I’m in the process of writing my latest ‘Thoughts From the Eagle’s Nest’ podcast. It’s going to be on the subject of misunderstandings & miscommunications; what they are, whose fault they are and what causes them. Anyone who has worked with me knows that I am fascinated by communication and the crazy situations that sometimes occur. Which leads me to the photo.
Misunderstandings & Miscommunications
My son James sent me the photo above that he had found a while ago out there in social media land. I find the situation both interesting and humorous in equal measure. It’s also quite ironic. You see, when he was about 15 my current wife was about to leave the house while the washing machine was still running. “When it’s finished can you hang the towels out, please? she asked him.
When she returned a short while later the towels had been hung out, but the rest of the washing still lay in the machine! James had followed her to the letter. That’s why I like the photo!
It’s yet another example of when the sender’s intent and the recipient’s meaning do not match. In NLP training (neuro-linguistic programming) there is a presupposition which says that the meaning of your communication is the response that you get. So, and here’s the big question, whose fault is it when such a breakdown in communication occurs?
Some people will say it’s the sender of the message for not making themselves clear. Some folks say it’s down to the recipient for not checking they have understood. Some people say the responsibility lies 50/50 with both parties.
How to avoid communication breakdown
I was once sent an article by Bill Lampton. In it, he argued that in order to avoid misunderstandings, confusion, and possible hurt feelings, you’re better off not making assumptions; good luck on that one by the way. He gave an illustration of Marvin, a CEO, asking his executive assistant, Marie, to get him some information on a competitor company.
For a moment, just consider how CEO Marvin could create confusion, inefficiency, and possibly ill feelings at his workplace if he just acted on his assumptions without verifying them. Here are some examples:
Suppose Marvin tells Marie, “I want you to give me some information about that company that started competing with us last year.”
An hour later, Marie, who doubtless assumes that she is completing the assignment satisfactorily, sends Marvin the link to that company’s Website.
Without stopping to think about what has actually happened here Marvin walks to Marie’s desk and says angrily, “What on earth do you mean by just sending me the Website link? I could have found that myself very easily. I wanted that company’s annual report, list of board members, most significant press releases, stock fluctuations, and expansion plans.”
Perhaps Marie might now feel a trifle angry or embarrassed. So what has happened here? Well, as the sender of the message Marvin assumed that Marie would know what he meant by the use of his words, “some information.” He could have avoided the misunderstanding by handing her an itemised list of the detailed information that he had in his mind.
But, it’s not all Marvin’s problem. As the recipient of the message Marie also made an assumption too. In this case, she thought she knew what her boss expected.
So, what action should she have taken before starting her assignment? She could maybe have asked a few questions, starting with “Will you please clarify for me what you mean by ‘some information’?”
Her questions would not imply that she was inattentive or incompetent. Instead, she would come across as a dedicated professional determined to do the job right.
Bill argues that in the situation that he describes above, the individuals concerned and the organisation could have enjoyed clear communication, accurate responses, and good morale by checking out assumptions tactfully and professionally before acting.
Taking responsibility for our communication
So, back to the question of whose fault is it when communication goes awry. My personal belief is that as a sender I need to take 100% responsibility to make sure I am understandable. By the way, as a recipient, I take 100% responsibility to make sure that I have understood. Of course, it still goes wrong from time to time; just not as often as it might otherwise do!
Moving on, I know that the story of my son and the towels has its funny side and hopefully, I have convinced you on the need to take 100% responsibility whether you are the sender or the recipient of a message. The thing is, you see, the impact of a misunderstanding might well be small and inconsequential. You now know there’s a ‘but’ coming don’t you?
BUT…….they might be much larger, with long-term repercussions.
impact of a misunderstanding
Consider a couple of examples. Imagine you are interviewing someone for a position within your customer service team. You ask them a question. They pause, look up at the ceiling and say,
“Let me see. How can I answer that question in a way that you will understand?”
OK, what would be your reaction to that answer? I think I know what I would think! Well, that is a situation that Tracy, one of our former delegates, actually faced. Tracy told us that she had a very negative reaction to the comment and the interview pretty much ended there; at least in Tracy’s head.
But, what if the interviewee was really trying to say that he, for it was a man, was not sure about his communication skills to get his point across? The thing is that the situation had a lose/lose outcome. The man in question did not get the job he wanted and Tracy just might have missed out on a valuable employee; all because of a sentence.
Get the idea?
I had one experience of a team meeting that erupted into acrimony between two members. Things were going along quite nicely. Suddenly, the person speaking took aim at one of their colleagues and started shouting at them. The recipient of this person’s wrath was somewhat surprised and asked what the other person’s problem was.
“What are you talking about?”
“You know very well”
“No, I don’t. Tell me what I’ve done”
“I saw what you did just then”
“What did I do?”
This altercation went on for a few more moments until the reason for it became apparent to the others in the room. Are you ready for this……….?
“You rolled your eyes,” said the aggrieved party.
There then proceeded a post-mortem about whether this actually happened. It was agreed that it did, but the perpetrator of the crime didn’t realise they had done it. The serious point is that the response was not what the person meant.
Get the idea?
Now, I know that you can’t consciously think about every piece of communication that you do to check for how it lands with other people. This article is really to make you aware that what you intend to communicate is not, for all kinds of reasons, what the other person perceives it to mean in their world and maybe there is no such thing as a misunderstanding, just a miscommunication.