‘quickly’ mean different things to different people and the context or situation affects how these words are understood. The same applies to expressions such as, “We need to improve how we communicate”. Improve in what way? Be more efficient so we save time? Be more precise? It’s hard to be sure. If you don’t say what you mean, other people won’t know what you mean.

    If someone tells you a task is urgent, you might rush to finish it before the next day. However, they may have meant that it simply had to be completed by the end of the week. Take care to avoid this type of problem. When someone uses a word that isn’t specific, ask them what they really mean.


Topics: Sweet Teams Are Made Of This, Communication Power