In workplaces, the ability to get things done hinges on successful interpersonal communication. It’s a critical workplace skill.
One of the greatest challenges with interpersonal communication is having your message understood as you intended (particularly when giving feedback — the subject of last week’s column).
Successful communication happens when the message the sender intended to communicate is what is understood by the receiver. Misunderstandings occur because we interpret or “decode” messages through our unique human filters: culture (“it’s disrespectful to interrupt”), education, race, gender (think Mars versus Venus), age, health, status (“he’s the boss”), sense of self and our total life experiences — to name a few.
Our entire human history colors how we interpret and make meaning of what we hear and see. We make instant judgments about motives based on these filters (“she’s trying to control me”). Throw in a stressful workplace, an organizational hierarchy, time constraints, competing resources and distractions, and it’s a wonder we ever communicate successfully.
As receivers of messages, we attempt to understand the other by reading faces/body language and decipher (or make sense of) the words we hear. Have you ever said something seemingly neutral to someone and been surprised at their strong emotional response? Or have you noticed how two people can be in the same room, witness the same message and come away with two completely different perceptions? It’s not so much what I say, it’s what you hear, observe and how you make meaning.
To lessen the potential for misunderstandings and conflict, here are a few guidelines that may help:
- Get clear about your intent before you communicate. What do you want to have happen as a result of the exchange? Communicate your intention (particularly if the message is sensitive or likely to be misunderstood). As a receiver of a message, don’t attempt mind-reading and “assume” intention about the other.
- Non-verbal communication speaks volumes. Research estimates that as little as 7 percent of a communication’s effectiveness can be attributed to words alone — 38 percent is vocal (volume, pitch, etc.) and 55 percent body movements (mostly facial expressions). People tend to believe body language over words. Eye rolling or crossed arms send cues that can make words almost meaningless. Think of a salesperson who makes verbal promises but won’t make eye contact. We discount the words and equate “no eye contact” to shifty or dishonest behavior. The key is to be congruent — the video should match the audio.
- Use “I” language versus vague pronouns (“they,” “we” or “you”). When we hear the word “you,” we often interpret this as blame or having a finger pointed at us (“you are unfair”). Take responsibility for your judgments and interpretations. Describe what is going on for you (I think, feel, want …) from the “I” position. Speaking for others is a recipe for trouble (“we all agree …”). Also problematic is speaking about people as if they aren’t present while they’re in the same meeting. Good rules to follow: Address people directly and speak for yourself.
- Avoid interrupting (two ears/one mouth — use them proportionally) and finishing others’ sentences (a pattern with people who have worked together a long time). Ask what the other person is thinking, feeling or wanting versus assuming you know. Seek to understand: Paraphrase to try to ensure that you get the meaning of what the person said.
- Choose your words carefully. Words mean different things to different people. For example, “satisfactory” is a word that needs to be well defined in the workplace. Other words have explosive potential, such as “unprofessional.”
- Don’t assume you have been understood. Managers need to be particularly careful when giving complex or important instructions. Check in for understanding (“You look puzzled. Are you?”). Or if they give you a confusing response, rephrase for clarity. When trying to understand something complex, important or sensitive, state in your own words what you interpreted (“Let me see if I get this …”).
Aim for clarity. Be straightforward, concise and avoid overexplaining things. Too many words can confuse people. Sometimes it’s better to aim for the Reader’s Digest version. If it’s an important meeting, craft your main talking points in advance.