How to correct communication mistakes that spread workplace confusion

By Aytekin Tank

November 13, 2020
Imagine some of the most of the frustrating interactions you have over the course of your workday. Your voice isn’t being heard during meetings; HR sends vague, confusing emails. You feel a rising sense of anxiety that your direct reports won’t execute on the tasks asked of them.

Each of these cases has one thing in common: a failure of communication.

When communicating, our essential goal is to reach a mutual understanding. We aim to have everyone in the same boat, rowing in the same direction.

Now that working from home is, for many of us, the norm, it can be easy to confuse being constantly connected to our colleagues on Zoom or Slack with effective communication. However, they are not the same thing. Here are some strategies for ensuring you’re getting your point across, as well as hearing others.

Avoid assumptions

One of the fastest paths to a communication breakdown is assuming your listeners are aware of the same knowledge as you.

As Alain Hunkins, author Cracking the Leadership Code, puts it, “You’re the center of your information. It is crystal clear in your own mind, but no one else has the same background. . . . This lack of context, the inability to frame things, can create misunderstanding.”

The antidote to avoiding assumption-based confusion is clarity. Ensure your message is straightforward and quantifiable, and when in doubt, provide an extensive amount of information rather than not enough.

Unsure whether a thought has landed? Ask your listeners. See if they can paraphrase your words back to you. Don’t assume your message was received just because the words were spoken aloud. Similarly, avoid making the assumption that an email sent is an understanding gained. In the halting and oftentimes one-way communication of email, follow-up with your conversation partner is key.

Clarify your pursuits

Anyone who has ever received a vague, confusing, or downright pointless email can appreciate that more communication is not the same thing as good communication. Before you fire off a Slack chat or hit “send” on a companywide email, take a moment to consider what you’re trying to achieve.

Knowing clearly what your goal is can be helpful in choosing the right medium for communication. For instance, before you call a meeting with your whole staff, it’s a good idea to ask yourself if this is really the best way of getting everyone on the same page. Could the same message be conveyed in an email thread? Research indicates people often mindlessly slip into wasting time at work, usually through “cyberloafing” activities like checking social media. Avoid contributing to this well of distractions by drowning your colleagues in unnecessary communication.

Pay attention to your tone

There is an idea pioneered by the academic Albert Mehrabian called the “7-38-55” rule. The rule holds that only 7% of communication is verbal, 55% is body language, and the remaining 38% is tone of voice. While subsequent analysis has found that this breakdown isn’t as simple as it seems, it’s true that a lot of how we communicate comes down to tone.

When it comes to verbal communication, the way you say something matters. Hunkins notes that advertisers often run with this concept when creating emotionally persuasive materials. “People are driven way more strongly by emotions than by logic. The tone of our voice sends messages about how we’re feeling.”

Taking note of your tone isn’t just for verbal communication. In writing, tone is conveyed through language choice and formatting. Take for instance, when a relative sends you an email where every other word is capitalized or where each sentence ends with an exclamation point. In either case, it feels like the sender is shouting their words at you.

In a workplace setting, your written tone matters. Be aware of the difference between sending a chatty, unpunctuated instant message to an office friend  versus sending a project update to your boss. By focusing on the tone of your writing and your speech, you’ll be more likely to meet your goals at work.

Practice active listening

Communication is a two-way street. If you’re not listening, then you’re not communicating effectively. It’s that simple.

There’s a difference between active and passive listening. Active listening means you’ve fully absorbed what the speaker has said, and demonstrated that you understood their words. Notably, this means not interrupting, asking follow-up questions, and not dragging the conversation away from the speaker’s topic.

At my company, each of our millions of users has an opinion about our product. But we consider their feedback invaluable, as that is how we know what is working and what is not. Admittedly, this feedback is not always easy to hear, but by absorbing our customers’ needs and wants, we’re able to deliver a stronger product.

To be clear, listening doesn’t mean reflexively agreeing with everything you’re told. More so, every participant in a conversation has a responsibility to foster an environment that’s conducive to open communication. Active listening, along with avoiding judgmental language and respecting others’ perspectives, is a big part of effective and transparent communication.

Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.

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