Most workplace conflicts are the result of misunderstandings.
We all have a unique perspective. How we receive and interpret communication is a result of our mental models, beliefs, values, culture, religion, gender, life experiences, health — even whether we are having a good day.
Misunderstandings often occur as a result of how words and actions get filtered or “decoded” by the receiver. We hear (selectively) the words being spoken, appraise the tone and body language we observe and then instantly process that information and apply meaning to the message — all based on our personal experience and perception. It’s our interpretation of the message that determines how we react emotionally; no one makes us “feel” anything. Yet we often walk away from a misunderstanding blaming the other person for how he or she “made me feel.”
John Wallen astutely noted, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their impact.” Wallen’s practical “interpersonal gap” theory helps us recognize the great potential for misunderstandings. He describes the gap that often occurs in communication when the private intentions of a “sender” of a message don’t equal the result or “effect” of the communication on the “receiving” end of the message. In other words, the message I intended to convey is not what was received.
Many things influence interpretation — tone, words, facial expressions and our unique perception of the world. For example, a boss’s comment, “You weren’t at your desk this morning,” may have been intended to convey concern about your health yet might be interpreted as a nasty reminder about your tardiness or confirmation of your paranoia that the boss is out to get you. We often incorrectly ascribe “motives” around the other. Most conflicts are a result of that interpersonal gap.
How do we close the potential for interpersonal workplace gaps?
- Provide clarity regarding your intention. What are you trying to accomplish? The more clearly you communicate your intentions, the better your odds of being understood.
- Consider the potential for misunderstanding. Ask yourself, how could someone interpret this in a way that does not reflect my intention or the message I am trying to deliver?
- Avoid sending double messages, and refrain from using sarcasm and passive aggression.
- Don’t assume. We are often surprised by the reaction of someone to what we thought was a straightforward communication. A strong reaction often means there has been an interpersonal gap or misinterpretation. In such a case, you’d better work at closing the “gap.”
- Don’t underestimate the “impact” factor. Both action and inaction have impact. A highly sensitive situation, poorly handled, can transform a small misunderstanding gap into a full-blown chasm.
What do you do when you are in an interpersonal gap?
- Work it out quickly. Time is of the essence. If ignored, the gap grows.
- De-escalate. Take a deep breath. Listen, paraphrase what you heard and acknowledge the other with empathy. Most people who believe they have been truly heard will calm down.
- Don’t get personal. Instead, try to impartially roll the video and simply report what you heard and observed. Describe the behavior that leads you to your interpretation. Handling a challenge with just the facts instead of judgments will almost always have a better outcome.
- Speak for yourself. Let the other know how you are affected by their message — including how you feel. “I’m angry to hear you call me unprofessional,” or, “I was hurt when you didn’t return my phone call.”
- Verify your interpretations. Check in with the other to see if what you assume is correct. “By the tone of your voice, I’m guessing you are angry with me, am I right?”
- Ask for clarification of anything that is unclear (particularly work instructions) or seems unreasonable (maybe you are just interpreting it wrong). Paraphrase your understanding of what was said.
For major problems, for example, your top performer is threatening to quit get an expert like me to help you.
One of the worst culprits for creating the potential for misunderstanding is our increasing dependency on e-mail, text, chat etc as our primary communication channel. There are no facial expressions or tone of voice to help the receiver interpret the message correctly — only words (many of which are loaded or inflammatory and may be interpreted in many different ways by the recipient). A good rule of thumb: If the message is sensitive or the potential to be misunderstood is great, relay your information face to face or by phone.
Bottom line — to clarify and work out misunderstandings, people need to talk directly to each other and work to close their “gaps.”
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